Amidst a cathedral of trees once charred by the Aspen Fire, a small chapel is under construction in the mountain village of Summerhaven.

The 853-square-foot Byzantine Catholic chapel is being built on Tucson Avenue just east of the Mt. Lemmon General Store and Gift Shop. If construction proceeds on schedule, the chapel dedicated to Our Lady Undoer of Knots should open this fall for public use.

Other than services in the community center and other buildings, Mount Lemmon resident Bob Zimmerman said he doesn’t know of any other dedicated church building in Summerhaven. Zimmerman’s father opened a sawmill and juggled other endeavors on the mountain after falling in love with the area on a hunting trip in the 1930s. Bob Zimmerman, now 81, spent summers on Mount Lemmon as a child and moved back to Summerhaven in adulthood. He runs Mount Lemmon Realty, Sawmill Run Restaurant and the post office, he said.

“When I had the inn before it burned down, we had church in the ballroom,” he said. The family lost it in the 1970s to fire. “And on Saturday nights after dancing we would clean up and clear out for church the next morning.”

Eastern Europe meets the American frontier

The chapel and the connected rectory and bell tower follow the Boyko style of traditional 16th-century wooden Ukrainian churches, said project architect Chauncey Meyer. The livable space in the rectory is about 550 square feet.

As the Summerhaven church was planned, “The idea of a Byzantine-style church in the mountains of Eastern Europe was already there at the beginning, and as the thinking went on, there was a decision to create a fusion of styles, one that was American frontier as well as Eastern European,” said the Rev. Robert Rankin of St. Melany Byzantine Catholic Church.

The Summerhaven church, which will fall under Rankin’s jurisdiction, is being funded by a handful of private donors.

Rankin first began mulling over the idea of creating a spiritual retreat in Summerhaven after his first trek up the mountain to escape the heat after moving to Tucson in 2002.

“I thought it was sad that it didn’t have a little church,” Rankin said. “It could be a prayerful getaway for people, and that thought was circling in my head, and then lo and behold, we had two members of the Byzantine church living up there.”

Gene and Catherine Kinghorn, a couple in their 60s, moved to Summerhaven in 2012 after downsizing. They still commute down the mountain to attend Rankin’s church and work at the education consulting group they run, Rose Management Group.

“Have you ever lived anywhere where there was no presence of a church anywhere?” Catherine Kinghorn said. “Of course, there are the woods and nature, which are godly, but I had never lived in an area that had no presence of a church.”

The conversation between Rankin and the Kinghorns began several years ago, and when two lots became available near the couple’s Summerhaven home, they made the purchases in 2015. In 2016, they added a third lot, Catherine Kinghorn said.

“We’re doing something beautiful for God,” she added. “This is something that brings us joy.”

Construction began about one month ago. Because the lot has a Mount Lemmon zoning code, construction of a church is permitted on the property, Meyer said.

Rankin envisions the church someday having a connection with a small monastery. It won’t officially get its name until Bishop John Pazak of the Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix visits after construction is complete.

A ramada and the rectory’s bell tower will serve as memorials to veterans. The project also acquired a bell from a torn-down New England church cast by Paul Revere’s son, the Kinghorns said.

Rankin will also donate a relic from St. Valentine in honor of Arizona’s Valentine’s Day birthday.

The Undoer of Knots

The church honors Our Lady Undoer of Knots because of the Virgin Mary’s reputation for fixing problems, Rankin said.

He imagines the church as a place of prayer, reflection and quiet, a place to untangle life’s knots.

Fitting, since one of the visual centerpieces of the church will be an image of Jesus Christ painted in the Byzantine style on a dome 22 feet from the floor. Creating that image, or icon, gave artist and architect Chuck Albanese plenty of knots to untangle.

In Eastern Catholic tradition, images such as the one Albanese painted are called icons. These images — often of Christ, Mary and the saints — are meant to aid worshippers in prayer and reverence.

Albanese, dean emeritus of the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, began researching iconography in August. Albanese had a 40-year career teaching architecture students and practicing with his own architecture firm, along with summer trips to the Mediterranean to teach students to sketch and paint. In retirement, he continued those trips and threw himself into his own artwork, mastering watercolor and oil techniques.

Albanese was also one of the designers and fundraisers for the University of Arizona Mall memorial for the USS Arizona dedicated in December.

But none of it could fully prepare him for creating an icon of Christ on a curved surface.

“This project challenged me,” he said. “I knew very little about the church. I did not understand what an icon was.”

Within the tradition, painting an icon is actually referred to as writing an icon.

Beyond grasping the religious implications, Albanese had to overcome technical challenges at each step, from figuring out how to paint on a curve, to painting the dome with five coats of the primer gesso and sanding each down, to mastering a 1,200-year-old art style.

“It’s a lot of geometry, painting in a dome,” Albanese said. This one is 8 feet in diameter, Meyer said.

As part of his research, Albanese spoke with master iconographers and practiced writing this icon first on flat surfaces and then in a small dome one-sixth the size of the real one.

For several months, Albanese, 74, spent four or five hours in his backyard each day working on the dome. He put on music to get in the right state of mind and often reclined on a platform he constructed for the project.

Albanese has already trimmed the trees in his backyard so that a crane can swoop down to extract the estimated 305-pound dome.

“I think it’s interesting that different people have gotten involved like Chuck, who is an urban architect and does an icon so beautifully and had to teach himself how to do all of that,” said Catherine Kinghorn. “It’s remarkable who comes in, uses their expertise and then goes out of the picture. That, to me, is the hand of God just doing everything.”

resurrection of a village

After the Aspen Fire destroyed almost 85,000 acres of forest in 2003, Summerhaven returned to rebuild.

“It made us think, what does it take to recreate a community?” said architect Phil Swaim, whose family lost a cabin to the fire. “There are a lot of plans and passions about Summerhaven, a lot of different opinions in terms of what it should be. How much retail? How large can it get and still maintain the character of what we have always loved about Summerhaven?”

Swaim, the president of Swaim Associates Architects, was part of conversations planning for new development after the fire.

Jim Campbell, the president of Oasis Tucson, was also part of planning development on the mountain. Much of that — including a three-story building with 18 condos — never materialized after the 2008 economic crisis.

“I think the downturn of the economy in ’09 kind of halted things up on the mountain, so I suspect it will start going the other way here pretty soon,” Zimmerman said.

Just as Tucson’s market follows Phoenix’s, Mount Lemmon’s follows Tucson’s, Campbell said.

“It’s interesting, a church, because there are a lot of people up there on the weekend,” Campbell said. “Everyone has just been waiting for something to happen” in Summerhaven.

And while there are not currently plans for any clergy to be assigned to the chapel to celebrate weekly Mass, Rankin imagines it becoming a place for people to make spiritual pilgrimages.

“We kind of envision it as fitting into the community life up there,” Rankin said. “This is one more thing to do. You can walk over the babbling brook into the church, light a candle, say a prayer ... or honor a loved one who is a veteran, and this becomes a place in Southern Arizona for all people.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@tucson.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett

Writing about Tucson's heart and soul — its people, its kindness, its faith — for #ThisIsTucson.