An American Lourdes, by H Clifford Wilbur

Article

Although Americans, of all creeds are familiar with the history of the beautiful Mohawk valley, many Protestants of this country are not aware of the existence of a pilgrim shrine in the very heart of the historic vale. Yet for more than two hundred years Catholics of America and Canada have visited this spot, where the zealous Jesuit missionary, Isaac Jogues, suffered torture and death at the hands of the savage Mohawks, and where the shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs stands to commemorate his work among the Indians and his martyrdom for the Faith. To the thousands of Catholics who from far and near to worship at this shrine and visit the holy stream whose waters are said to possess healing power, the quaint little town of Auriesville, New York, has become the Lourdes of America. Each year, during the summer months, when the pilgrimages are in progress, throngs of penitents and tourists, attracted by the history of the shrine and the beauty of the surroundings, visit the little village. Many wonderful cures are said to have been wrought here, and many instances of divine favor to pilgrims have been recorded.

The name of Isaac Jogues is graven deep in the history of the Empire State, and the strenuous efforts now being made by the Jesuits of America for the canonization of Jogues are followed with keen interest by Protestants and Catholics alike. The pilgrimages during the past year have been, consequently, unusually large; and should the Holy See grant the request and give the state of New York a saint of its own, Auriesville may some day become the Mecca of American pilgrims.

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The beautiful valley of the Mohawk is famous for its historical associations and Indian lore, and the history of this American Lourdes is as picturesque as its environment. It dates back to that early time when the Mohawk held undisputed sway in the valley which today bears his name, and his tribe dotted the ground up on which the shrine now stands. On the site of the village of Auriesville was the Indian settlement of Ossernenon, one of the largest of the Mohawk villages and a favorite gathering place of the tribe. Those were troubled times. The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now New York and the settlement of Van Rennsalaerwyk, now the city of Albany, were struggling on, while trading posts marked the sites where today stand the cities of Schenectady and Amsterdam. The French, through the Jesuits, had established missions among the Hurons and were pushing steadily southward among the Mohawks and Iroquois, but the Mohawks, averse to white men and Christianity, hunted down missionaries and converts with relentless vigor.

It was in the summer of 1642 that Father Jogues, then stationed at the French post at Quebec, undertook to carry supplies to a mission among the Hurons. Accompanying Jogues on his journey was Rene Goupil, a young helper at the Canadian mission. Both Jogues and Goupil had spent many years among the Indians of Canada, and amid the greatest hardships had worked zealously for their religion. Yet all the sufferings they had endured were as nothing to those they underwent on that memorable journey down the Saint Lawrence River. The Iroquois and Mohawks were on the war-path; the missionaries were surrounded and captured by Mohawks and carried by way of the lakes, now Lake George and Lake Champlain, to the Indian village of Ossernenon. Of the horror of that march Jogues gives but a faint idea in his account of the capture, and how these men of civilized France lived through the terrible punishment administered by the Mohawks at this time is a marvel. It took three days to reach Ossernenon. Torn and bleeding from the cruel blows, tottering and bent under the heavy burdens they were compelled to carry, the missionaries struggled on. At one Iroquois village, after the captives had been made to run the gauntlet, the Indians cut the end of each forefinger from Jogues’ hands. At another, the priest was dragged to a fire and compelled to hold one of his fingers in the flame until it had partly burned away; another finger was crushed to a pulp. Yet their courage never failed, and even the Indians marvelled at the bravery of their white captives. When Ossernenon was reached, the whole tribe joined in the celebration. Between rows of cruel savages the missionaries staggered up the hill leading to the Indian village, buffeted this way and that by the blows of their persecutors. At the entrance to the village Goupil fell, exhausted with pain, and Jogues, his great heart pitiful for his frail companion, lifted him and carried him inside the palisades.

For weeks Jogues and Goupil dwelt in captivity, suffering inconceivable tortures, but in spite of their fearful torments they contrived by cutting the sign of the cross on the bark of trees, to keep it ever before the eyes of the people of the tribe. For his skill in medicine young Goupil was particularly feared and hated. While at prayers one night he was tomahawked, and his body was thrown to the dogs. Risking his life to give his companion Christian burial, Jogues carried the mangled remains to a ravine a little west of the village and secreted them under a large rock in a little brook, and later, under the cover of darkness, he buried the body on the bank of the brook, which today is the holy stream of Auriesville. For thirteen dreary months Jogues was a captive among the Mohawks. During that time he learned the language of the tribe, and in spite of the tortures labored zealously for souls. In the autumn of 1643, he made his escape, and after a perilous journey reached the Dutch settlement of Van Rennsalaerwyk. The Dutch had made overtures for the release of the missionaries, but to no avail, and the Mohawks, enraged at the loss of their captive, demanded from them a heavy ransom. To prevent a massacre of the colony and the surrounding trading posts, it was paid.

By Christmas of that year, Jogues was in France, where he was treated with great honor by Church and Court. The queen regent. Anne of Austria, person ally summoned him to Paris, and, it is said, wept bitterly over his maimed hands. The missionary’s stay in France was of short duration, however, for, longing to establish a mission among the intractable Mohawks, he returned to Montreal, and in the year 1646 under took to conclude the peace treaty talked of between the whites and the savages.

