A discovery of the Auriesville shrine and the birthplace of Catholicism in New York State
by Chris Clemens
Just a few miles east of the Shrine to Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, you’ll find another pretty important shrine. Auriesville is in the Mohawk Valley region of Upstate and is home to the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs.
It’s a Roman Catholic homage to a history that burdened with civilization displacement, religious missionaries, bloodshed and a general misunderstanding among cultures. I had already spent the morning in Fonda, and had previously learned part of the story of the Martyrs shrine. Even still, I was unprepared for how large the grounds were. With all the places we’ve been thus far, Auriesville is the largest and has one of the oldest histories of Catholicism in our region.
Auriesville has even been called ‘the holiest ground in America’. It is believed that these very grounds are the birthplace of Catholicism in New York State.
Approaching The Grounds
Route 5 is one of the cool surface highways of NY that runs parallel just a few miles from Interstate 90. In this particular stretch it also happens to run along the Mohawk River. On the east side of Auriesville right off Route 5s, you’ll come upon a street heading uphill toward the shrine. On each side of County Road 164 there are ominous stone remains of a former entrance to the castle that once existed on the hill.
(Remember: the term ‘castle’ is really just the closest translation from Native American language that we can get. It really is more of a ‘village’ and I’ll use that term from here on.) Statues of the martyrs stand atop mountains of river rocks and look out into the Mohawk Valley. Behind them, the remnants of a stone wall remain as if they once welcomed visitors–or kept them out.
After snagging some photos I drove up to the visitor center which on the west side of County Road 164. The visitor center very much has an American-side-of-Niagara-Falls-gift shop feel to it. It has every imaginable Catholic item you could think of from keychains to Bibles, statues, sweatshirts, Saint medallions and books.
There are rows and rows of tables available for eating to accommodate the bus loads of people on pilgrimage. A small snack shop looks out from a wall to two story high windows that overlook the valley. Most importantly, it also has maps available of the entire shrine so we grabbed one and got on our way.
Ossernon Becomes Auriesville
In the early 1600’s this spot was actually called Osserenon and was home to a Mohawk Tribe. The area was later named Auriesville, and takes its name from the last living member of Osserenon.
In 1642, members of the Mohawk tribe captured a number of people from New France (Canada). From there, the captured were brought back to Osserenon. It’s said that they were tortured for days on end and made to be slaves.
Among those captured were Rene Goupil and Fr. Isaac Jogues. Goupil had previously been a surgeon and later a lay Jesuit missionary. While enslaved by the native tribe, he took vows with Fr. Isaac Jogues. Not long after taking his vows, he was caught teaching the sign of the cross to the native children. On September 29, 1642, he was brutally murdered for attempting to teach Christianity to the Mohawk children. Goupil was then buried in a nearby ravine and that was the first stop on our tour.
We walked down the ravine path and immediately felt a strong sense of a peaceful energy and reverence. There was no one else around so there was a sense of solitude and peace. We quietly stepped through the ravine while we went to the different ‘stations’ listed on the tour.
There is a pergola with an Our Lady of Martyrs statue for which the shrine is named. As this ravine is sacred, this statue is the oldest on the property.
Running through the ravine is a small creek and just on the other side is a sepulcher with a statue of a crucified Christ–you owe it to yourself to find this.
The ravine is home to relics of Rene Goupil, who later would become the very first martyred Saint of North America. Multiple statues and crosses and a grotto can be visited as well. I didn’t notice it at first, but nearly every tree in the ravine had a cross nailed to it (this isn’t mentioned anywhere in the tour notes or map so it made us curious).
This part of the tour is easily accessible, but I’d say probably not wheelchair or handicapped accessible. It’s not a difficult walk, but it is definitely down a dirt path into a ravine. This was probably one of my two favorite spots on the entire property because of its peace, and the majesty of being surrounded by a forest. In contrast, it that had seen some of the most gruesome and important Catholic history in the entire country.
The entire rest of the shrine property resides on the hilltop that once was Osserenon, and the other side of County Road 164, so we walked back up the ravine and began to explore the rest of the property.
