Drawing from the well Maury Young Millennium Place will provide sustenance to the Whistler community By Loreth Beswetherick When more than 800 disparate souls gathered under the conference centre roof towards the end of a millennium to say goodbye to Seppo Makinen, they shared, despite their differences, a sense of community. To them Seppo was a common possession. He was the thread that brought them together in the name of life, and in the name of death. It doesn’t happen that often in Whistler. As Jewish community leader and psychologist Stephen Milstein said, this coming together is generally something seen only in times of crisis. People are otherwise too busy living to share with their neighbours. It happened when Trevor Petersen lost his life. It happened when Dave Murray died. It happened when the town rallied to celebrate its Olympic hero, Ross Rebagliati and when John Ryan valiantly wheeled in from his epic cross-country journey. It also happens in more minor ways at each annual elementary school Christmas concert when parents, from all walks of life and economic backdrops, commune in the simple joy of their children. These times are special in a town like Whistler. They serve to sift out the crackle and interference on the airwaves of a resort life full of tourists and transients to produce a clarity. They break down barriers of exclusivity and deliver the heart of Whistler — it’s community. This is the concept behind the Maury Young Millennium Place. "We are not building a building," said Milstein. "Rather it’s about building community. It’s the atmosphere it is intended to create. The whole purpose of this building is about sharing parts of each other with neighbours... a place to celebrate our similarities and our differences." And, in many ways, that goal has already been reached. The process of planning the building has brought together members of diverse groups — not just religious — but pods of people in the name of music, art, theatre, our history, our children and our teens. "The exciting thing is what this project has done in already creating a sense of community," said Milstein who heads the building fund-raising committee. "We got a whole bunch of people talking who weren’t talking before." The diverse groups have come to a common table out of need. Each would have liked their own building or facility but, a separate church for each faith, plus a separate theatre has not, to date, been a financially viable option. Because of this community of interest, the final scope and design of the $5.6 Maury Young Millennium Place has evolved substantially from a simple plan to replace the old A-frame Skiers’ Chapel, built more than 30 years ago at the base of Whistler Mountain. The Whistler Skiers’ Chapel Society was first struck in 1966 to build a church in the valley. The original mandate of the society was to establish what was to become the first ecumenical, or inter-denominational skiers’ church in the country. After 18 months, the $30,000 needed for construction had been raised and several cherished items donated, including the stained glass window from Gordon and Jean Southam. On Christmas eve of 1967 most of the inhabitants of Alta Lake gathered for the inaugural carol service conducted by Rev. Aubrey Bell. The tiny A-frame was filled to capacity and people spilled out onto the steps as they raised their voices in song. In the early 1980s, the province gave the Whistler Skiers’ Chapel Society deed to a small lot of land that was later exchanged by the municipality for property off Blackcomb Way. It is there, between the BrewHouse and municipal hall, that the new interfaith building will stand. The need for a move was necessitated by Intrawest’s designs on the patch of land the chapel still occupies in Creekside. But, the cost of moving the little A-frame to the new site looked prohibitive. It is doubtful the rotting structure, although steeped in memories, is even durable enough for relocation. The chapel society was forced to start raising funds for a new place of worship. A bigger building was also needed to serve the growing community’s needs. In 1989 a new fund-raising campaign was underway. It became the seed of something that would bring more than just Whistler’s faiths together. "It was financial crisis that forced us all to talk to each other," said chapel society president and former United Church minister Harlene Walker. Milstein said the need motivated disparate groups to sit down and look for common interests. Walker agrees. "That almost had to be done before any bricks and mortar could be put in place." Milstein said the unification of Whistler’s arts community is a perfect example. He said in the past four to five months the arts community has sat down and re-evaluated their mandate and recognized the need to speak with one voice. "I am not saying Millennium Place did this but it accelerated that process in the arts community." Milstein also pointed to other groups who have been consulted in the process and have subsequently developed a sense of ownership for the community project. A group of teens from Whistler Secondary has provided input. Milstein said the teens wanted a venue in the village as opposed to the old KOA building at Spruce Grove, which was tagged for a teen centre. "They’ve been heard," said Milstein. He noted many parents have been trying to keep their teens out of the giant mall of a village. Now the kids can hang out at Millennium Place. In this way, Milstein said, parents’ needs are also being met. He said the building will bring community life and the locals back into the town, something the town’s planners have been struggling to do. The municipal planning department also has a sense of ownership, said Milstein. "Often when a developer comes forward with a proposal it is an adversarial relationship that develops with the planning department. But, as the muni became a partner, the planners have become involved and had a say in developing a healthy community." He said the planning department’s Mike Purcell and Mike Kirkegaard have become tremendous assets to Millennium Place. The municipality also brought in its own trouble shooting consultants to help solve some design problems. Walker likens the evolution of the project to an amoeba. As the scope was refined to meet more needs, the funds started rolling in. Among the many smaller donations, large contributions came from the Hongkong Shanghai Bank of Canada, the Chan Foundation, Amako Construction, the municipality and the Whistler-Blackcomb Foundation, which was first to step