Accompanied by a member of the French post and several Indian allies, Father Jogues set out for Ossernenon, where the council was to be held. The return of the intrepid, priest to the scene of his former sufferings was signalized by much pomp and ceremony, and protestations of friendship from the leaders of the tribe, who had seemingly forgotten the wrongs they had inflicted upon him. After the treaty had been successfully concluded, Jogues expressed a desire to remain and establish a mission in the settlement, but the Mohawks, fearing war with one of the upper nations, urged his departure, so he bade farewell to the tribe and returned to Montreal. He was determined, how ever, to establish missions among the Mohawks; and in September of the same year, accompanied by an adventurous young Frenchman, Jean de la Lande, he set out on his third journey to Ossernenon. When within a few leagues of the settlement, they were surrounded by treacherous Mohawks, and again the brave missionary entered the palisades of Ossernenon, a prisoner. For days, Jogues and de la Lande were horribly tortured. Then, on the morning of October 18. two years after the massacre of Rene Goupil, they were put to death, their bodies thrown into the Mohawk River, and their heads placed upon the stockade.

Until the destruction of the Mohawk villages by the French, in 1656, many other missionaries were put to death in the village of Ossernenon. The French were determined to push southward, and the zeal of the Jesuits, sent to pave the way by establishing missions among the tribes, did not flag in the face of the fiercest opposition. The Mohawks invariably received the missionaries with fair words and pleasant promises; but fearful tortures and death were sure to follow, and the village of Ossernenon, from its bloody history, came to be known as the “Mission of the Martyrs.”

It was held by the French as a mission from 1656 to 1684, when the Mohawk missions were abandoned, owing to the war between the French and English, and the blood-stained little mission in Ossernenon was closed forever.

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To perpetuate the memories of the brave men who perished in Ossernenon, a shrine was erected two hundred years later upon the site of the Indian village of Ossernenon under the name of Our Lady of Martyrs. The hill upon which it stands embraces nearly the whole site of the old Indian village, and is reached by a winding, willow-bordered road called the Hill of Prayer, up which Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil marched one bright August day in 1642, between rows of savage Mohawks who thirsted for their blood. On the spot where the youthful Goupil fell stands a memorial cross on which is written a history of the shrine. On this cross, also, is a tribute to the memory of Kateri Tekakwitha, the Iroquois maiden, born in the year 1656 in an village, now the town of Fonda. She eagerly embraced the Catholic faith, and for this was cruelly persecuted by the Mohawks. Because of her angelic purity and holiness she was called the “Lily of the Mohawks,” and as such she is commemorated at the shrine. During her captivity in Ossernenon, she escaped and fled to Canada, where she spent the remainder of her life.

On the brow of the hill, its gilt cross showing far down the valley, is the shrine itself. Near it is the chapel, a pretty, rustic structure, where Mass is said and the Sacraments administered to the pilgrims. In the chapel are the votive offerings, the most beautiful and costly of which are a golden crown of thorns and a gold chalice. The crown of thorns, which is modeled after that with which the artist, de Fleury, crowned his head of Christ, is thickly studded with precious stones, the offerings of grateful pilgrims. The chalice, which contains thirty ounces of pure gold, is a magnificent piece of work. About the cup is a band of seraph heads, surmounted by a row of diamonds, with a row of pearls underneath. Precious stones adorn the stem, and the base is profusely covered with sapphires, diamonds, emeralds and garnets.

In a little log house, once a chapel, is a valuable collection of Indian relics. This is of especial interest to the visitor, as most of the curios are associated with the history of the valley, and have been collected around Auriesville. Near this building are the cottages of the Jesuit fathers in charge of the shrine.

One of the most interesting spots at Auriesville is the ravine, a secluded, pine-shaded glade, where Jogues hid the body of Rene Goupil in a little brook, under a large rock, before burying it on the bank of the stream. To this ravine the pilgrim repairs to bathe his brow, in the form of a cross, with the limpid waters of this holy stream; for tradition says that the bones of the saintly young martyr imparted healing powers to these waters. Here one sees the maimed, the halt and the blind, kneeling in fervent prayer beside the stream, beseeching heaven that they may be healed of their afflictions. The scenes attending the pilgrimages, indeed, are most impressive. Out in the open, the processions of devout pilgrims, led by black-robed priests, making the stations of the cross and chanting the plaintive strains of the “Stabat Mater;” at the shrine, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin; the prostrate penitents at the Calvary; the tragic figures in the gloomy ravine; while everywhere are the faithful saying the rosary.

The location of the shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs is especially reposeful and conducive to spiritual meditation, and looking from the shrine over the quiet vale today, it is hard to realize that here men suffered lingering torture and cruel death; for the beautiful valley, with its placid vista of wooded hills, gently sloping fields and graceful stretch of river, is today a veritable valley of peace.

MLA Citation

  • The Rosary Magazine, March 1905. CatholicSaints.Info. 20 April 2018. Web. 25 September 2018. <>