Kateri Tekakwitha — to be canonized on Oct. 21 — called the area of Auriesville, N.Y., home for most of her life.
For the last 127 years, so does the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs (National Shrine of North American Martyrs, MartyrShrine.org).
It was on the grounds of this shrine that three Jesuit missionaries from France — Father Isaac Jogues and his companions, René Goupil and John Lalande — became the first North American martyrs to shed their blood for the faith. (Their feast day is Oct. 19.)
They came to bring Christ to the Indian tribes in Auriesville, then known as the Mohawk village of Ossernenon, and were martyred in 1646.
Ten years later, Kateri Tekakwitha was born on these grounds to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief.
Visitors come to find spiritual peace at this shrine in upstate New York, 40 miles west of Albany. The beautiful Mohawk River Valley curves gently along the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains.
From the shrine’s heights over the valley, the sweeping panorama is magnificent. It must look much the same as it did to the first organized pilgrimage in 1885. That year, the first Mass was celebrated here on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption and the anniversary of Father Jogues being brought to this location as a captive.
So many pilgrims came to visit that when the three martyrs were canonized in 1930, the current church — the third one here — had to be built. It was finished in 1931 and called the "Coliseum." The name purposely recalls the early Christian martyrs.
One of the first circular churches in this country, the Coliseum seats 6,500. With standing room, it holds 10,000. Spacious as it is, it has rustic warmth.
It should be filled on Oct. 21 as the shrine celebrates the canonization in Rome of Kateri with a 2pm Mass.
The Coliseum abounds in symbolism: 12 aisles and 12 seating sections represent the apostles; 72 doors represent the 72 disciples Jesus sent out to share the Gospel; and three tiers in the ceiling and roof recall the Holy Trinity.
To evoke the area’s heritage, the stockade walls are the reredos for the altars and represent the palisades of Ossernenon. One altar is dedicated to Kateri.
The Coliseum is quite a contrast to the original 1885 chapel, which remains on the grounds and is so tiny that pilgrims had to stand outside during Masses. The second chapel, from 1894, was renovated a century later and now includes the Chapel of Kateri Tekakwitha, where weekday Masses are offered.
Outdoors, devotional sites are plentiful. A statue of St. Joseph the Worker stands in a lovely garden right outside of the Coliseum.
Farther along, a statue grouping memorializes St. Isaac Jogues carving the name of Jesus on trees as two Mohawk children bow their heads at the Holy Name. And a large statue of the Sacred Heart overlooks the Mohawk River, beckoning travelers and pilgrims to come to the shrine.
Our Lady of Fatima also watches over the river and sweeping panorama. The statue by American sculptor Frederick Shrady is from the same mold as the original that’s located in the Vatican Gardens.
Another testament to early Indian converts is "Theresa’s Rosary," named after a 13-year-old Huron girl who was captured with Father Jogues. She was forbidden to pray but did so under her captors’ noses by forming a rosary on the ground with stones.
Several other statuary shrines are short strolls from each other on the lovely 400-acre park-like grounds, which are covered with seasonal flowers and a profusion of trees. A prominent one is the lovely marble statue of Kateri, the "Lily of the Mohawks."
Pilgrims are always reminded this is holy ground. The moving Calvary scene marks the place where Isaac Jogues and René Goupil preached about God and prayed rosaries. Near it is the newer René Goupil Memorial Chapel.
In the holy, historic "Ravine" is the oldest statue on the grounds, which presents Our Lady of Martyrs.
A wide path curves downward into this expansive clearing encircled by forested walls. Somewhere within the Ravine is the unmarked grave where, in 1642, Father Jogues buried René Goupil. Because the saint lies somewhere here, this place is a natural reliquary. A statue depicts René making the sign of the cross over the head of a Native American boy kneeling at his feet.
The hallowed beauty of the place beckons prayer, where the faithful also can pause to reflect at other shrines. At one, the figure of Jesus reposes in the sepulcher. The stone grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes is another of a number of places throughout the shrine’s grounds where our Blessed Mother is honored and venerated in special ways and titles.
Fittingly, too, near the Coliseum, the faithful can meditate on the Seven Sorrows of Mary in another outdoor setting with new circular mosaics from Vatican City.
The shrine grounds offer much more, including a candle shrine, visitor’s center, cafeteria and two museums.
Surely the new saint will be drawing many pilgrims who have never been to the shrine before. Among them will be Kateri Lang, named after the holy Indian maiden.
"I’m confident and hopeful that soon I can go and make a small pilgrimage there," says the recent graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
A fitting Oct. 21 visit would be to walk where Kateri walked and recall her final words: "Jesus — Mary — I love you." These words resound everywhere and in every place at this beautiful shrine.
St. Kateri — and the North American martyrs — pray for us!
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.
The Life and Faith of the ‘Lily of the Mohawks’
St. Kateri’s mother, father and baby brother died of smallpox, an illness brought by the European settlers.
At the age of 4, Kateri also came down with smallpox, but survived. However, her face was left with pockmarks, and her vision was affected. She was adopted by her father’s family.
When Kateri walked, she held out both of her arms in front of her to compensate for her poor eyesight. As a result, her adoptive father gave her the name "Tekakwitha," which means "she pushes with her hands."
At the age of 20, Kateri was baptized after receiving instructions in the Catholic faith from a Jesuit missionary. She was given the baptized name of "Kateri," which is "Catherine" in the Mohawk language.
She was one of the first Mohawk Indians to respond to the Gospel message brought by the Jesuit missionaries.
But her life wasn’t all happy post-conversion: She was harassed by her own people for her beliefs. When Kateri refused to work on Sundays, her family refused to give her food.
In order to practice her faith openly, in July 1677, she escaped with the assistance of two friends. They fled 200 miles to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier in the village of Kahnawake, on the northern shores of the St. Lawrence River, near present-day Montreal. The Christian community was known as "The Praying Indians."
On one occasion, Kateri traveled to Ville-Marie, which is now Montreal. While there, Kateri and her widowed friend Therese met European Catholic religious sisters who ran a hospital. Inspired by the sisters’ example, Kateri, Therese and another devout friend asked their Jesuit spiritual directors for permission to found a religious community for Native American women on a nearby island. The Jesuits believed that it would be dangerous for the women to live alone and considered them too immature in the faith to form a religious community.
However, Kateri was allowed to take a private vow of perpetual virginity on March 25, 1679, the feast of the Annunciation. From that point on, Kateri strove to live like a nun within her own home. She lived a life of austerity and practiced many penances. For example, during the winter months, she would walk barefoot on the ice while praying the Rosary.
Kateri died at the age of 24. She was buried on Holy Thursday, April 18, 1680. French tradesmen, impressed with her radiant beauty, made a coffin for her. Her body has since been exhumed and placed within a sealed marble tomb at St. Francis Xavier Mission.
Pope John Paul II beatified Kateri in 1980.
Because Blessed Kateri was baptized at the Mohawk Indian village on the north shore of the Mohawk River, it was decided that should be the site of her national shrine, where she lived for 10 years, between the ages of 10 and 20. Coming to the Fonda, N.Y., National Kateri Shrine (KateriShrine.com) and reflecting on her life where she lived so long ago is a special experience, too — the faith of the "Lily of the Mohawks" is still very much alive here.
— Joseph Albino