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Whistler’s Catholic church looks to expand its footprint and presence—but not all are onboard

Small group of Our Lady of the Mountains parishioners have defected over $5M expansion and church’s association with U.S. Catholic traditionalists, the Napa Institute 
An artist’s rendering of the interior design plans for the proposed expansion of Whistler’s Our Lady of the Mountains Church.

Whistler’s Our Lady of the Mountains is closing in on a multimillion-dollar fundraising goal that will see the Catholic church significantly expand both its footprint and presence in the community—but some parishioners have defected over the splashy project and the church’s association with a U.S.-based Catholic traditionalist group. 

Whistler’s only Catholic church has now raised roughly $4.5 million of its $5-million goal to expand the Lorimer Road building that was completed in 1996. Originally built as a multi-purpose hall, the church has a long history of hosting community events and concerts, but it’s not exactly ideal for quiet contemplation and prayer, said Our Lady of the Mountains priest, Father Andrew L’Heureux. 

“Whenever we used the hall for something else, we didn’t have the space to pray. The church is a meeting place between us and God … and usually we have a dedicated space for that but in the initial build it wasn’t possible,” he explained. “It was actually in the original plans to have a hall and a church, so then in 2019, the parishioners [asked], ‘Why don’t we do what we planned to do in the beginning?’ It looked impossible and all of a sudden everything has started to come together.” 

The funds were raised in relatively short order, anchored by church member, retired businessman, philanthropist and Whistler second homeowner Andy Szocs, who initially donated $1 million to the cause before doubling his contribution. The founder of the Szocs Foundation, Szocs is a major contributor to mental-health initiatives in B.C. and across Canada, and has a long history of philanthropy in Whistler. Along with his sizable donation, the 82-year-old has also led the fundraising efforts, relying on his years of experience in the non-profit sector. 

“Here’s the big challenge: we have about 160 parishioners … so it’s very difficult to raise the $5 million because a significant portion, like 80 per cent, had to come from outside the parish,” he said. “We’ve done extremely well. I mean, fairy-tale well.”

Potential plans for the church include a new sanctuary, a refreshed interior design, and a columbarium on the church’s exterior. The new building will seat roughly 200, but will adjoin to the existing hall, which will be reengineered so it can open into the new church space, providing an additional 300 seats. 

“That will be helpful for us at Christmastime when we have lots of people coming. We used to rent the Westin [for Christmas mass] so it will be nice to have everyone at the church,” L’Heureux said. “That’s one of the nice things, that we have this expandability.”  

The priest said the church is also looking into the possibility of opening a daycare within the building. The church housed a Montessori school in previous years. 

“We know the great need in this area for childcare,” L’Heureux added. 

Once the necessary funds are raised and the designs are approved at municipal hall, L’Heureux anticipates it would take about a year to complete the expansion. 

‘It was basically a slap in the face’ 

Heather Durfeld can still remember the first meeting L’Heureux had with the church’s finance council after becoming Our Lady of the Mountains’ new priest in 2018. The meeting was memorable because of a particular comment he made about the existing church building. 

“Our current priest came to the community and the first thing he said to the finance council was, ‘I don’t find God here,’” she recalled. “It was basically a slap in the face because it’s not the building that has God’s presence, it’s the community itself. It was essentially telling us we’re not very spiritual here and God’s not going to come here until we build this fabulous church.” 

Prior to L’Heureux’s arrival, the parish already had renovation plans in place that were years in the making, but were ultimately scrapped. The parish voted 88 per cent in favour of the $5-million expansion and led the charge on getting this latest project going, the priest said.

“It was more of a cosmetic change—some of it. Some of it was moving doors around inside the parish. First of all, many of the parishioners were kind of offended and didn’t think it was a good use of money because it didn’t really fit in,” said L’Heureux. “As Catholics, what we worship is very important and we want to show people that when we come to the church. The renovation [plans] weren’t showing any of that.” 

Pique spoke with several parishioners who said they felt pressured to vote in favour of the expansion and that any concerns they raised were quickly brushed aside. Jeanette Callahan had been involved with the church since 1985, when it was still housed in the small Whistler’s Skiers’ Chapel in the village. She said the so-called “discernment” over the project—a decision-making process used in Christian churches meant to be a tool or guide to help determine what God is calling on a congregation to do—felt decided before the parish had even voted. 

“My major concern, really, was with the process,” said Callahan, adding that a video endorsing the expansion from the Bishop of the Diocese of Kamloops, to which Our Lady of the Mountains belongs, was played for the parish before they had even seen any design plans.

