THE SHRINE GROUNDS (EMILY BENSON PHOTO)
THE SHRINE GROUNDS (EMILY BENSON PHOTO)
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This year, the St. Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine in Fonda celebrates a historic milestone: its 80th anniversary.

The shrine and the historic site on which it sits are dedicated to St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk woman born in Ossernenon, or present-day Auriesville. St. Kateri faced tremendous persecution from her fellow villagers after deciding to convert to Catholicism.

Her heroism in the face of multiple struggles — including the loss of her family to smallpox as a child; facial scarring from that disease, which also damaged her eyesight; and rejection from her community — has made St. Kateri one of the most beloved religious women in Catholicism. She is the first Native American saint.

“I discovered St. Kateri when I was 13,” said Rita Gullion, director of the Fonda shrine. “I was always fascinated by Native American culture and I always liked her.”

Since 1938, the area of Caughnawaga (also spelled Kahnawake) near the village of Fonda has been marked as the Fonda Memorial of Catherine Tekakwitha. (“Catherine” is the English version of Tekakwitha’s name.) The shrine itself sits on the land where St. Kateri lived for a decade.

Big discovery

In 1950, Rev. Thomas Grassman, OFM Conv., a Franciscan friar and founder of the shrine, discovered the Indian village site on the grounds of the St. Kateri’s shrine. Father Grassman and a group of volunteers spent the next seven years excavating the site, discovering the remains of 12 longhouses and a stockade.

St. Kateri herself was baptized on the site where the shrine now stands and spent the final years of her faith-filled life in Canada, dying of tuberculosis at just 24 years old. The Fonda shrine became “official” in 1980, when then-Pope John Paul II declared St. Kateri “Blessed.”

The maiden known as the “Lily of the Mohawks” was canonized in 2012 and is considered a patron saint of peace and ecology.

Today, the shrine is still a place of peace and discovery for people of all faiths and backgrounds. There is a strong Native American presence, with a “Native American and First Nations Weekend” scheduled for Oct. 6-7, and an annual conference on peace and justice issues. That conference will be held Aug. 18 with the theme, “The fierce urgency of the now.”

Residents of the Albany Diocese and travelers passing through visit the shrine to learn about the history of Native Americans in the area and the powerful life story of St. Kateri. Among the healings attributed to the saint’s intercession is that of Jacob Finkbonner, who survived a flesh-eating bacteria infection; his miraculous recovery led to St. Kateri’s canonization.

Happy to be here

Mrs. Gullion is impressed to see the shrine reach its 80th anniversary.

“One of our mottos is, ‘This is a sacred place of peace and healing; it doesn’t matter what religion you are,’” the director told The Evangelist. “I have people tell me the energy here is different. You feel connected. Everybody seems to have a good experience.”

Rosemary Oldenburg has been coming to the shrine with her husband, Jerry, for the past nine years. The couple lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but their daughter recently bought a home in Saratoga Springs.

“I didn’t think it was that old,” Mrs. Oldenburg remarked when she learned of the shrine’s anniversary. “It’s amazing.”

Mrs. Oldenburg said she began learning about St. Kateri when her daughter decided to take “Kateri” as her confirmation name. A few years ago, the couple drove past the shrine and had to stop to see what it was.

“That’s how it started. Whenever we are in the area we try to stop by. It’s so peaceful,” Mrs. Oldenburg added.

Mrs. Gullion said that visitors are attracted to the shrine for a number of reasons. Its main building, a barn built in 1782, houses the chapel of St. Peter on the second floor and a museum displaying Native American artifacts and information about local Iroquois history on the ground floor. The shrine also offers multiple walking trails perfect for exploring in the summer, as well as a gift shop.

Native ties

Recently, the shrine received a large donation of Native American artifacts from a local family that will be added to the museum in the coming year. Some of the items include arrowheads, tools, pipes and beads.

Mrs. Gullion said that St. Kateri and the shrine offer a local connection to a broader history of Native Americans and Catholic saints.
It can be hard to feel close to a saint who lived thousands of miles away, explained the director, but St. Kateri was born and raised in the Diocese.

“It’s a nice connection with the Native American community and with a local saint that we have here. It’s something local, and easy for people to get to,” she said.

Local schools bring students to the shrine for its historic ties with Native American culture, while religious groups and Catholics make the pilgrimage to the shrine to study St. Kateri’s life.

“To have a Native American woman want to be so fervent for the Lord, it’s inspiring,” Mrs. Oldenburg said.

Ellen Alric, a parishioner of St. Cecilia’s Church in Fonda, volunteers at the shrine doing weekly cleanup. A few years ago, Mrs. Alric moved to Johnstown and began looking for a parish. She found St. Peter’s chapel at the shrine and said that “the space and the calmness just drew me in.”

Now, she calls in her “summer parish.

“It was the peace” that made her stay, she explained. “The calmness and the peace, it’s very special.”

Gala coming

In honor of its 80th anniversary, the shrine will be hosting a gala celebration Oct. 17, 6-9 p.m., at River Stone Manor in Glenville. Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger will be the honoree; the evening will include a silent auction.

Mrs. Gullion is excited about the gala. The proceeds will go toward upkeep of the shrine and the land on which St. Kateri trod, keeping it available for visitors for years to come.

“I think she is still here in spirit and watching over her land,” Mrs. Gullion told The Evangelist. In fact, “I think she guided me here.”

(For more information on the St. Kateri Shrine gala, call 518-853-3646.)