Take a walk on the quiet side at Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine
It’s summer vacation time and Catholics searching for a spiritual place that’s affordable, enjoyable and not too far from home can be a challenge. For those looking to make a a memorable pilgrimage or find a place of natural beauty and peace to park a camper for a few days of prayerful solitude, look no farther than the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y.
This hidden religious and historical gem is situated on more than 400 acres and is conveniently located within the foothills of the Mohawk Valley, approximately 50 miles east of Utica. The shrine is dedicated to four saints who lived on the grounds: Jesuit missionaries St. René Goupil, (martyred in 1642), St. Isaac Jogues and St. John LaLande, (both martyred in 1646), and St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Native American who was born on the grounds in 1656 and became a saint in 2012.
“This place is really where the seeds that built the Roman Catholic Church were initially planted,” stated Father George H. Belgarde, SJ, director of the Shrine for the past five years. “The Jesuits settled here from ‘New France’ to teach the Native Americans about the Catholic faith. It was here that the shedding of the blood of the martyrs happened. It was here that St. Kateri was born, lived and suffered. People who visit here can actually walk in the footsteps of the saints as well as enjoy the great holy ‘quiet-tude’ that the shrine offers.”
The shrine was opened in 1885 on ten acres of land purchased by Father Loyzance SJ, who erected a small shrine to Our Lady of Martyrs. The area for worship expanded as the faithful learned of the shrine and more land was purchased or donated.
In 1932, the Coliseum Church was built, with seating for up to 10,000 worshipers. “The main feature of the church is its [circular] shape,” explained Father Belgarde. “It was the only round church in the country for a long time. In 1959, we had the church completely filled to capacity when Cardinal Richard Cushing came here to celebrate the Eucharist. And at a Mass celebrating St. Kateri’s canonization [in 2012], there were over 8,000 worshippers at the church.”
The church is filled with symbols of the Catholic faith. It has four altars, each facing a different direction; 72 doors to the church, symbolizing the 72 disciples; 12 aisles to symbolize the 12 apostles; a three-tiered roof to symbolize the Holy Trinity; and eight double doors to symbolize the eight North American Martyrs.
This year, the shrine is celebrating its 130th anniversary. With the help of donations, the only source of income for the shrine, including a $500,000 donation from the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council and $100,000 from its New York State Council, areas within the shrine have undergone repairs and refurbishing. There is also a fundraising campaign underway to help offset the cost of future repairs and refurbishing to various sites throughout the campus.
Joseph (Joey) Caruso, fundraising chairman for the shrine and a member of the Knights of Columbus, stated that the shrine has received donations from 33 foreign countries and 27 states.
“This is a powerful place,” stated Caruso. “I don’t think you can find another place in the world with more saints than Auriesville. This is a place of worship, a holy place. Just witness the people who come here.”
Between 50,000-100,000 people visit the shrine during “shrine season” which runs April through October 21 (the anniversary of the canonization of St. Kateri) although the shrine grounds are open to the public year round. Located at the shrine is the Coliseum Church; the Ravine, one of the most holy sites on the campus and the burial site of St. René Goupil; St. Kateri Chapel; several impressive religious statues including statues of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the order of the Auriesville Martyrs), and a replica of the famous Achtermann sculpture from the Cathedral of Munster, Germany, The Pieta; the Wayside Crucifix, a life-sized crucifix; outdoor Stations of the Cross; several prayer areas and meditation benches to give visitors a chance to rest and pray; and several first, second and third class relics.
“A first class relic was part of the victim, such as a bone,” explains Father Belgarde. “A second class relic is perhaps a piece of cloth that he/she wore and a third class relic is a piece or a fragment that touched a first class relic.”
The shrine also hosts a visitors’ center complete with a museum, a library, a gift shop, restrooms and a snack bar, and a picnic pavilion that acommodates over 100 people.
Although motorized campers are permitted on the property, grills, open flames, tent camping, alcohol beverages, pets or the distribution/sale of literature (religious or secular) is not permitted.
