The Virgin Mary is sitting with her son Jesus in a lush Alberta forest, surrounded by deer drinking from a gurgling stream, with the majestic Three Sisters peaks in the background.
“The window cries out to you ‘Rocky Mountains,’ and there is Our Lady in the midst of that,” said Rev. Nathan Siray, pastor of Our Lady of the Rockies Parish. “That’s kind of our number one devotional image to Our Lady of the Rockies that is completely unique to this building.”
The powerful image is set in custom-made stained glass, one of the focal points of the new $20-million church in the mountain community of Canmore, about 25 km southeast of Banff. It’s a new church for the parish, which dates back to the 1800s, and the first shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Diocese of Calgary. Pilgrimages, conferences, and other events are planned once pandemic restrictions are eased.
Bishop William McGrattan dedicated the new 17,000-square-foot church on May 30, during a Mass that was livestreamed on the Diocese of Calgary’s Facebook page because of the restrictions. The first public Mass in the new church will be celebrated on June 8.
Bishop McGrattan noted that dedication came as Pope Francis led the major shrines worldwide in praying the rosary to implore Mary’s intercession and protection amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Public masses will start to return across Alberta, with conditions, starting June 1.
Thank you for joining in this celebration! To register for Mass and tour times and to donate to support the mission of The Shrine Church please visit www.rockiesparish.ca.
Posted by Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary on Saturday, May 30, 2020
In his homily, Bishop McGrattan recognized the spiritual foundation of Our Lady of the Rockies parishioners and the greater reach the church will have as a Marian shrine.
“In many ways our diocese, under the patronage of Mary, we should have a shrine church,” Bishop McGrattan said. “We should have a place in which people, not only in our own diocese but throughout the world and in Canada can come as they come to the Rockies to see nature’s cathedral. They can stop and they can pray and they can experience the great presence of God who comes to dwell in our midst in these humble abodes that we build.”
Father Siray said the roughly 300 families of Our Lady of the Rockies Parish are “ecstatic” that the church building has been completed, and dedicated in month of May which the Church devotes to the Virgin Mary.
“It’s going us take time to understand our new identity as a shrine. But the overwhelming sense I get from my people is, ‘This is incredible. Thank you,’” Siray said. “I couldn’t help thinking this church is dedicated to Mary and Mary was always one humble of heart. She was willing to start small and great things came from her. I think if we can embrace her spirit, we’re going to do well going forward.”
The new church is the third for Our Lady of the Rockies. The last building, built in the early 1960s in downtown Canmore, and was demolished in 2018. Since then, Mass had been celebrated in the Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy school gym while the new building was being built.
The new church is at the edge of town, off the Trans-Canada Highway, and figures prominently when motorists arrive.
The exterior design reflects a European-style alpine church. That was the vision of Rev. Bryan Frank, a former pastor of Our Lady of the Rockies, and Guy Turcotte, a parishioner and the developer of Silvertip Resort in Canmore, who donated the roughly three-acre property for the church.
“We really got a tremendous gift in having such a prime location so visible for this new church to built upon,” Siray said. “You know it’s pretty cool, as you’re coming on Highway 1, you see the turnoff to Canmore town centre, and as you crest the hill one of the first things you see is our bell tower.
“Naturally people are going to have to turn in to see the town of Canmore; they’re going to have to drive by this beautiful new church and we’re hoping that left-hand signal is going to be that much more enticing,” Siray said.
“You couldn’t ask for a better location. We hope that it becomes a bit of a beacon of hope for people here that there’s something good and beautiful and it wants to welcome as many people as it can into it.”
Father Siray’s predecessor, Rev. Wilbert Chin Jon, focused on the interior with traditional architecture, liturgical art and a large supply of marble for the new altar and ambo to blend both old and new.
The new Our Lady of the Rockies church has a capacity for 425 people, double the number of the old church, and it includes a new hall, kitchen, conference room, and columbarium with 262 niches.
Siray said a new church was planned as far back as 15 years, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the site was cleared. Construction began in March 2019.
The land donation is worth $3 million, and the structure cost $16 million to build. The parish raised about 60 per cent of the building cost, with the remainder held as a mortgage with the Diocese of Calgary. Donors continue to contribute to the building fund and sponsor items and rooms in the church.
With plans underway for a new church, Bishop McGrattan declared Our Lady of the Rockies a Marian shrine in part because it would be a first for the diocese and also because its Rocky Mountain location will be a magnet for future conferences and pilgrimages.
“More and more Canmore is a world destination,” Father Siray said. “People come here from all over the world. On any given Sunday, I look at the congregation and most of them are visiting from abroad.
“There are so many beautiful hiking trails around here. Could we have our own mini Camino (walking pilgrimage) somewhere in Canmore, and really let people experience the natural beauty and encounter the Lord in the midst of that?”
The official feast day for Our Lady of the Rockies Parish is on Aug. 22, the Queenship of Mary. And the feast day for its sister church in Banff is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary week earlier.
“So we thought, in time, it would a cool opportunity to really promote those two feasts,” Siray said.
Last summer, Our Lady of the Rockies Parish organized its own bicycle pilgrimage from Banff to Canmore.
“We brought a carrier and put a statue of Mary up on it. It was quite entertaining to meet people along the way as Mary goes by on the bike,” Siray said. “We’d like to continue to do stuff like that.”
The final stages of construction of the new church were delayed a couple of weeks because COVID-19 restrictions meant a smaller crew to finish the project. Among the challenges was the terrain itself.
“Building in the mountains is an adventure,” Siray said. “One of the things we wanted to make sure we got right was just all the foundation work. Sometimes Canmore is pretty notorious for a lot of underground rivers and instabilities.
“This church is actually sitting on top of 144 massive screw piles that have been pushed 20, 30 metres into the earth. If the mountain comes tumbling down, we’re going to be about the only thing standing. That was a huge project.”
Father Siray had his own stress. He said his “heart was pounding” as workers carefully moved 100-year-old statues and other precious items into the new church building.
Being pastor of Our Lady of the Rockies is a “tremendous blessing,” he said, especially since he grew up in Millarville, an hour’s drive southwest of Canmore, in the foothills of the Rockies.
In addition to his own congregation, Siray meets people from all over the world and he hopes the new Our Lady of the Rockies church is embraced by the larger community.
“It doesn’t just feel like a place for Catholics. It feels like a place that everyone wants to discover. I get the sense that people are looking for peace. I hope many people feel like they can walk through the door here and that’s what they’ll be able to experience.”
-With photo gallery by Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media