“My understanding of a discernment is that you go to the congregation and ask them what their needs are and what do they see for the future … That didn’t happen. What happened was all of a sudden there was an [architectural] drawing in front of us. One drawing. Only one drawing. That is not a proper process.” 

Given the past two pandemic years and the challenges facing Whistler’s most vulnerable, Callahan and others questioned why there wasn’t more consideration of how a new development could potentially benefit the needy. 

“We seriously question the timing, priority and entire process of the new church project. How, at this time in the world, might our parish be perceived while building and fundraising for a new church in the midst of a pandemic, the clergy sexual abuse crisis, knowledge of the Residential Schools unmarked graves (2 of which are specifically in the Diocese of Kamloops), the calls to action for reconciliation with First Nations and the Synod?” read a February letter to the editor of BC Catholic, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, after a glowing article about the project. The letter was signed by eight current or former members of the church, including Callahan and Durfeld. About 10 parishioners have defected from the church over the project. 

Opponents have also criticized the project’s hefty price tag, given the parish continues to run an annual deficit, and questioned whether the expansion would really serve the local congregation. 

“How did we get to servicing the needs of external organizations such as the Napa Institute over the needs of the local parish community, many of which have not been recognized in this proposed plan?” the letter went on. 

What is the Napa Institute? 

The Our Lady of the Mountains parish and clergy have their sights set on turning Whistler into more of a destination for the faithful, with talks ongoing with the California-based Catholic organization, the Napa Institute, to hold a satellite event in Whistler dubbed “Napa North.” The Napa Institute’s main conference, held in the Napa Valley, welcomes hundreds of Catholic devotees and clergy every summer. 

“The potential pitch was a vision that basically Whistler is a world-class resort and when you come here, we wanted to have a stronger presence for our Christian faith,” said Szocs. “We’re going to host world-class conferences.” 

Co-founded by Rev. Robert Spitzer and wealthy businessman, hotelier and philanthropist Tim Busch, who also donated to the Our Lady of the Mountains campaign, the Napa Institute was formed in 2010 to fight what it sees as the growing secularization of American society. 

The Institution counts a number of high-profile donors and conference speakers, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Washington, D.C. insider Leonard Leo, who advised former U.S. President Donald Trump on Supreme Court nominations—the latter Busch has applauded for his anti-abortion stance.  

In his welcome address at the 2021 conference, Busch described the organization’s mission as “faith formation, truth telling and uniting Catholic leaders to transform the culture,” which he said was more urgent than ever as “religious liberty is attacked, right to life is attacked, transgender ideology is forced upon our children and Black Lives Matter is promoting racism, critical race theory, and destroying the nuclear family,” according to National Catholic Reporter’s John Gehring

“They’re anti-Pope and there will be a lot of people who will say I’m wrong, but if you really dig into the Napa Institute and what they stand for, I don’t think as Canadians we want that up here,” said Durfeld. “Instead of it being our community church, it’s becoming something else that is not for the local community.” 

Asked whether he thought the Napa Institute’s ideals align with the majority of Canadians or the Whistler community, L’Heureux spoke about what he sees as the risks of identity politics.   

“Just because there is propaganda about one thing or another—I mean, at one time there was propaganda about how good slavery was. I know I’m taking extreme examples, but for Catholics, our whole thing is whenever you demean the human person into some sort of a label or category, you remove an aspect of their humanity and then they become something that can be dispensed of,” he explained. “That’s something we’re always very careful of. We want to make sure what we promote is actually promoting the good of humanity, and not just a temporary good, like, ‘Oh you might feel good about this so I should support it.’ What is the ultimate good of humanity? Is our society really open to go into these issues and talk about the good and the bad, because that’s how a lot of propaganda works. It tells you one side of the story and doesn’t explore the cause and effect of all these sorts of things.” 

The Napa Institute did not return a request for comment. 

Among the other plans for the expanded church, L’Heureux said they would be launching a new pilgrimage route this summer called the Camino of the Holy Family that, once completed, will stretch from the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver to Our Lady of the Mountains in Whistler. Not a continuous trail at present, L’Heureux said pilgrims would likely complete sections of the route—like, say, from Squamish to Whistler—until the trail is finished. 

“We want to make this place a pilgrimage destination and hopefully at one time the trails will reach all the way down into Vancouver, so it will be kind of like the Camino de Santiago,” he added.