Rebuilding Our Mother's House
By Gary Bouchard, Photography by Matthew Lomanno
Amidst a quintessentially beautiful New Hampshire setting, Our Lady shines once again!
Our Lady of the Mountains Shrine, a small church erected in 1907 in the heart of the White Mountains as a pilgrimage site where people could bring their prayers and honor the Blessed Mother, stands adjacent to the Bretton Woods Ski Area alongside the Conway Scenic Railroad on Route 302, looking east towards Mount Washington.
You may have seen this small church on your sojourns to the White Mountains. Maybe you have driven past it many times. Or maybe you made a pilgrimage there long ago and have wondered what ever became of it. Well, a few years ago, the shrine, which lends its beauty to this majestic setting and is part of the region’s history, very nearly became history itself. Fallen into disrepair and neglect, its roof had deteriorated to a state resembling “fried liverwurst,” according to one assessment, and the entire building was probably two years away from having to be torn down.
That was before a new Bishop made a pilgrimage to the Shrine and camped out in its kitchen; before a new pastor beckoned his parishioners to see if there were any hands and hearts willing to join in the daunting work of restoration; and before two men stepped up to make the restoration of Our Lady of the Mountains Shrine their second lives’ labor—two men who have since placed their complementary talents in the service of the Church, working side-by-side for the past several years, with determination and steadfast faith, to repair, restore, and ultimately resurrect this sacred space of healing and hope.
Plans are now in the works for a grand re-opening and dedication of Our Lady of the Mountains Shrine on the Feast of the Assumption this summer. As that celebration approaches, we would do well to contemplate the combination of faith and work that has made certain what only a few years ago seemed impossible.
Our story of resurrection begins with a solitary pilgrimage. Bishop Libasci, soon after his installation as Manchester’s new Bishop, recalls being told of “the bleak and almost sealed fate of the shrine.” So he went to see for himself. “Here was this little charming but neglected church at the foot of Mount Washington, a place of high volume tourism and a place of significance in our diocesan patrimony, a place from which one can watch the Cog Railway carry people to the summit of Mount Washington, a little church that was once designated a pilgrimage shrine for the Jubilee Year of 2000 and now was being forgotten and abandoned to ruin.
“I did camp out there,” he remembers. “It was raining very hard, so instead of setting up my tent on the grounds, I set up my gear in the little kitchen extension. From there I ate breakfast and first watched the Cog make its steady climb. My intention on this visit was to begin a serious reckoning of the viability of the shrine. After breakfast I crossed Crawford Notch and went to Lowe’s in North Conway for basic cleaning supplies. With these I started a reclamation that included removal of vermin’s nests and leavings, pulling up the musty runner in the middle aisle and re-setting the sanctuary to make it look as if it were ready for the celebration of Mass. Then I celebrated Mass.”
Following his visit, the Bishop contacted Fr. Matthew Mason, the new pastor of Gate of Heaven Parish in Lancaster, of which the shrine is a part. He offered to have the diocese pay half the cost of a new roof for the shrine if the parish would match. “This,” the Bishop says, “grew into a parish movement and a prophetic sign for our diocese, not unlike the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision.”
Fr. Mason had become pastor of Gate of Heaven in 2012, inheriting a parish with the distinction of having more churches than any other in the diocese, including St. Patrick in Twin Mountain, St. Matthew in Whitefield, St. Agnes in Jefferson, All Saints in Lancaster, and Our Lady of the Mountains Shrine. “When I became pastor the shrine was falling apart,” he recalls. “I began using it some, but also knew we didn’t have the money to make the repairs it needed. I remember praying at the shrine, saying to Our Lady, ‘If you want your church fixed, you’ll have to find a way.’ Shortly after that, I called a meeting of parishioners who might be interested in volunteering to help restore the shrine.”
At this meeting Our Lady sent her answer to Fr. Matthew: Henry Tupaj, Sr. and Joe Orzech. Henry is a retired construction worker who still carries with him the Polish accent he brought when his family immigrated to the United States in his teens. Besides serving at Masses, Henry had become something of the unofficial sexton of the parish, routinely repairing things and looking after the several churches. His expertise and skill would be essential to restoring the shrine’s structure. Joe Orzech is a retired Delta Airlines Pilot and Air Force officer with degrees in Engineering from Catholic University. An avid skier and hiker, he retired to the White Mountains and became an active member of Gate of Heaven. His skills at finish work and window repair have been invaluable in restoring the shrine’s beauty. Besides discovering they had both lived in New Jersey years earlier, these two men shared something more: a growing determination to restore Our Lady of the Mountains back to life and a faith that this is what God was calling them to do.
