This year is particularly special, because on October 21, two women from Upstate New York will be given Saint status by the Catholic Church. In addition to Blessed Marianne Cope from Syracuse, New York, the Pope will also be making Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha a saint. The very spot where Kateri was first baptized as a Christian in Fonda, New York is now a shrine and museum.
Just about forty five minutes west of Albany right on Route 5, the Shrine to the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is preparing for their soon-to-be name change. Before October 21, we wanted to be sure that we got a chance to find out more about her story by visiting.
Fonda is Montgomery County and is nestled in the Mohawk Valley, which is named for the Native American tribe that once called the region home. Kateri was a member of the tribe, and born just a few miles east of Fonda, in what is now called Auriesville. If you’re on a tour of religion in this region, Auriesville should be high on your list because it, too, is a shrine. For more about that spot, checkout our visit here.
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
The story of Kateri Tekakwitha actually does begin with her birthplace, though. During the 1600’s and before the United States was formed, the Mohawk River was the most influential means of travel in the region. The French were attempting to establish themselves in many parts of what is now New York, and even Canada. Missionaries attempted to bridge the cultural gap by providing religious instruction. While the lasting impact of the campaign could probably be considered successful, the timeline wasn’t without its problems–namely, the events that took place in Auriesville.
She was born to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief in the town of Ossernon (now, Auriesville, New York) around the year 1656. Like many native villages overcome by migrating disease, Ossernon was overtaken by smallpox brought by visitors from overseas. Kateri’s mother, father and brother each succumbed to the disease when she was around four years old. While it didn’t take her life, Kateri’s own bout of smallpox did greatly affect her eyesight. She was then given the name “Tekakwitha” which translated in to “she who bumps in to things”. Around the time that Kateri was ten years old, Ossernon was besieged by the French. With no village to remain in, the group migrated west to settle in Caughnawaga, which today is known as Fonda, New York.
Museum and Sanctuary
Upon entering from Route 5, there is a small shed near the parking lot with a candle shrine to Kateri, so don’t miss this. The main, two-story building houses a rustic, of-the-Earth feeling sanctuary for services on the second floor. This is entirely unlike any sanctuary we’ve been in. There are woven blankets, hand-carved wooden posts, and even snowshoes. Iconography to a few saints are present throughout the naturally lit, peaceful room.
Below the sanctuary is a curated collection of both regional and Native American history. Many of the artifacts on display are common to museum collections like this. Archeological digs that have turned up arrowheads, tobacco pipes, clothing, and eating utensils aren’t that uncommon in our region. What’s particularly unique about the historical collection here is how much of it was found right on the property we were walking. Letters and even land deeds dating as far back as the 1600’s on are in clear view for visitors.
Next to this main building, there is also a small gift shop with lots of rosaries, t-shirts, coffee mugs and other commonly found items in shrine gift shops. But, in addition, there are handmade goods from locals whose lineage can be traced back to the Mohawk tribe.
(*If you’re curious about the other building, it’s a home to the priest and monks who stay on site.)
Having already spent time in the company of the Jesuits, Kateri had become familiarized with the story of Jesus Christ and the concept of Christianity. It is written that around the age of 20, she expressed her desire to be officially baptized. On Easter Sunday of 1676, she was baptized by a visiting Jesuit priest named Jacque de Lamberville. At that time, she was given the Christian name of Catherine.
At the rear of the parking lot behind the gift shop you will discover a trail head ascending on a footpath leading in to the woods. A short, half mile walk will bring you to a roadway and then a clearing with signage depicting the former village of Caughnawaga. To the right, you’ll discover another a trail head that descends only a quarter mile or so to a natural spring. The very spring that Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was baptized on that Easter Sunday.
(*Note. You can drive nearer to the trailhead for the spring, but I strongly recommend walking and taking in the feeling of being in the very woods where Kateri once lived.)
Regardless of your interest in the ideas behind the religious beliefs that this site fuels, the shrine is an absolutely wonderful stop. The implications for the region’s history, and now the world’s history as she becomes St. Kateri, make visiting a must for any New York explorer!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com