By J.P. Sonnen, The B.C. Catholic, September 14, 2020
Catholics across Canada will be pleased to know there is a new pilgrimage destination in Alberta – the Diocesan Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Rockies in Canmore.
The shrine, in the Bow Valley in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, is the first Marian shrine in the history of the Diocese of Calgary.
The shrine was formally dedicated by Bishop William McGrattan of Calgary on May 30. Because of the pandemic, the ceremony was private and by invitation only but livestreamed to the public, including more than 300 registered parishioners.
The rector of the shrine, Father Nathan Siray, celebrated the shrine’s first public Mass for parishioners in the newly consecrated church on June 1, with ongoing Masses beginning June 5.
After more than 10 years of planning and since the June 2017 groundbreaking, construction has been racing toward completion. Due to COVID-19 restrictions completion was slightly delayed due to fewer workers on the job, and occupancy of the building was granted at the end of May.
The shrine construction was a community effort, built and supplied with materials and services of more than 260 individuals representing some 60+ contractors and suppliers.
The decree signed by Bishop McGrattan recognizing the church as a diocesan shrine is dated May 13, 2020, establishing it as a place of diocesan devotion and pilgrimage.
The shrine seats 400 comfortably and is clearly visible from the Trans-Canada Highway, a perfect location near the southeast boundary of Banff National Park.
Each year thousands pass through Canmore on their way to natural mountain wonders and attractions that include nearby glacial lakes, principal among them Lake Louise.
Indeed, people from all over the world flock to the area year-round for world-class winter sports and summer recreation, including skiing, camping, and hiking.
Without a doubt, the region is one of the most stunningly beautiful and visited in all of Canada.
The church is also located on the site of the popular Palliser Trail, where locals and tourists of all ages hike and bike and cross-country ski.
The shrine was built in a style worthy of its primacy, prominence, and placement and lifts the eyes and heart heavenward.
The interior design and decoration of the shrine was largely the vision of Father Wilbert Chin Jon, the former pastor in Canmore, while the exterior and first renderings of the structural design are credited to his predecessor, Father Bryan Frank.
Ultimately, these two forward-thinking priests envisioned a place of pilgrimage to be strategically placed at the crossroads of one of Canada’s premier tourist destinations.
Thanks to the diocesan and parish building committee under the bishop’s paternal guidance, after six proposals and redesigns, the final plan was agreed upon.
The land, a roughly three-acre property, was donated through the generosity of Guy Turcotte, a parishioner and local developer, with the signing of the land donation on March 5, 2013. The land value was an estimated $3 million.
The view from the front of the shrine boasts the majestic backdrop of the Rockies, one of the world’s largest mountain ranges, stretching from Canada to New Mexico.
The symbolic view of the church with its soaring copper steeple and majestic mountain backdrop brings to mind a philosophical insight from Plato who considered the pursuit of beauty to be a mode of ascent from the lower to the higher realms of the mind.
Indeed, the temple informs the city – visitors to the alpine church feel elevated and illuminated by the beauty of both the shrine and surrounding nature.
The design is something timeless rather than merely of its time, modern with a classical appeal, in a style distinctly local while also “ever ancient, ever new,” in contrast to the more common functionalist doctrine of modern commercial construction, which views design primarily in terms of utility.
Quite the opposite, the design and construction show a specific structural clarity with variety of form, including modern elements combined with a synthesis of classical elements such as the arch, faithful to objective canons of Catholic church construction.
The very structure of the church exhibits various aspects of the faith drawn from well-recognized symbols within the Catholic tradition, such as a cruciform plan and an arched ceiling.
The cruciform plan, seen from the sky above, carries a symbolic message. The apse represents the head of Christ, the nave his body, and the transept his arms.
The nave in this case is wide and dramatically high, a configuration that emphasizes the prominence of the altar and tabernacle. The design and layout speak a language of transcendence.