“When Fr. Matthew asked ‘could we save the thing?’ –well, I just wasn’t able to say no,” Henry remembers. That night at the meeting Henry was approached by Joe who offered his help, having no illusions as he did so as to the scope of the project. “The ceiling above the altar was in such bad shape that the priest should have been wearing a hard hat,” Joe says. “There were many structural and other issues, rotted sills, failing frames for the stained glass windows, and the bell being displayed on the ground outside of the building should have suggested to someone that the bell tower had rotting columns.” All of these challenges and more awaited the two men as they began to devote day after day of highly skilled labor. “I have my own formula for making an estimate on renovations,” Joe says. “Make an estimate in terms of days, multiply those days by three, and then call those days weeks.”
So the days multiplied into weeks and then seasons and years. “We start late in April and work into November, every day during the week, sometimes up to ten hours some days,” says Joe. He estimates, still practicing his pilot’s habit of keeping a log, that by the end of 2017 he and Henry had spent about 2,000 hours each working in the shrine, and probably another thousand hours each in their respective workshops, and in running errands.
“It’s not just that they have donated labor that we could never begin to afford,” Fr. Matthew says, “it’s also that they do unbelievable work. They are so skilled and take such care on every aspect of the restoration. Not only would we have never had the money to pay a contractor to do this project, a contractor never would have taken the care that these two men have.”
Both Henry and Joe appreciate the craftsmanship and history that has preceded them, the lives of the original builders evident not just in the beauty of the church, but in small things like the circa 1900 whiskey bottle they found inside one wall. “They don’t build beautiful churches like this anymore,” says Henry. Adds Joe, “The thing that strikes me too is that a lot of our heritage goes to waste, so much gets lost in church closings.”
Having survived some nasty accidents in his construction career, and one near-fatal, on-the-job accident in which he’s convinced he ought to have died, Henry believes, “I am here because God had a mission for me.” Accomplishing God’s work, he insists, has not only helped restore a church, but his own health. “Honestly, it’s what’s keeping me going. Before I began this project I had very high blood pressure and I loaded myself up with medications that did not help very much. Since I began working on this project my blood pressure is normal, all thanks to God. It’s like God united me and Joe to do this work. We keep each other going. The ideas come and we keep working, never a disagreement really,” he says, “It’s been a nice journey.”
Joe, who insists he is happiest when he is serving others, says the choice to join Henry in this project was logical. “Our lives are ordered and it’s all part of the plan. Here I am in the North Country. Here is this project. I have the time and the skills. It just makes sense.” He insists that his “payment has been beyond measure, just seeing people come back here who remember it from their childhood, to witness the place of spiritual healing that it has once more become.” Unlike his years of work as a pilot, where he says he had little to show for his work at the end of each day, working with his hands on a project like the shrine makes Joe feel “like I’ve done something.”
Joe offers one especially moving example of what he means by calling the shrine a place of healing. “I was working on a window on a platform up in the choir loft and was unsure of how to proceed. A young couple came in the front door. Usually people come in and sort of look around at first, but they went right to the front and knelt down. I was anxious to get back to work and solve my problem, but I didn’t want to disturb them. Then I noticed the husband rubbing his wife’s back. I recognized the tell-tale signs. It suddenly passed into my head that they were grieving a miscarriage. My wife and I had experienced this same loss many years ago. So I stopped and prayed with them, though they never knew I was there.”
During the very first week they began, Joe remembers, the Twin Mountain Police pulled up and told them to put down their tools and go home. It turned out they needed a building permit. Since then they have received generous assistance from many people, including Frank and Sean Dodge of Dodge Contracting, who donated the use of all necessary scaffolding; Mike Meehan, who did some of the electrical work; Joe McCarthy, who helped with interior painting; and Bob Rutherford, who assisted whenever needed. Additionally, the Knights of Columbus have organized several work crews to clean and haul away debris, and other parishioners have helped out when possible.
Fr. Matthew notes that as the work has progressed, sometimes people stop by and see what is happening and spontaneously make a donation to assist with the project. One pressing need is for a heating system that can adequately heat the shrine, not for all-season use, but to moderate the effect of extreme winter temperatures on the building’s structure. The original heating for the shrine was a coal bin beneath a wooden trap door that is still in place in the middle of the center aisle.
In the warmer seasons, the shrine hosts pilgrims for private prayer, several weddings, and special services for the parish, including healing services that Joe describes as “powerful” and “electric.” And as the two men resume work this spring in preparation for the shrine’s official re-opening, Henry will once again tell his fellow parishioners, “I’m going to work on Blessed Mary’s house. When I stand before God,” he says, “I can’t blame something on a sub-contractor. It is all on us and we want to do it right, so that it stands for another hundred years.”
In the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones to which Bishop Libasci likens the shrine’s resurrection, the prophet’s words bring sinews and flesh, and ultimately breath to the mortal bones of the house of Israel. The Mount Washington Valley is hardly a valley of dry bones, but for those who have witnessed the life that has once more filled the wooden frame of Our Lady of the Mountains Shrine since that rainy morning when the Bishop first stood and watched the Cog climb to the top of Mount Washington, something prophetic has certainly taken place.
And for the rest of us who can now contemplate making our own pilgrimage to the shrine, Joe Orzech offers this simple invitation: “It’s here. It’s a special place of healing. Come visit!”