Just a few miles east on Route 5 from Fonda, NY where the Shrine to Kateri Tekakwitha is, you’ll find another pretty amazing shrine. Auriesville, NY is located 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 is burdened with civilization displacement, religious missionaries, bloodshed and an overall general misunderstanding among cultures. I had already spent the morning in Fonda, and had previously learned part of the story of the Martyrs shrine, but was unprepared for how large the grounds were. With all the places we’ve been thus far on our journey, this was by far the largest and has one of the oldest histories of Catholic importance in the region. In fact, it has even been called ‘the holiest ground in America’ and it is believed that these very grounds are the birthplace of Catholicism in New York State.
Route 5 is one of the very cool surface highways of NY that runs parallel just a few miles from Interstate 90 and in this particular stretch it also runs along the Mohawk River. On the east side of Auriesville right off Route 5s, you’ll come upon a street that turns south and heads uphill toward the shrine property. 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 and the remnants of a stone wall remain as if they once welcomed visitors.
After snagging some photos I drove to the top of the hill to the visitor center which is 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 and a small snack shop looking out a wall of 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.
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), brought them back to Osserenon, tortured them for days on end and made them 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 and was brutally murdered for his teachings on September 29, 1642. Goupil was 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 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 and it’s the oldest statue on the property. Running through the ravine is a small creek and just on the other side of the creek 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 in the ravine 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 that had seen some of the most gruesome and important Catholic history in the entire country. The entire rest of the shrine 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.
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 what to do, but one in particular wasn’t very interested in hearing his message of peace, and 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 these three men.
On the east side of the road the first thing you’ll see is three large crosses welcoming you to the shrine, each cross bearing 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 a few other saints whose presence is represented on the property. The Shrine to Kateri Tekakwitha is a few miles west in Fonda, NY 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 this 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, who would later become the first Native American to be baptized, and then would later be canonized. (October 21, 2012).
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, and it’s obvious why the Mohawks chose that area for Osserenon. Though there’s plenty of indication that the roadways and bridges are modern, it’s easy to look at the ‘big picture’ and take in a horizon that is awe-inspiring. Though the view has beauty and grace, it also certainly served the function of being able to see enemies 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 by the size and where to start. The interior of the church lays beneath a three-tiered roof that represents the Holy Trinity, and the symbolism continues with nearly every item inside. 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 and 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 see and learn about: relics.
After driving around a bit more, including driving through the esplanade just east of the shrine, and spending a few hours walking through the scorching sun, we had seen everything between Fonda and Auriesville, 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.
Sources and Additional Reading
Auriesville Shrine website
*This post originally appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com