As we are now post North American Martyrs Feast Day (Oct 19), I reflect on the close of the 2019 season at Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine.
The amount of work, hospitality, and organization that the limited staff accomplished in yet another season is remarkable in its content and in its quality. I am blessed and grateful to be part of it all, and look forward to 2020.
I am also aware of the ideas germinated but that I was not able to bring to fruition. The golden autumn leaves swirled and tossed to the ground by cold rain and wind could be any of my lost chances at that holy place.
But a satellite perspective and time arch (if there is such a thing) of history shows me that events unfold as they will, and God’s word does not return to Him void (Is. 55:11).
As is prayed as the concluding Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours
(Monday Morning, Week 1):
May everything we do begin with your inspiration
and continue with your saving help.
Let our work always find its origin in you
and through you, reach completion.
One of the Holy Spirit’s inspirations to us in 2019 was to rearrange religious images in the Coliseum to better focus on the Auriesville saints. When completed, the hand of God was wonderfully and personally demonstrated to me at the main altar.
The four altars in the round and inside the Communion rail mark the center of this great round church. The sanctuaries of each had become gathering places for important but incongruent devotions. Each hold a unique and lasting place in the liturgies and prayers of the Church, but they distracted from veneration due the saints specific to this holy ground: Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, John Lalande, and Kateri Tekakwitha.
There is a generous amount of wall space and standing room at the interior brick wall of the Coliseum. Images of Divine Mercy, St. Faustina, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Czestochowa, and oil painting by Virginia Celegski Guyette of Pope St. John Paul II which was commissioned by the Shrine for the Polish Pilgrimage were all moved out of the center sanctuaries and hung on these walls. Statues of St. Kateri, St. Anthony of Padua, Maria della Catena, St. Helen, Christ the King, and the Infant of Prague occupy some of the standing room beside the Confessionals and benefactors’ plaques.
This opened the four center sanctuaries to new artistic representation.
To the right of the main altar is the designated “Martyrs Altar” (more accurately called the “sanctuary”) where two reframed portraits from the Shrine’s Saints of Auriesville Museum now overlook their sanctuary. One is the familiar portrait of St. Isaac Jogues which was fashioned from the original that purportedly belonged to the saint’s niece. The other is a portrait of all eight of the North American Martyrs, reminding pilgrims that our three martyred missionaries were canonized with five other missionaries who were martyred in Ontario. The ebony and ivory reliquary that houses the relics of three of the martyrs is at the Communion rail.
Next is the sanctuary/altar of the namesake of the Shrine: Our Lady of Martyrs. Rather than traditional images of Our Lady that can be found in most Catholic churches, we displayed two photographs of statues of Our Lady of Foy, an image of historical significance here. The original small, carved image of Madonna and Child was found in a niche of a tree in Belgium during the 17th century. Our Lady demonstrated miracles and intercessions when this statuette was venerated. Jesuits replicated it and dispersed them to their many missions; it came to the Mohawk Valley during the 1660s. It is likely that Our Lady of Foy is the first image venerated by the Mohawks, including the young Tekakwitha.
The other framed photo is of a nearly life-sized statue of “Our Lady of Auriesville” located outside the Martyrs Chapel. The marble statue is a variation of Our Lady of Foy with the Baby Jesus, and was commissioned for the Shrine’s 50th Anniversary in 1935.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s sanctuary / altar is graced with two contemporary full-color prints. One is by Joe Izzillo, Esq. of Florida who tells of being cured of psoriasis and depression through Kateri’s intercession. It depicts St Kateri in her natural buckskin dress, and holding a feather which is a common Native American symbol of respect, accomplishment, wisdom, and spirituality. The other is by Scott Foster, Associate Professor for Creative Arts at Siena College in Loudonville, NY. St. Kateri is shown with a simple smile, holding up a cross of sticks as she instructs two Mohawk children inside a longhouse. A new casing for her reliquary is at the Communion rail.
We are now at the main altar/sanctuary where the Blessed Sacrament is present in the Tabernacle and where most Masses are celebrated. At most churches, statues and images of patron saints are usually displayed as part of the rererdos such as paintings, statues, woodcarvings, etc. In the many photographs of our main altar, I have yet to find one where the Auriesville patron saints are represented.
But now they are.
The portrait of St. Kateri is well known as a true likeness of her because the original was painted by Father Claude Chauchetière, S.J., one of her confessors in Canada at the end of her life. The three Jesuit missionaries appear in the famous painting of St. Isaac Jogues with a Bible in one hand and a cross held aloft in the other; he is flanked by St. John Lalande and St. René Goupil.
These trigger memories of a difficult time in my life that would end I knew not when or how.
A few days after St. Kateri’s 2012 canonization and the massive celebration at Auriesville, I was relieved of my position at the Shrine. Downsizing of staff and an uncertain future for the Shrine were cited as reasons. I turned the over-sized key in the lock and walked away from the Saints of Auriesville Museum that was a creation of the saints, Our Lady, and the Lord Jesus through my hands.
This was a crushing disappointment that left me with an understandable sense of loss but, even more so, a sense of unreality. I had believed my ministry at Auriesville to be a late-in-life vocation, one in which God wove the many strands of my eclectic life experiences and failures into redemptive artistry for his glory. How this could be taken away was a baffling question. What I was to do now with my passion and knowledge was just as obscure.
However, I knew it was God who had brought me this far into the saints’ lives and legacy, Shrine history, and a reasonable level of association with both. He would do with me what he willed. It occurred to me that this story was in public domain and open to anyone’s interpretation, including mine as the now “former” pilgrimage and museum director at Auriesville. I would offer presentations in a catechetical light.
I needed visuals: stand-ins for pictures, furs, beads, and artifact I had had at the Shrine. I looked through my personal photographs. And there they were. . .
I had two enlargements made on canvas of the four saints, and began three years of speaking engagements and classes, however estranged I might be from the holy ground itself. My association with it, and with them, continued. And my commitment to make the story known grew stronger.
I was cutting a trail from Auriesville to . . .I knew not where. But I was greeted with fondness along the way, and was blessed with understanding and assistance.
An article about my dismissal appeared on the cover of the local section of the Schenectady Daily Gazette. The next morning at Mass as I received Communion, Father took my hand and said: “I am so sorry.” Those four words whispered over the Eucharist were a great consolation.
Other diocesan priests were wonderfully supportive. One wrote a letter of protest to the Jesuit Provincial (as did many lay Shrine supporters), one gave me temporary employment, and several welcomed me into their parishes for presentations.
A youth conference director added me to his presenters roster. I continued to give classes to Albany Diocese catechists during the annual “Spring Enrichment,” adding the word “former” to my Auriesville title. I was invited to Catholic schools and nursing homes, twice gave day- retreats in the Syracuse Diocese, and participated in the Martyrs of La Florida Conference in Tallahassee.
My EWTN connection began in 2011 with an appearance on Sunday Night Live with Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR, followed by an appearance in James Kelty’s EWTN docudrama Footprints in the Wilderness that same year. One month before I was let go, I was the guest of Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ, on EWTN Live to discuss St. Kateri’s canonization.
I was grateful to that network for continuing to call on me even though I no longer had an Auriesville title. When James Kelty began his next production for EWTN, the movie Kateri, he sought me out for an interview. He included it in the commentary version of the movie which he called Kateri: All for Christ, and simply identified me as “Historian.” Another EWTN appearance followed with Father Andrew Apostoli’s Sunday Night Prime in which we discussed Auriesville as well as my travels to Russia, folding in Our Lady of Fatima’s prophesies.
The most poignant intervention of those three years came during a weekend retreat with the Sisters of Life, some of whom I knew from their pilgrimages to the Shrine. Taking the opportunity for individual counseling, I met with one of the sisters who remembered me from Auriesville. As logically as I tried to review my situation, my emotions were overwhelming and I had to acknowledge my resistance to let go of my anger and loss. I would do so, but first I wanted to regain strength and find new footing.
Sister show me something so obvious, I hadn’t seen it. The Martyrs were witnessing to me that forgiveness is to come not after healing, but must be part of the healing process. They reminded me that forgiveness is ex-cruciating – ‘from the cross,’ or in their case, from the stake. I needed to forgive from and in my pain, not after it had abated. I was surrounded within my own apostolate with that very lesson but was too wounded to see it.
And so forgiveness came. Strength followed, as did a surprising invitation.
There was new staff / management at the Shrine which was being transitioned to new owners. I was invited to, as a volunteer, put the Saints of Auriesville Museum back in order.
It was surreal – turning the over-sized key in the heavy door and walking alone into the familiar fragrance of old wood and history. Before turning on the lights, I sat on the floor in the cool dimness with St. Isaac Jogues and the others, absorbing the quiet and their holiness, surrounded by this work of my hands that they and Jesus and Our Lady of Martyrs had accomplished.
During our 2019 Shrine season, after several years now of employment with the new “Friends of Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine,” came the search for new art for the main altar of the Coliseum.
And there they were. . .
I brought in my two canvases – one of the three Martyrs and one of St. Kateri. They now hang on the palisade rererdos on either side of the Blessed Sacrament, the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus for whom they sacrificed so much in bringing the faith to the New World.
The first Mass celebrated with the portraits in place was followed by Eucharistic Adoration. Adoring Jesus under the appearance of bread, we sense that his glory shines brighter than the gold in which he is enthroned.
I looked at the portraits, a bit obscured through the haze of incense. They had traveled hundreds of miles with me, in and out of my Jeep, setting on easels, standing as colorful backdrops to an extraordinary story that in some ways had become my own.
The trail I began cutting from the Shrine in October 2012 turned out to be a switchback; it ended where it began – on the holy ground of Auriesville.