Reaching out to the faithful
Despite its rich history and natural beauty, the shrine has seen a decline in visitors in the past few years and is working hard to bring awareness of the shrine to the public, especially to young Catholics. “I’d like to see younger people become more aware of the shrine and visit,” stated Father Belgarde. “We are advertising and communicating more about the shrine through email and through our website. We want more people to come and experience the spirituality of the shrine. We used to have a lot of bus tours and we used to be a stop on the train, but that time is over and everything is different now. Now there’s radio, television, email and the world is forever becoming different, but there is still a strong need for the spiritual in the world. There is still the need to be quiet and to build a relationship with God. Although we still get bus tours and groups coming, the good news is we also see a lot of private cars and families coming too,” added Father Belgarde.
The shrine did receive a surprise visitor in April. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., arrived unannounced at the shrine, giving hope that the shrine might play host during the pope’s U.S. visit in October. Although a formal invitation to the pope was issued, a stop at the shrine is not scheduled.
Alicia Smolenski, 24, recently visited the shrine with her mother Terry. “I had come here a while ago with a friend and I wanted to bring my mother,” stated Alicia. “It’s a meaningful place and it’s a beautiful place to pray.”
“It’s a very spiritual place,” agreed Father Belgarde. “We keep it alive and free by the Grace of God. Once people come here they can’t help but feel the importance of what has happened here. There is a spiritual experience here. You can feel it.”
For more information on The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, contact (518) 853-3033, ext. 23 or visit martyrshrine.org.
Scroll down to watch video from the shrine by Syracuse Catholic Television.
Celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
Visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville for the Feast Day of St. Kateri and attend Mass at 11 am on Tuesday, July 14, 2015.
Known as the “Lily of the Mohawks” according to the Shrine’s informational brochure, St. Kateri was born in 1656, the daughter of the Chief of the Mohawks. Afflicted with smallpox at the age of four, St. Kateri survived, but was badly scarred on her face and lost her parents and younger brother to the illness. Her Uncle, who was against Christianity, took her in. However, at age 18, St. Kateri decided to dedicate her life to Christ and in secret, received instruction by the Jesuit Fathers. Her life became threatened and she escaped to a Christian Indian mission run by the Jesuits in Canada.
In 1677, St. Kateri made her first communion. She taught prayers to young children and tended to the weak and elderly at the mission. She died on April 17, 1680, just prior to turning 24, and “it was reported that within minutes of her death, the pockmarks [on her face] were gone.”
Additional celebrations at the Shrine include:
Wednesday, July 15th: Diocese of Altoona – Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Saturday, July 18th: Church of the Annunciation – New York, NY
Sunday, July 19th: 4th Mass of Thanksgiving for all Benefactors and Donors – Mass 11am
Thursday, August 6th: Transfiguration of the Lord – Mass 11am
Saturday, August 15th: The Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary – Mass 4pm
Saturday, August 16th: 5th Mass of Thanksgiving for all Benefactors and Donors – Mass 11am
Sunday, August 23rd: Ancient Order of The Hibernians Mass 2pm & Polish Day Albany, NY – Main Celebrant – Bishop Edward Scharfenberger Mass 4pm
Sunday, August 30th: Mohawk International Mass 11am
Monday, September 7th: Labor Day – Mass 11am
Saturday, September 12th: Legion of Mary – New Jersey
Friday, September 18th-20th: Boy Scouts of America 66th Anniversary
Saturday, September 19th: Knights of Columbus Annual Pilgrimage
Sunday, September 23rd: 6th Mass of Appreciation for Benefactors and Donors Mass 11am
Sunday, September 27th: Memorial Mass for the Unborn – 11am
Sunday, October 11th: 7th Mass of Thanksgiving for Benefactors and Donors – Mass 11am
Sunday, October 18th: Martyrs Memorial Mass 11am
Wednesday, October 21st: In Honor of Saint Kateri – Mass 11am