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Aspen proves divine for the Skiing Saints

They can’t help but capture attention, these Skiing Saints from Dearborn, Mich., as they cascade down the rolling slopes of Buttermilk.

It’s not that the Saints are particularly great or awful skiers. They could be any group of giggly high- school-aged kids out for a good time – except for their powder-blue parkas embroidered with their name.

Whether they were climbing aboard the Summit Express chairlift, descending the Jacob’s Ladder trail or milling about the base area, the 16 Saints and their seven chaperones drew inquisitive looks one recent day at Buttermilk.

They’re used to it. The Saints have come marching in to Aspen for 38 seasons now, spanning a couple of generations of youth from the Dearborn area.

The cast of characters regularly changes except for one man, Father Bill Brennan, the shepherd of the flock. The 71-year-old Catholic priest has been hauling kids from his parish to Aspen’s slopes since 1961. For most of that time, Father Brennan has been at St. Sebastian’s Parish in Dearborn.

The ski trips are a great way to reward kids for achievements, help some weather difficult times and simply have fun, he explained. It’s also been a great way for him to pursue his passion for skiing.

“It’s a tremendous experience for many of these kids,” Father Brennan said. “Some of them would never get a chance to experience this if we didn’t bring them out here.”

He recalled bringing one girl to Aspen who suffered from leukemia. She still talked about the trip on her deathbed five months later.

He and another priest first visited Aspen in 1960 after noticing an advertisement for the resort in a skiing publication. They landed at the Mountain Chalet that first year and Father Brennan started bringing kids back to the venerable lodge annually starting the next year.

The Skiing Saints are one of the oldest and most loyal ski clubs ever to hit the slopes of Aspen. But times have changed so much over those 38 years, Father Brennan said, that he couldn’t afford the annual excursion without the generosity of Mountain Chalet owner Ralph Melville and the Aspen Skiing Co.

Since the Saints come after the holiday rush, they reap discounted rates for lodging and lift tickets. Nevertheless, taking a trip to Aspen isn’t cheap. Father Brennan raises most of the funds himself through special efforts. He makes magnificent hand-made clocks and furniture that are offered for a “contribution,” he said, gingerly avoiding the word “sale.”

Initially, Father Brennan brought two or three kids out at a time. That’s mushroomed over the years to a point now where two groups of 16 kids come for one week each, one right on the heels of the other.

The skiing trips are highly coveted, explained Dana Myler and Megan O’Callaghan, both 14 and ninth-graders at Divine Child High School in Dearborn. Both said they will send postcards home to friends – and rub it in just a little.

Dana’s brother, Andy, made the trip with the group for the first time this year. “It’s awesome. What’s not to like about it?” he asked while spreading his arms and taking in the mountain scenery from the Buttermilk base.

Sometimes the honor of being invited on one of Father Brennan’s ski trips is passed down through generations of the same family. Shawn LaVoie took the trip as a high school student in the late 1980s, just as her mother had done in the 1960s. This year, LaVoie was invited back as one of the seven chaperones.

“It’s a lot of work this time,” she joked. But Father Brennan didn’t have to work too hard to convince her to come along. “Father’s always so good to everybody. You can’t say no.”

Joshua Martin, a 17-year-old senior, returned for a fourth time this season. “I’m a good kid, I guess,” he said, explaining his good fortune.

Martin said he serves as an unofficial chaperone and one that will shoot straight with the adults in case some of the kids aren’t always, well, saints.

In addition to enjoying the skiing and scenery, Martin, who appeared to be one of the better skiers in the group, said the attitude of the people around Aspen was refreshing.

“Coming from a suburb of Detroit, if you say `hi’, people think you’re going to mug them or something,” he said. “People here are welcoming.”

Aspen Skiing Co. ski instructor Lisa Fisher has welcomed the Saints for 22 years. She’s always there to help the beginners.

“I like their positive attitude,” she said, explaining her ongoing role with the group. “We don’t want them to get damaged.”

Frenchy Agius has chaperoned with the Saints for just about every year over the last 20 and has seen his own children go on the trip. He knows from experience it really does make the kids feel special. It will be a sad day, he said, when the tradition ends.

Brennan, himself a smooth skier, said he has no intention of letting the tradition end soon. “Not as long as I can ski,” he said.

Fisher looks forward to providing lessons for new Saints. “Father and I have a bargain,” she said. “Neither one of us is going to quit first.”


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