In short, the new shrine is a mix of old with the new, the traditional combined with innovation. The style speaks of interior symmetry, other-worldliness, and harmony amid alpine grandeur.
Perhaps most importantly, the church reflects its designation as a shrine, a place of diocesan and trans-Canadian pilgrimage, effectively conveying beauty and permanence.
The shrine was designed and executed by Ron Boruk, a local architect from Calgary who has spent many years designing various buildings, including some churches.
The American firm King Richard’s Liturgical Design & Contracting rendered designs of the interior layout complete with altar, pulpit, sanctuary gate, and main stained glass window.
The overall architectural plan of the church design includes a large vestibule with adequate gathering space, a connecting hall for receptions, and additional meeting rooms and office space.
Particular design attention was paid to the altar, pulpit, and tabernacle stand and canopy. All match in stone marbles, symbolic of the rock of Christ and the Church.
These all important items were crafted from Italian quarries and salvaged from altars in historic early 20th-century churches that were closed in recent years in Chicago and Buffalo.
Another item salvaged from one of the same altars is the tabernacle, fittingly golden and resplendent with incredible tool work, a heritage piece of inestimable value.
Sealed on top of the new main altar are two altar stones fixed permanently in the altar’s new solid marble mensa, providing for Holy Mass to be celebrated fortuitously either versus Deum or versus populum (allowing the priest to stand on either side of the altar).
The altar stones, both precious historic pieces blessed and sealed by bishops, contain relics of various saints. Inside the refashioned altar was also placed a box with prayer intentions before the altar was sealed for its consecration by the bishop on the day of dedication.
Above the main altar is an exquisite new stained glass window depicting the first ever image of Mary under the title of “Our Lady of the Rockies.”
The window itself is arguably the most memorable work of art in the chapel, truly a hymn in glass, produced by King Richard’s.
Made up of 24 separate pieces, the window is a masterpiece made with the input of artists from various countries including Canada, the U.S., and England.
The ingenious decoration of the window depicts Our Lady seated with the Infant Jesus in the context of the Rocky Mountains. Two subtle deer are seen in the background.
In the sky are depicted faint white clouds in the form of crosses and doves, reminiscent of a sight beheld in the sky by participants who were present for Mass celebrated on the site during the groundbreaking ceremony in 2017.
Other windows in the church were intentionally left without stained glass to reveal the inspiring view of the mountains.
The artist who completed the main altar and pulpit was a Canadian, Josef Reibesteijn, an acclaimed sculptor based in Ontario who has been carving for some 40 years.
Large marble statues are seen in the church, including statues that depict Our Lord receiving into heaven a poor soul in purgatory and another depicting the death of St. Joseph.
Four truly priceless bas-relief carvings are also seen in the rear chapel dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena, each of museum quality.
The statues of St. Catherine and the Queenship of Mary are carved from marble from Vermont.
The artist who produced the unique sanctuary gate was Ken Hodgins of Ken’s Iron Works. The gate is evocative of the ancient rood screens commonly seen in late Medieval church architecture, a brilliant touch.
Parts of the chapel ceiling depict the nighttime sky, with gold stars on a deep blue background, showcasing all the charm of Renaissance decoration.
The Stations of the Cross, hand-carved from the 1950s, were saved from the former parish of the Sacred Heart in downtown Canmore and refurbished for the new church.
Sacred Heart was the predecessor of the new shrine, the local parish founded in 1893 and built in 1960, since demolished in 2018 due to its age and structural inadequacy.
The logo of the shrine depicts the Marian title, Auspice Maria (Under the Protection of Mary) or “AM,” a cherished time-honoured monogram in the history of the Church.
The sacristy of the shrine is endowed with a beautiful treasury of vestments, including gold vestments from Spain produced by the famous atelier Belloso.
The total cost of the shrine is expected to be about $16 million, and so far about half of that amount has been raised through donations from across Canada and many other countries.
For more information about the shrine or to contribute to the building fund, visit rockiesparish.com.