The Second Martyr At Auriesville
After Saint Rene Goupil was buried, Fr. Isaac Jogues escaped captivity and returned to his homeland of France.
Just a couple years later, accompanied by a young lay brother by the name of Jean de LaLande, Fr. Isaac Jogues returned to Osserenon on a mission to make peace with the tribe. The Mohawk clans were divided on how to respond, but one in particular wasn’t very interested in hearing his message of peace. Both Fr. Isaac and LaLande were beheaded on October 18, 1646.
They would both later be canonized and the Shrine to the North American Martyrs would ultimately be constructed in honor of all three men.
Touring The Grounds
On the east side of the road you’ll find three large crosses welcoming you to the shrine. Each cross bears the name of one of the three North American martyrs.
Just next to the three crosses is a candle chapel that was built in 2007. From here there are paved paths that meander the park-like setting and ultimately lead to the shrine itself.
On the way to the shrine, you’ll pass a chapel that was built in 1885, numerous statues in a range of conditions, a path with the stations of the cross, a grotto, The Seven Sorrows of Mary (which also indicates the former border of the Osserenon village), a pieta (which is in dire need of repair–in fact, we were worried about standing under it because it looks like it could tumble at any minute) and numerous gardens and crosses, and a Martyrs and Kateri Chapel.
Though the Shrine of Our North American Martyrs was constructed in honor of Goupil, LaLande and Jogues, there are other saints represented too. The Shrine to Kateri Tekakwitha is a few miles west in Fonda where she was baptized, but it was here in Osserenon that she was born.
About ten years after the torturous murders of Jogues and LaLande, the village of Osserenon was taken over by the missionaries under rule of a punitive expedition intended to right the previous wrongs set forth by the natives on the mission’s brethren. It was during that time that Kateri was born, and though the mission was later destroyed in 1684, it would already have made a strong impact in a number of the native women–most importantly Kateri.
She would later become the first Native American to be baptized, and then would later be canonized on October 21, 2012.
Inside The Shrine
The final destination on the property is the coliseum church that was built in 1930. It’s surrounded by gardens on the south side, but the north side is home to one spectacular view of the Mohawk Valley and River. Standing there and looking out over the valley, it was obvious why the Mohawks chose that spot for Osserenon.
Though there’s plenty of indication that the roadways and bridges are modern, it’s easy to take in a gorgeous natural horizon. Though the view has beauty and grace, it also served the function of security. From this vantage, enemies could be seen approaching even when they were miles away. The edge of the hill is lined with a few other statues and a rosary, one of which is in honor of Our Lady of Fatima.
If you’re wondering, this was the second of my two favorite spots.
The coliseum church was built to accommodate 10,000 people, and it feels cavernous when it’s empty. We walked in one of the 72 doors (representing each of the 72 disciples) and immediately felt overwhelmed. The sheer magnitude and expanse of the space was a surprise.
The interior of the church lays beneath a three-tiered roof representing the Holy Trinity, and the symbolism doesn’t stop there.
Twelve seating areas are separated by twelve aisles representing each of the twelve Apostles. Steel columns support the roof representing the trees in the forest that Saint Isaac Jogues had carved the word “JESUS” into around the property.
In the center rests four altars, intended to represent the palisades that surrounded the village. There are numerous carved wooden statues, murals, photos and, one of my personal favorite things to visit: relics.
Preparing To Depart
After exploring a bit more, we had seen everything between Fonda and Auriesville. Between both shrines, there were a lot of things for us to reflect on.
The secular history alone is monumental to think about along with the displacement of a native civilization, the bloody clash of culture and religion, the first touchdown of Catholic beliefs in New York State and the story that led to the first three martyred saints of North America (there are now eight total).
I had seen and learned a ton while spending the day visiting the two shrines. But it was time to get back on the road to home. A three hour drive isn’t nearly enough to mentally process the history we walked through that day.
If you’re at all interested in what we do on this blog and ever want to explore places yourself, the Shrine to the North American Martyrs needs to be top on your list.
*This post originally appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens