A Bishop's Perspective Bishop Burns

A Bishop’s Perspective: St. Terese, Alaska

The Shrine of St. Therese, Juneau, AK.
The Shrine of St. Therese, Juneau, AK.

At the heart of her spirituality was what she called her “Little Way,” which she described as doing the mundane and ordinary tasks of each day with great love and devotion. Daily life, lived in this way, from sweeping the floor or folding the laundry to responding to a disagreeable person with compassion and kindness, became for her a way of growing closer to God.

In 1930, a disciple of the newly canonized St. Therese and her “Little Way,” Father William Levasseur, began to promote the establishment of a national shrine to St. Therese, to be located 23 miles north of Juneau. Father Levasseur was a French-Canadian Jesuit assigned to the Catholic parish in Juneau. Juneau, like the rest of the country, was in the first year of the Great Depression. Although he had the support of the Catholic Bishop for Alaska, Joseph Crimont, who was himself quite devoted to St. Therese, he began with little, if any resources, beyond the 10 acres of land that the Federal government provided for the project.

The goal was as simple as it was daunting — to construct a chapel dedicated to St. Therese and a retreat lodge (first used as a place to house and feed the Shrine workmen). Before construction could begin on the chapel, a 400-foot causeway had to be built in 1937 from the beach to the island where it was to be located. Constructed with largely volunteer labor, the long stone and gravel causeway had to withstand high tides and winter storms.

The original buildings on the site — the retreat house, retreat-master’s cabin, Sister’s residence, barn, post office, hermitage and other outbuildings had all been constructed with logs. Father Levasseur wanted to build the chapel using logs as well, but floating the logs to the island proved to be impossible. Several booms of logs for the chapel were lost to storms and currents. The needed materials for the Shrine chapel were literally underfoot. A skilled stone-mason, D.P. Holden, had constructed a fireplace for the retreat lodge using concrete and cobblestones gathered from the beach. So the plans were changed and the Shrine was built entirely out of local cobblestones embedded in concrete. Much of the work of gathering the thousands of stones for the chapel was done by the Sisters of St. Ann. That ordinary beach cobbles, humble and unremarkable, went to make this beautiful chapel seems appropriate for a shrine and chapel dedicated to St. Therese and her “Little Way.”

St. Therese, although living in a cloistered convent from the time she was a 16 until her death, corresponded with missionaries in various places throughout the world and prayed for them and their oftentimes difficult and challenging work. It seems fitting that in the early days of the Shrine of St. Therese, there was a post office in what was then a remote location. In our archives we have a number of letters postmarked “St. Terese, Alaska” between 1938-1945, when there was a working post office at the Shrine. Not surprisingly, Father Levasseur was the first postmaster.

The St. Terese Post Office is long gone but the shrine remains. I’m grateful for the vision and foresight of Father Levasseur and his many collaborators, who established the Shrine as a place of worship, prayer, recollection and recreation for people here in Juneau and for visitors from around the world. I was pleased this past August to meet George Levasseur, a cousin of Father Levasseur, and George’s wife, who traveled from Montreal to visit the Shrine and to donate letters and other memorabilia to the Diocese archives. I was glad to be able to express to them personally our gratitude for all of the good work that their cousin had accomplished while serving in Alaska and in Juneau more than 80 years ago.

Like Father Levasseur, each of us has a particular task or calling in life that is uniquely ours. St. Therese reminds us that however humble or seemly insignificant our task may be, if done with great love and devotion we can be assured that we will draw closer to God and to our neighbor, and to make our corner of the world a better and more joyful place

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