Along a scenic stretch of Mountain Road in Stowe, Vt., amid the neatly-kept shops and homes, a painted wood sign stands out, showing a large white Host suspended over a gold chalice.
It’s an uncommon sight in Vermont, which holds the dubious distinction as the least-religious state in the union, but this is the town of Stowe, where the influence of the staunchly Catholic Maria von Trapp and her large family of The Sound of Music fame still echoes through the hills.
The sign marks the site of Blessed Sacrament Church, which was built a few years after the von Trapp family settled in Stowe, following their escape from the Nazis.
Father Benedict Kiely, pastor for the past five years, is asked often by visitors to this resort town about the relationship of the von Trapp family to the church, and he has a ready answer: "The legend is that the pastor from Morrisville, the next town over, went to the bishop to ask if a church could be built in Stowe, and the bishop said, ‘No.’ Then Maria von Trapp went to the bishop with the same request and he said, ‘Yes.’ Evidently, she was quite a tough lady."
At that time, Stowe was a mission of the Morrisville parish, and Mass was offered in the basement of the town hall. Ground was broken for the new church in 1948, and the first Mass was celebrated there on March 6, 1949. Five years later, Blessed Sacrament became an independent parish. Maria von Trapp was choirmaster for a number of years before her death in 1987.
As the famous movie depicts, Maria and Capt. Georg von Trapp and their brood of musical children fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. They began performing in Europe and the United States. In 1942, they purchased a farm in Stowe, which they called Cor Unum (One Heart), after the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The von Trapps’ lodge grew out of a small business of renting rooms to skiers during the winter months. The original buildings were destroyed by fire, and the new lodge, chalet and villas were opened in 1983, still retaining a homey Alpine look and charm. Situated on a hilltop about two miles from Blessed Sacrament Church, the lodge offers a panoramic view of the Vermont hills that reminded the von Trapps of their beloved Austria.
Father Kiely also traveled a long way to become a fixture in Stowe. Born in London and ordained a priest in a church in Canterbury in 1994, he speaks with a distinct English accent that stands out in the New England town. Yet, he says, he has felt right at home since being incardinated into the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., in 2002.
He knows that most people are drawn to Stowe for its von Trapp family fame, the four-season resort facilities and 12-month mountain beauty, yet he always looks for opportunities to draw people toward God and the faith. He keeps the church open around the clock as a reminder that God is available at all times.
"It’s always open: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," he said. "Anyone can come up at any time and find the door open. We have people praying in the church all day long. Those who are here on vacation or just passing through really appreciate that."
Although Blessed Sacrament Church has strong ties to the von Trapp family, the building is dedicated to the memory of Brother Josef Dutton, a convert to the Catholic faith who joined St. Damien of Molokai in Hawaii in 1886 and spent the final decades of his life ministering to the lepers on the Hawaiian island. Designed by two local architects, the church was built on farmland that belonged to the Dutton family, with artwork by noted Frenchman Andre Girard showing scenes from Brother Josef’s life. The church was renovated and expanded in 2005 to preserve the artwork and accommodate a growing population of parishioners.
The church seats about 400 comfortably, but nearly 600 people can squeeze in for the popular Christmas Eve Mass, the pastor said. The two Sunday Masses and the vigil Mass on Saturday evening are usually full, with regular parishioners who come from Stowe and many of the surrounding towns, plus a large number of tourists and weekend resort visitors.
"It’s very encouraging to see so many people at Mass," Father Kiely said. "We have built up a strong, close community, and we are always welcoming new faces. I tell them that if they make the time to go to Mass while on vacation, they are real Catholics."
He added, "It’s a unique little church, with a very different kind of architecture and artwork. But it’s a very warm place and a real oasis of prayer."
Father Kiely said that the parish is dedicated to the "reform of the reform" of the liturgy advocated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The reverence with which Father Kiely offers Mass and his dynamic preaching attract people from many neighboring towns, says Joseph Wright. He and his wife, Brook, travel 25 miles each way on Sunday with their six children to attend Mass at Blessed Sacrament, where Brook provides music at the two Sunday Masses.
"When we first started going, there were no other young families," Joseph Wright recalled. "There’s a little cry room in the church, and we used to be the only ones in there. But now, there’s standing room only, with all the young families and their kids."
Although Vermont has a reputation for secularism, Joseph Wright said there is a solid core of Catholic families who attend Blessed Sacrament Church.
"Father Kiely is not afraid to teach what the Church teaches," he said.
Maria von Trapp, no doubt, would be proud.
Brian Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.
Blessed Sacrament Church
728 Mountain Rd.
Stowe, VT 05672
Saturday: 4:30pm; Sunday: 8 and 10:30am. Weekday Mass times vary according to season.
Blessed Sacrament Church is always open for visitors: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.