The Virgin Mary is sitting with her son Jesus in a lush Alberta forest, surrounded by deer drinking from a gurgling stream, with the majestic Three Sisters peaks in the background.

“The window cries out to you ‘Rocky Mountains,’ and there is Our Lady in the midst of that,” said Father Nathan Siray, pastor of Our Lady of the Rockies Parish. “That’s kind of our No. 1 devotional image to Our Lady of the Rockies that is completely unique to this building.”

The powerful image is set in custom-made stained glass, one of the focal points of the new $20 million (US$14.8 million) church in the mountain community of Canmore, about 15 miles southeast of Banff. It’s a new church for the parish, which dates back to the 1800s, and the first Marian shrine in the Diocese of Calgary. Pilgrimages, conferences and other events are planned once pandemic restrictions are eased.

Bishop William McGrattan dedicated the new 17,000-square-foot church May 30, during a Mass that was livestreamed on the Diocese of Calgary’s Facebook page because of the restrictions. The first public Mass in the new church will be celebrated June 8.

Bishop McGrattan noted that dedication came as Pope Francis led the major shrines worldwide in praying the rosary to implore Mary’s intercession and protection amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In his homily, Bishop McGrattan recognized the spiritual foundation of Our Lady of the Rockies parishioners and the greater reach the church will have as a Marian shrine.

“In many ways our diocese, under the patronage of Mary, we should have a shrine church,” Bishop McGrattan said. “We should have a place in which people, not only in our own diocese but throughout the world and in Canada, can come as they come to the Rockies to see nature’s cathedral. They can stop and they can pray and they can experience the great presence of God who comes to dwell in our midst in these humble abodes that we build.”

Father Siray said the roughly 300 families of Our Lady of the Rockies Parish were “ecstatic” that the church building was completed and dedicated in May, which the church devotes to Mary.

“It’s going us take time to understand our new identity as a shrine. But the overwhelming sense I get from my people is, ‘This is incredible. Thank you,'” Father Siray said. “I couldn’t help thinking this church is dedicated to Mary, and Mary was always one humble of heart. She was willing to start small, and great things came from her. I think if we can embrace her spirit, we’re going to do well going forward.”

The new church is at the edge of town, off the Trans-Canada Highway, and figures prominently when motorists arrive.

The exterior design reflects a European-style alpine church. That was the vision of Father Bryan Frank, a former pastor of Our Lady of the Rockies, and Guy Turcotte, a parishioner and the developer of Silvertip Resort in Canmore, who donated the roughly three-acre property for the church.

“We really got a tremendous gift in having such a prime location so visible for this new church to be built upon,” Father Siray said. “You know it’s pretty cool, as you’re coming on Highway 1, you see the turnoff to Canmore town center, and as you crest the hill one of the first things you see is our bell tower.

“You couldn’t ask for a better location. We hope that it becomes a bit of a beacon of hope for people here that there’s something good and beautiful and it wants to welcome as many people as it can into it,” he said.

Father Siray’s predecessor, Father Wilbert Chin Jon, focused on the interior with traditional architecture, liturgical art and a large supply of marble for the new altar and ambo to blend both old and new.

The new Our Lady of the Rockies church has a capacity for 425 people, double the number of the old church, and it includes a new hall, kitchen, conference room, and columbarium with 262 niches.

The official feast day for Our Lady of the Rockies Parish is Aug. 22, the Queenship of Mary. And the feast day for its sister church in Banff is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a week earlier.

“So we thought, in time, it would a cool opportunity to really promote those two feasts,” Father Siray said.

Last summer, Our Lady of the Rockies Parish organized its own bicycle pilgrimage from Banff to Canmore.

“We brought a carrier and put a statue of Mary up on it. It was quite entertaining to meet people along the way as Mary goes by on the bike,” Father Siray said. “We’d like to continue to do stuff like that.”

—Andrew Ehrkamp