May 20, 2014

Shrine dedicated to patroness of Alaska 'the jewel' of Juneau Diocese


Story and photos by Nancy Wiechec
Catholic News Service

JUNEAU, Alaska (CNS) -- There is no doubt that nature is a prime attraction at the Shrine of St. Therese.

Thousands of visitors each year make the short drive from downtown Juneau to the 46-acre site, a forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock overlooking waters of the Inside Passage and the Chilkat Range.

Along the shrine's many paths, people enjoy wide vistas of water and ice-frosted mountains. Some sit to reflect or pray on stone benches inscribed with Scripture passages.

The open space muffles sounds of flapping waterfowl, barking sea lions and water lapping against the shoreline. A gravel causeway -- foot traffic only -- leads to a tiny island and the simple chapel dedicated to the patroness of Alaska, St. Therese of Lisieux.

"It truly is a blessing for us," said Juneau Bishop Edward J. Burns, who calls the shrine "the jewel" of the diocese.

"You see the aquatic life breaking the surface out there in the water. ... You see the vast mountains. ... You see the beauty of Shrine Island and the peace it brings. ... People come from miles around," he told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Burns said local residents and visitors alike arrive to witness the "splendor of God in all of creation."

Some come to fish salmon or to catch glimpses of whales making way down Lynn Canal. Others, like one man recovering from recent surgery, come simply to pray in the quiet chapel.

Day visitors have plenty to experience. Highlights include the chapel and Shrine Island, the slightly uphill but paved Good Shepherd Rosary and Grotto Trail and the Merciful Love Labyrinth. The rosary trail ends at a grotto featuring a replica of the Pieta.

There is a small gift and bookshop near the main lodge. Mass is celebrated in the chapel Sundays at 1:30 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through the first Sunday of September.

The remains of Catholics and non-Catholics are interred at the shrine in outdoor niches of black granite overlooking Pearl Harbor. On a rock near the columbarium, mourners have piled up stones to show their respect for the deceased.

Cruise-ship passengers disembarking in Juneau can find their way to the retreat by taxi or rental car. It's about a 23-mile drive along Glacier Highway.

Out-of-towners shouldn't miss a stop at the Mendenhall Glacier, a short diversion on the way to the shrine. The retreating river of ice is a spectacular site that visitors can experience close-up. At No. 2 and 4, the glacier and the Shrine of St. Therese rank among TripAdvisor's top sites to see in Juneau.

After a recent visit to the shrine, a family from Canada wrote in a guest book, "Wow! What more could be said, than perhaps, praise God!"

Beside its beauty and tranquility, the retreat also stands as a testament to Alaska's mission history.

Two French Jesuit missionaries enabled the retreat not long after a deeply spiritual young French monastic, Therese of Lisieux, was declared a saint in 1925. She was a great admirer of missionaries.

One of the Jesuits was Bishop Joseph R. Crimont, the first bishop of Alaska, who is said to have known the family of St. Therese. Bishop Crimont placed her as patroness over the mission territory. The other was Father William G. LeVasseur, an ardent devotee of "The Little Flower."

The bishop and priest secured a small plot of federal forestland and building began in 1932. The chapel, constructed of beach stone from the shoreline, was dedicated in 1941 on the feast of Christ the King.

Another early supporter of the shrine, also a Jesuit, was Father Bernard R. Hubbard, a geologist and explorer. His adventurous expeditions into the Alaskan territory starting in 1927 earned him the name the "glacier priest." Father Hubbard raised funds and secured goods for the shrine. The stainless-steel boat he used to traverse the Alaskan waterways is kept on the grounds.

The Catholic-run retreat is open to all and it accommodates overnight guests. "The shrine welcomes everyone," said Bishop Burns, a frequent visitor who over Lent hosted a group of homeless men there for a day of respite.

The main lodge and four cabins are available for rent by individuals, groups or families. There is no maid service. Guests must leave the premises clean and in order. The rustic Hermitage Cabin, for visitors "who want the bare minimum during their spiritual journey," can be reserved for $40 a night for one person.

A modern cabin called the "Little Flower Retreat" is tucked a ways away from the main lodge. It has two queen bedrooms, a full bathroom and a well-appointed kitchen. Set on stilts, the cabin offers panoramic views of the Inside Passage and Shrine Island. It's available for $210 a night.

The log lodge, which can sleep 22 people, has 10 bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large dining area and living room and an updated kitchen.

The Shrine of St. Therese is open year-round. Reservation information is available on the shrine's website,, or by calling (907) 780-6112.