up to the pate. The real shot in the arm came with a generous $2 million donation from the Young and Barker families who owned Whistler Mountain for 17 years before the 1996 merger with Intrawest. This donation was made in honour of the late Maurice (Maury) Young, a patriarch of the two families who served as president of the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation for several years before handing the reins to son Charles. Maury’s, name will now grace the building, reflecting his contribution to the building of Whistler. Franz Wilhelmsen will also be remembered for his vision in the name of the large hall. Wilhelmsen was the president of the company which first built and operated Whistler Mountain, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. Part of his vision was a chapel for skiers. He was inspired by memories of a little church on a Norwegian mountainside where he skied as a boy. Wilhelmsen helped spearhead the formation of the chapel society which made sure, in deference to all faiths, that there would not be any purely Christian symbols in the design. Now, no longer just a church and no longer called the Interfaith Chapel, the Maury Young Millennium Place stands to become home to Anglicans, Lutherans, the Jewish community and the United Church. The Catholic Church has also expressed an interest in becoming a stakeholder. The 250-seat hall will not only house religious services but serve as a venue for theatrical performances, concerts and include provision for 35 millimetre film projection. The building will accommodate a children’s centre, teen facilities, offices, workshop space and places for art classes and music rehearsals. It will be a gathering place for many community groups and activities that to date have had to scramble for space. It will be a place in the heart of Whistler’s village where people can come together like the agoras of old — a place to mark beginnings and endings and celebrate the milestones of life. As Walker said, Millennium Place will function as a well where the community draws sustenance. "That certainly is my image. A place where people can come to be nurtured in many different ways, not only spiritually." Walker said in ancient times — and still in some Latin American communities — the well was the only place for people to get water, that physically renewing substance. The circular shape of a well opening also brings to mind a sense of native spirituality in the healing circle — a circle of wholeness designed to balance elements of the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual states. "I see that as how Millennium Place can be for Whistler. It has the spiritual component with the faiths. The theatre can nurture our emotions and the teen centre and the daycare will nurture physically." Walker said the well imagery is common language in Jewish, Christian and Muslim liturgy. It is because of the Maury Young Millennium Place the Anglican and Lutheran denominations are wanting to set up in town. The Anglican Diocese of Westminster will be sending a representative to Whistler next month to talk seriously about the possibility of establishing a joint ministry with Lutheran representatives. There is also talk about a joint youth ministry in which the Catholic church may also participate. And there is discussion about joint pastoral care in the community, something currently handled by the Elizabeth Manso Visiting Volunteers. As Walker said, the face of who looks after Whistler’s spiritual needs is going to shift with the new building and the role of the chapel society is going to change. "I think this has the potential to deepen Whistler’s spiritual soul." Milstein said there is potential for setting up a central volunteer bureau — and he is not talking Weasel Workers or Whistler-Blackcomb vollies here. They would be community volunteers in the traditional sense of the word. Millennium Place could run a central registry for those ready to volunteer for anything from Whistler Community Service’s work to being a Big Brother or Sister. A community calendar of events could also help avoid flops like the no-go Harvest Swing this year. It has been, after all, a voluntary labour of love to get the project this far. And, although he shies away from taking any credit, Milstein has been integral in holding the vision aloft when others may have faltered. Walker said Milstein has been clocking 10 to 15 hours a week in his work to see the concept through to fruition. He never lost sight of the goal. It was at the November Festival of Lights that Milstein made the announcement of the Young and Barker families’ $2 million donation. It was also there that he asked fellow members of his fund-raising committee if there were ever times they thought the ambitious project would not come together. They all said yes. They in turn asked Milstein the same question. His reply: Never, not for one moment. Like Wilhelmsen, Milstein was drawing from a vision of his past. It was a Synagogue that drew the community of his youth together. It had a gym, a lounge and served, not only as a place of religious worship, but social centre. Across the road the Catholic church also had a social centre. Later Milstein would visit the YMHA — the Young Men’s Hebrew Association — where adults and children gathered for social events. "There was always something going on. People came early and stayed late," said Milstein. "The world’s changed a little since then," he added. But he would like to see the Maury Young Millennium Place as a social venue where, if he has a half hour to kill after dropping the kids off for skiing, he could comfortably drop in with his newspaper, hang out and see who is around. There is now about $3.5 million in the kitty and another $1.8 million to go. The chapel society was hoping to raise the outstanding amount before the end of 1999 but will now be working hard to reach that goal by the end of January. Milstein said, however, he believes all the funds will be in place before the society breaks ground for the building April 1. He said conditions for the development permit have all been satisfied. "We will go to council again early next year." The plan is to open the Maury Young Millennium Place doors by Dec. 1 next year. A Christmas Eve 2000 carol service has been tentatively scheduled and, like that Christmas Eve 32 years ago when most of the small community of Alta Lake was drawn to the little skiers chapel, the diverse voices of Whistler’s community will find clarity and once again unite in song for another inaugural service.