“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
— Tertullian, Apologeticus
From death, God brings forth new life. The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, is a perfect example of this. Here, in the once-Mohawk village of Ossernenon, the first martyrs in North America were killed. Just a few years later, in the very same village, the first Native American to be canonized was born.
Coincidence? I think not.
About 200 years after St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, died (she was canonized in 2012), the first pilgrimage to this site took place, on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Aug. 15, 1885. About 4,000 people gathered on a mere 10 acres to give thanks for the North American martyrs. Today the shrine encompasses about 400 acres of land and includes a variety of opportunities for pilgrims to learn about these amazing men and the woman whose lives and deaths helped ensure the growth of the Catholic Church in the New World.
Entering the shrine grounds, pilgrims first encounter three crosses, each bearing the name of three North American martyrs: Jesuit Father Isaac Jogues and his lay companions, René Goupil and Jean de Lalande. These brave men came to the New World from France to minister to the Native American tribes in what is today’s Canada and upstate New York. The Mohawks greatly distrusted the “Blackrobes,” as they called the Jesuit missionaries, so they captured them and brought them to Ossernenon. The men were tortured repeatedly, enslaved, and eventually killed. During their few moments of freedom, they would climb the hill behind the village, which they named the Hill of Prayer, and pray the Rosary. Today pilgrims still climb this hill and pray the Rosary alongside a beautiful statue of Jesus’ crucifixion, with the Virgin Mary, St. John, and St. Mary Magdalene below.
Nearby, a winding path among the elm, maple, and pine trees takes pilgrims to some of the country’s holiest ground — a natural reliquary in a ravine that contains the relics of a martyr. On Sept. 29, 1642, as Father Jogues and Goupil walked back to the village from the Hill of Prayer, they were beset upon by a group of Mohawks who killed Goupil for blessing a young Mohawk boy. They threw his body into a ravine, and while Father Jogues believed himself to be next, they inexplicably let him live. By the time he could bury what was left of Goupil’s body, there were only bones. Father Jogues was lonely without his companion, and he often carved crosses into the sides of trees with the name of Jesus below to bring him solace and bless the area. One day his hope and sense of purpose was strengthened when he had a vision of a golden city, which he knew was Ossernenon, with thousands of praying people coming and going.
As he suspected, he, too, was eventually killed by the Mohawks, but his vision of a shrine also proved to be true. Today pilgrims walk the path down to the ravine, reading signs along the way that bear the words of Father Jogues’ eyewitness account of Goupil’s cruel martyrdom.
Pilgrims pass one of many small shrines and statues that dot the area. Dedicated to Santa Maria della Strada (Our Lady of the Way), this devotion was held dear by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. At the base of the hill is the oldest shrine on the grounds, dedicated to Our Lady of Martyrs. Other statues depict St. Ignatius, St. René Goupil in the act of blessing the Mohawk boy, St. Isaac carving a cross into a tree, the dead Jesus, as he might be seen in the sepulchre, and many others. A statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha stands where it is believed she was born, while statues of Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus all remind pilgrims that heaven is not deaf to our concerns.
There are two places to pray the Stations of the Cross, commemorating Jesus’ walk from his condemnation to his death and removal from the cross. One accompanies pilgrims as they walk up the Hill of Prayer. The second can be done by car. A rustic crucifix set atop a platform honors the spot where the Mohawks tortured St. Isaac and his companions. A rosary made of stones was crafted by a 13-year-old Huron girl, who was captured by the Mohawks along with the three saintly men. The Seven Sorrows of Mary are illustrated in mosaics placed along the perimeters of the original Mohawk village.
While smaller Masses are celebrated in the outdoor shrines, larger Masses, like the one celebrating the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, take place inside of the Coliseum. This massive circular building was built in 1930 and evokes Rome’s Coliseum, where so many early martyrs died for their faith. The building is rife with symbolism: the 72 doors recall the 72 disciples sent out by Jesus in Luke 10:1; the 12 aisles evoke the disciples; and the triple windows, the Trinity. Each pew bears the motto of the Jesuits: AMDG—Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the Greater Glory of God). Statues of the eight North American martyrs adorn the exterior walls, Sts. Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, and Jean de Lalande face west and south, while their Jesuit brothers who were martyred in Canada â¯ Sts. Antoine Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Noël Chabanel, Charles Garnier, and Gabriel Lalemant â¯ face northward.
The property also includes a museum featuring a history of the shrine in artifacts, artwork, and media. The Visitors Center provides a gift shop and café, as well as a new gallery featuring the art of sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz, who is creating two original sculptures for the shrine. His statue of Our Lady of Martyrs will be 15-feet tall and will show the Blessed Mother standing on a globe, angels handing her the palm leaves, symbolic of martyrdom. Sts. Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, and Jean de Lalande stand above her, their arms raised in triumph, similar to Jesus’ arms on the cross above their heads.
There is no dearth of things to do or see at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, but learning about the heroic and selfless lives of Sts. Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, Jean de Lalande, and Kateri Tekakwitha would make a trip to the wilderness worthwhile. Fortunately there’s so much more here. While St. Isaac Jogues’ vision of a golden city isn’t quite there yet, won’t you consider being one of the praying pilgrims he envisioned? A visit to this sylvan slice of heaven is worth the trip.
For more information about the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, visit MartyrShrine.org. To learn more about the North American Martyrs, check out Saints of the American Wilderness: The Brave Lives and Holy Deaths of the Eight North American Martyrs (Sophia Institute Press, 2004). To learn more about St. Kateri Tekakwitha, check out Lily of the Mohawks: The Story of St. Kateri (Servant Books, 2013). Other sacred sites near this shrine include the National Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda, New York where she was baptized; the Historic St. Mary’s Church on Capitol Hill in Albany, New York, and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, New York.
Learn more about making pilgrimages close to home and find more sacred sites like this one here.