The Shrine of St. Therese has gone through various stages of use and deterioration in its 75-year history. It even closed in 1985 but a small group of Juneau residents gave it another life. Since then, the Shrine has remained open to the public for various activities while undergoing small and large renovations.
The Shrine has only survived and thrived through the hard work of Shrine staff, the generosity of volunteers, and the spirit of St. Therese.
The Shrine of St. Therese is rooted in community support.
Shortly after the cornerstone of the chapel was laid 75 years ago, 83-year-old Albert Shaw attended summer camp at the Shrine. “I remember we helped get the rocks for the causeway, throw them in the dump truck,” he says.
Help came from other groups as well.
“During the depression, during the 30s, fellows would show up here and go up to the church looking for a handout and Father LaVasseur would say, ‘I’ve got something for you to do,’ and ship them out to the Shrine and put them to work,” Shaw recalls.
Over the decades, the Shrine has gone through cycles of high use and deterioration, until 1985 when Thomas Fitterer got involved.
“It was basically closed down for use. There were many buildings that were falling apart. It was in a real slump. It really needed a lot of love and tender care,” he remembers.
Fitterer says he had an inner calling to help the Shrine, “The diocese was even talking about possibly selling it because it was such an expense, but God had another plan.”
Fitterer along with a small group of Juneau residents were passionate about getting the Shrine back to being a place of spiritual retreat.
A board of directors formed in 1986 and Fitterer and his wife Mary were asked to be Shrine directors. “When we took it over, it was in the red,” he says.
With the help of a dedicated board and other volunteers, the Shrine slowly got back on its feet. Within ten years, the Shrine was bringing in its own money.
Throughout his 25-year career as Shrine director, Fitterer says his main job was figuring out how to bring about new infrastructure and new facilities, “A lot of times it was just getting out of the way and allowing the people who had the gifts to bring them forth.”
“So often I would scratch my head and say, ‘Lord how are we going to do that?’ and somehow or another I could ask somebody or somebody would volunteer,” say Fitterer.
In recent years, that somebody has often been Sam Bertoni. Almost every day for the past 13 years, Bertoni is volunteering at the Shrine doing one job or another.
“We have our own water system, our own septic system, so that takes some attention. Minor carpentry work and electrical work and plumbing work and plowing,” lists Bertoni. “We do our own plowing and sanding, so pretty much, it’s kind of like a little village.”
Bertoni’s hours depend on what project he’s working on.
“I’ve never spent a night here in 13 years, but I’ve been out here in the middle of the night thawing out pipes,” Bertoni says.
The Shrine has a couple dozen volunteers throughout the year. If there’s a bigger project, more will show up. Past work days have brought out more than a hundred people.
The Shrine is named after St. Therese. Born and raised in France, St. Therese became a nun when she was only 15. In 1897, at the age of 24, she died of tuberculosis. Alaska Bishop Joseph Crimont knew her family and when she was canonized, he declared St. Therese Queen and Patroness of Alaska.
St. Therese is also called ‘The Little Flower’ because she knew the importance of small contributions.
Diocese of Juneau Bishop Edward Burns says that’s like the Shrine’s history.
“[St. Therese] spoke in her journal about how even a small smile to a passerby means so much. It’s a connection. So with the little things that we offer, it helps transform society,” says Bishop Burns.
Now, Shrine director Deirdre Darr is introducing the Shrine to a younger generation.
“The whole history of the Shrine is just everyday people in Juneau and outside of Juneau who have just loved it and I think it’d be great to introduce it to another generation so that they can start to step in and take over for those who are getting older who have been loving and caring for the Shrine,” Darr says.
At times, Darr is overwhelmed with being in charge of the Shrine’s future, but knows she’s not alone.
“We can’t forget that we’re not the ones ultimately who are responsible, that hopefully there will be some divine inspiration to help us figure out what the future will be,” she says.
The combination of divine inspiration and human ingenuity is likely to guarantee the Shrine will be around for decades to come.