“Nature’s Own Reliquary” 

Have you ever imagined that a person could stand inside a martyr’s reliquary? This summer I did, and you can, too, at least as long as a courageous group of Catholic lay people are able to keep Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine at Auriesville, NY, open.

This shrine, which is the location of the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs and birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, was established by Jesuits in 1885, and was a great pilgrimage site through much of the twentieth century. However, with the decline in the practice of pilgrimage in recent decades, the Jesuits struggled to maintain the shrine, and in 2015 handed it over to a newly organized non-profit called The Friends of Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine, Inc., the board of which is chaired by the Most Rev’d Edward Scharfenberger, Bishop of Albany.

Bishop Scharfenberger has declared his hope that the restored shrine will become a center of the new evangelization. However, the Diocese of Albany is not supporting the shrine financially. Therefore, it is up to concerned Catholics everywhere to begin to make pilgrimages and generous donations to this blessed site.

Pope Pius XII called this shrine “nature’s reliquary—the verdant hill that slopes up from the quiet easy-flowing river of the Mohawks.” At the top of that verdant hill, there is now a shady, grassy square marked by exquisite mosaics of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, much in need of repair, which was the location of the Mohawk town of Ossernenon in the seventeenth century.

To this town, in the summer of 1642, Mohawk warriors brought two captive Jesuits and several captive Christian Hurons, including a girl baptized Thérèse. The captives had already been badly tortured at the place of their capture, and on an island in Lake Champlain, where the Mohawk warband had stopped at a large encampment of confederated Iroquois warriors. They faced further torture at Ossernenon and neighboring towns, until it was decided to execute the notable Christian Hurons, but to enslave the others along with the Jesuits. Aside from administering savage beatings, cuttings, and burnings with coals, the natives had ripped out the prisoners’ fingernails with their teeth, and had gnawed the captives’ fingers almost to stumps. As leader, Fr. Jogues was treated worst of all, and his left thumb was sawn off with a clam-shell.

Even as slaves, Fr. Isaac Jogues and René Goupil, a donné or lay apostle, whom Jogues had just admitted to the order, preached and healed and baptized as much as they could. However, Goupil was seen signing an Indian child with the sign of the Cross by the child’s grandfather, who suspected Goupil of sorcery.

On the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, while Fr. Jogues and Goupil were walking outside the palisade of the town saying their Rosary together, two young braves, incited by the suspicious grandfather, approached them. One drew a tomahawk from beneath his blanket, and split Goupil’s skull. Jogues quickly knelt beside Goupil to give him absolution, and heard his last words, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” Jogues was hurried inside the town by the assassins, and Goupil’s corpse was dragged to the head of a ravine about 300 yards from the southwest corner of the palisade, where, one surmises, the refuse of the town was usually dumped to be eaten by animals and washed away by the stream, which is exactly what happened to the body of St. René—we may call him that now.

During the next few days, Jogues made heroic attempts to recover and bury the body of St. René, but without success. The following spring, however, Jogues recovered St. René’s skull with some other bones and hid them in a hollow tree somewhere in the ravine. They were never rediscovered, but it is believed they remain in the ravine today.

During his captivity, despite the heavy toil of servitude, Jogues began to make converts. Also, an old woman who had lost her son adopted the Jesuit, and took him into her longhouse.

Fr. Jogues escaped from the Mohawks with the help of Dutch Protestants in 1643, and arrived in New Amsterdam late that year. Early the next, he reached France, where not even his confrères recognized him. In 1644 he returned to New France, and was chosen to go back to Ossernenon to ratify a peace treaty in the early spring of 1646. There he saw and ministered to the Huron slave Thérèse, and, as he expected to come back, he left a box of Mass vestments with his adoptive aunt.

On September 24, Fr. Jogues started back to Ossernenon with the donné Jean de la Lande. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Ossernenon had been suffering from starvation and disease, and members of the Bear Clan blamed Fr. Jogues’s box, thinking it contained evil spells. On October 17, warriors of the clan accosted the two Jesuits on their way to Ossernenon, stripped and tortured them, and haled them into the town to face further torture and execution.

However, Fr. Jogues’s adoptive aunt invoked her tribal right to take him and his companion to her longhouse, and temporarily saved the two Frenchmen. In council, the elders of the Wolf Clan and the Turtle Clan, the clan into which St. Kateri would be born, outvoted the Bear Clan, wishing to keep the Jesuits alive in order to remain faithful to the treaty with the French.

Nonetheless, on October 18, Fr. Jogues received a fraudulent invitation to a feast in a Bear Clan longhouse, and had his brains scattered with a tomahawk as he entered the building. Hours later, searching for St. Isaac’s body, Jean de la Lande was cut down by a hatchet, too. The bodies of St. Isaac and St. Jean were beheaded, the heads stuck up on stakes for display in the center of the town, and the bodies thrown into the “easy-flowing river” below the town.

Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine is, indeed, a vast natural reliquary; but, in particular, the ravine where St. René’s bones lie is, I feel, the locus of the supernatural presence of this saint, and indeed of his brother martyrs, though they were murdered in the town on the hill above. The pilgrim walks down the ravine—down into the reliquary—reading extracts on sign boards from St. Isaac’s account of St. René’s martyrdom. At the bottom of the track, one enters a circular meadow, at the center of which is a shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs containing a lovely “original pietà.” Other shrines and statues lie in the meadow or on the wooded hillsides that surround it.

St. Kateri’s influence, in my opinion, is felt more in the former location of the Mohawk town, where she was born ten years after St. Jean and St. Isaac’s martyrdoms. Several statues of her are found on the grounds, and she is venerated as the Lily of the Mohawks—along with the three martyred Jesuits—in the shrine’s Colliseum, the 6000-seat church built in 1930, the third on the grounds of the shrine. (The Blessed Sacrament is still reserved there.) St. Kateri’s story is much better known now than the Jesuits’, so it is omitted here; but her heroism was as great as theirs, and her faithfulness to Christ under mockery and rejection and torment is particularly relevant for Catholics today.

Nor should we forget the Huron slave-girl Thérèse, who so desired to practice her faith, that she placed stones in the forest floor in the pattern of a Rosary, so that she could walk the stones and pray. That stone Rosary is represented at the shrine, and can still be walked today.

Such is the shrine as I experienced it this summer: going down into the ravine, praying the Rosary before the touching pietà, walking from statute to shrine to chapel there and on the green above, and, when tired, reading about the Jesuit martyrs as I sat in the peaceful, sun-dappled square where bloodthirsty Ossernenon once stood.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs is a deeply holy site, and it will be a holy fountain of the new evangelization, if only Catholics will talk it up, go there on pilgrimage, prayer for its mission, and give their money—and perhaps their volunteer labor—to the brave lay people who have undertaken not only to keep the shrine open, but also to support “the return of priests in residence at the Shrine as soon as possible, … to stimulate vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and to inspire a new generation of Saints!”

What better place for a pilgrimage in our time! God willing, we shall never suffer as the Jesuit martyrs and St. Kateri suffered, but they are golden examples of holy heroism for us, who, if we do not face the physical ferocity of the pagan Mohawks, still face a world as hostile to our Lord Jesus Christ and his Blessed Mother as they did, and who must learn to suffer in it with the same spirit of joy and peace as they had.

Editor’s note: The image above is a mosaic of St. Isaac Jogues, St.Thérèse and St. René Goupil in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. (Photo credit: Andrew Balet)

Richard Upsher Smith, Jr.

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Richard Upsher Smith, Jr., teaches in the Department of Classics and in the Honors Program at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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