[Diocese of Western New York] It’s not a requirement that priests called to the Diocese of Western New York learn to ski, but it keeps happening all the same. That’s because for more than 20 years, a worship service at the top of a slope has provided clergy who are willing to brave the mountain with an opportunity for creative evangelism.
Today the 30-minute ecumenical service at Holiday Valley Resort in Ellicottville, New York, is sponsored by St. John’s, Ellicottville, and St. Luke’s in nearby Jamestown each Sunday afternoon between New Year’s Day and Holy Week.
The Rev. Luke Fodor, rector of St. Luke’s and an avid downhill skier, leads the service. But when he first came to town from Long Island in 2014, despite being an accomplished triathlete and water sports enthusiast, he had never been on snow skis.
Priscilla Menzies, who was on the St. Luke’s vestry when Fodor and his family arrived in Jamestown, encouraged them to learn to ski together as a way to withstand the legendary Western New York winters. She and Fodor soon found kinship in their love of the outdoors.
“I don’t know why we don’t worship outside more; it’s where God is for me,” she said.
Menzies, who relocated to Vermont during the pandemic to be closer to grandchildren and plentiful skiing, was part of the group that founded the Holiday Valley ski slope service nearly 20 years ago. The idea emerged from a conversation between the Rev. Eric Williams, a former rector of St. Luke’s, and Jane Eshbaugh, who grew up at the parish and has long worked at Holiday Valley alongside her husband, Dennis, who is the resort’s president and general manager.
“Jane mentioned that there had once been a service at Holiday Valley, led by a Methodist minister, but it had been some time since that had stopped,” Williams said. “She was interested in resuming the service as a way for skiing families to have a way to worship.” Williams began the service, coordinating with Eshbaugh, and led it until he left the diocese in 2012 for a call in Michigan.
Except during the height of the pandemic, when it took place in an open-air lean-to with a fire pit, the service has always been held in a warming hut at the top of Holiday Valley’s Cindy’s Lift. Skiers, Menzies said, are welcome to join in or simply to enjoy a cup of Starbucks coffee provided by the resort, and can leave early or arrive late. Prayers and thanksgivings, widely known songs sung from song sheets, scripture, and communion make up the ecumenical liturgy.
While other resorts and ski slopes may offer something similar in the lodge or at the bottom of the hill, the service at Holiday Valley is unique in that “you’ve gotta ski to it,” Menzies said.
Although the service serves worshippers of many faith traditions, it has been led by Episcopal clergy since its inception, with the Rev. Earle King, formerly rector of St. Martin’s in Grand Island, taking the lead from 2013 until 2020. King says that today, he loves to ski. But at first, worshipping on the slopes did not come naturally.
Early in his tenure at St. Martin’s, King recalls, the youth group decided to go skiing and invited him along. “I would have been 40 at the time, and had never been skiing,” he said. “I spent the entire night on the bunny hill, mostly flat on my face. And I had a wonderful time. The next year, I bought a Friday night pass. It came with lessons included, so for a number of years, I had a ski lesson every Friday night during the season. That was critical in my learning to ski with some skill and confidence.”
Fodor, who took over leading the service in 2020 when King retired, is motivated by the fact that most of its dozen or so weekly participants are not Episcopalians. “The Roman Catholics are always amazed that a priest skis,” he said. “Just last week a Roman Catholic family asked me, ‘Are you going to ski down?’” Fodor says he told the family, “Of course! I am going to ski down and then ride the lifts and ski the rest of the day.”
“It’s the highlight of my week because it integrates the physical and spiritual, and leading worship for a group of regulars and first-time attendees from around the country,” Fodor said. “I really appreciate that we can find room for God in the fun of life.”