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Catholic Life Features

Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine has historic tale of life and death


(Part five of a five part series on the New York State Eucharistic Congress)

Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville, also known as the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, memorializes the sacrifice of three Jesuit missionaries killed by Mohawk Indians in the 17th century. It is also the birthplace of the first Native American saint. Located three and a half hours east of Buffalo in the Diocese of Albany, the shrine recently hosted the New York State Eucharistic Congress.

Pilgrims are welcomed into the Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville by three crosses bearing the names of the North American Martyrs. (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

The Mohawks were one of five (later six) tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederacy that stretched from the Mohawk Valley to the Seneca villages near present day Buffalo. This fierce alliance was formed to maintain peace among them, to defend against invading Europeans, and to war upon enemy tribes, particularly those in Canada.

Although the goal of the Jesuits was to save souls, they became an integral part of the geo-political-religious turbulence of the time.

While traveling by canoe between the missions in Canada, Father Isaac Jogues, René Goupil and Guillaume Coûture were captured in August 1642 in an Iroquois raid on the St. Lawrence River. They were brought to Auriesville, then called Osserenon, where they survived gruesome torture and enslavement.

Just weeks after being captured, Goupil was killed near the village gates by a tomahawk blow. His blessing of a Mohawk child with the sign of the cross had been interpreted as something evil.

Father Jogues buried his friend in an unmarked grave in the ravine. Walking down the wooded pathway to the clearing, visitors can read in Father Jogues’ own words a description of the murder and burial. The ravine is considered a reliquary since it contains the relics of the martyr.

Father Jogues remained a slave and endured hard labor, starvation and exposure especially during the winter hunts where he served as the “beast of burden” to his captors. Among them, however, was a kindly Mohawk woman who protected him at times from the blows of her tribesmen and begged for his life on more than one occasion.

Whenever he could break free, he found a quiet place, stripped the bark off a tree in the shape of a cross, and knelt and prayed. Pilgrims can see the crosses on the trees on the grounds, placed in memory of his devotion.

His meekness earned him the freedom to minister to other Catholic prisoners in the villages of the Mohawk Valley. He ministered to the sick, performed baptisms, and heard confessions, but he was unable to offer the Holy Mass after his canonical fingers, those the priest uses to handle the consecrated Host, were severed during his torture.

The ravine of Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine has several places of prayer. The ravine is considered a reliquary as René Goupil, SJ, is buried there in an unmarked grave (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

After a year of captivity, Father Jogues escaped with the help of Dutch settlers. The breakout involved a vicious dog bite, a stifling 48 hours hiding in the foul hold of a ship on the Hudson River, and another six weeks in a cramped, sweltering attic. There he barely survived on meager food and poisoned water. He was under constant threat of either being discovered by the Mohawks, who were angry at having lost a prized captive, or of being surrendered to them by the Dutch.

Finally, the Mohawks agreed to a ransom. A Dutch ship took Father Jogues to New Amsterdam (present New York City) where he boarded a ship for France. He arrived on his native soil on Christmas Day 1643. There he received special dispensation from Pope Urban VIII to celebrate Mass without his canonical fingers.

Four years after his initial captivity, Father Jogues was given the role of peace ambassador to the Mohawks, and was welcomed to Ossernenon in June 1646. He was allowed to build a mission at the village that he would name Most Holy Trinity Mission. When he returned to Canada to recruit help and supplies, he left a black box likely containing his personal belongings at Ossernenon.

Back in Canada he met John Lalande, a teenaged lay Jesuit. In spite of Father Jogues’ warnings of the fragile peace, Lalande volunteered to help build the mission. They expected to be welcomed for this second peace mission. Instead, they were bound, beaten and taken captive. The Mohawks blamed a crop pestilence on a demon Father Jogues had left in his black box. 

For this, while inside the palisades of Ossernenon, he and Lalande were killed by tomahawk blows -– Father Jogues on the evening of Oct. 18, and Lalande the following morning. They were then beheaded, and their bodies dragged into the Mohawk River. Although no relics were recovered, the ground of their blood sacrifice is considered a natural reliquary.

Ten years later, on the very ground where the three martyrs of Auriesville shed their blood, Kateri Tekakwitha was born. The daughter of a Catholic Algonquin woman who had likely been captured in Canada and brought to Ossernenon where she married the Mohawk chief.

The ravine of Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine has become a popular pilgrimage site. (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

The humble young Kateri served a new group of Jesuit missionaries with kindness and curiosity. She was attracted to the God of whom they spoke. Over the next several years, she listened to their words, watched their rituals, and saw that they defended the captives being led to the stake.

 She had always been repulsed by torture, so these actions soothed her, and the priests’ celibacy validated her intent to remain unmarried.

Kateri was baptized in 1676 at age 20. Her insistence on celibacy created animosity among her tribesmen. Who would hunt for her and feed her if she would not take a husband? How would the population endure if she refused to have children? 

She endured social and emotional persecution for her convictions and for her love of Jesus and the cross, until her life was threatened. She escaped to a native Christian settlement near Montreal.

She spent her remaining years in prayer, penance, harsh mortifications, and charitable works. After suffering fevers and abdominal pain, she died at age 24 on Wednesday of Holy Week 1680. The facial scarring from the smallpox disappeared upon her death. Apparitions of her were soon reported, as were answered prayers and healings through her intercession.

Kateri was beatified in 1980, and canonized in 2012 as the first Native American saint.


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