PUBLISHED: 5:47 PM on Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Gentle hands preserve spirit while renovating Shrine Chapel

Photo by Joe R. Lawendowski /
  The most visible change to the old rock chapel is probably the roof, where thatches have been replaced by a special metal roof with a longer lifespan.
When visitors enter the Shrine of St. Therese Chapel this summer, the gentle renovation the chapel has undergone won't be immediately visible - but hopefully, it will be felt. With new heating and ventilation systems, hopefully, visitors will shiver less inside the stone chapel, allowing them to stay and soak up the quiet spirit for a longer time.

Renovating historic buildings is always a challenge; add to that a building held sacred not only by people of the faith that built it, but by an entire region of people - and you've got your job cut out for you.

"In old buildings, you always find stuff," said architect Tony Yorba of Jensen Yorba Lott, who is managing the contract. "The crypt was the single biggest issue."

The crypt underneath the chapel floor is the final resting place for the earthly remains of two bishops - Bishop Crimont, who was instrumental in the Shrine being built, and the immensely popular Bishop Michael Kenny, who died during a trip to the Holy Land in 1995. The crypt has six burial places, reserved for bishops.

Yorba and Shrine Director Thomas Fitterer both praised Silverbow Construction, the chief contractor for the renovation work, for their sensitivity and respect for the sacred site. "They understand the special circumstances, they're respectful, and they're real easy to work with," Yorba said.

The Normandy style Shrine Chapel is getting a new roof - a metal roof, like many Normandy style churches in Europe already have. But the roof won't look like metal, Fitterer assured. "It's more of a metal shingle roof."

"We were originally looking at copper," said Yorba, " but the cost just proved to be prohibitive."

The new roof will be insulated, but the insulation is being put on top of the roof, to preserve the look of the ceiling. "No matter what we do," said Yorba, "we're not going to change the quality of the Shrine. When you walk in, I don't want it to look different."

New steel windows, new ductwork, and a new ventilation system will, together with radiant floor heat, make sure the Chapel becomes comfortable not only to the soul but also the body. "It's sort of had a narrow window of comfortable use," Yorba said diplomatically. The new air circulation system dehumidifies the air and puts the heat back in, to preserve energy while keeping a better air quality in the sanctuary, control the humidity, and prevent mold.

Cracks in the concrete surrounding the natural rock has also let water leak in, which, at freezing temperatures, has expanded and made larger cracks - and that is being repaired, too. The renovation is scheduled to reach completion by mid-May.

Originally planned as a retreat center for priests by Father William G. LeVasseur, the Shrine has always been a place for spiritual contemplation for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

"Once you step foot on Shrine Island," said Yorba, "you cannot help but feel the presence of God. Not the powerful, fearful old testament image of God, but the quiet, gentle presence of the Lord, the same Lord that said 'Let the little children come to me'."

"Most people look at the Shrine as not a religiously confined place" said Fitterer, "but as open to all."

That's the way it's been from the beginning, with Catholics and non-Catholics alike volunteering their time to get the Shrine built, and visiting the grounds regardless of what their spiritual beliefs are.

And that is the way the director wants it:

"As a director, sometimes the greatest direction I can do is get out of the way and let the Lord work."

Construction costs for the renovation of the shrine is estimated at $250,000-$300,000.

When the CCW interviewed Director Fitterer, about $53,000 had been donated to the renovation project, which depends entirely on donations. "We're praying but we're not being anxious," Fitterer said. "The Lord will provide."

Donations for the Shrine renovation can be sent to: Shrine of St. Therese, 5933 Lund St., Juneau, AK 99801.