The Coliseum Church at the Shrine for the North American Martyrs. Just in front is the Sacred Garden.
Just a few miles east on Route 5 from Fonda, NY where the Shrine to Kateri Tekakwitha is, you’ll find another pretty amazing shrine. Auriesville, NY is located in the Mohawk Valley region of Upstate NY and is home to the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs. It’s a Roman Catholic homage to a history that is burdened with civilization displacement, religious missionaries, bloodshed and an overall general misunderstanding among cultures. Luke and I had already spent the morning in Fonda, so we had previously learned part of the story of the Martyrs shrine, but I think we both weren’t prepared for how large the grounds were that the shrine exists on. With all the places we’ve been thus far on our journey, this was by far the largest and has one of the oldest histories of Catholic importance in the region. In fact, it has even been called ‘the holiest ground in America’ and it is believed that these very grounds are the birthplace of Catholicism in New York state.
Statue of Saint Isaac Jogues out front of the shrine just about 30 feet back from Route 5S.
Route 5 is one of the very cool surface highways of NY that runs parallel just a few miles from Interstate 90 and in this particular stretch it also runs along the Mohawk River. On the east side of Auriesville right off Route 5S, you’ll come upon a street that turns south and heads uphill toward the shrine property. On each side of County Road 164 there are ominous stone remains of a former entrance to the castle that once existed on the hill. (Remember: the term ‘castle’ is really just the closest translation from Native American language that we can get. It really is more of a ‘village’ and I’ll use that term from here on.) Statues of the martyrs stand atop mountains of river rocks and look out in to the Mohawk Valley and the remnants of a stone wall remain as if they once welcomed visitors.
We snapped some photos and drove to the top of the hill to the visitor center which is on the west side of County Road 164. The visitor center very much has an American-side-of-Niagara-Falls-gift shop feel to it. It has every imaginable Catholic item you could think of from keychains to Bibles, statues, sweatshirts, Saint medallions and books. There are rows and rows of tables available for eating to accomodate the bus loads of people on pilgrimage and a small snack shop looking out a wall of two story high windows that overlook the valley. Most importantly, it also has maps available of the entire shrine so we grabbed one and got on our way.
View of Wat Pa Lao Buddhadham from Martin Rd.
If you’ve driven through the lands that are Rush, NY you have seen plenty of wide open pastures and farmlands dotted with occasional homes, farms, parks and a few housing developments. The town of Rush is small (though it is home to the meeting place of my parents so I’m grateful for its establishments) and is perfectly illustrative of the small, rural villages that you find just south of Rochester: quiet, conservative and lots of open land. Because of this, most people are surprised to drive down the west end stretch of Martin Road and find an elaborate looking gold and red temple seemingly out of place in the center of a large lawn.
I had visited the Wat Pa Lao Buddhadham multiple times in hopes of running in to someone to talk with. They probably assume that I’m among the many who pop in and get out of their cars to look around out of curiosity–it apparently happens all day long there. One time Luke and I stopped together so I could show him and he said, “We have to come back, how do we get in touch with them?” I told him there was no website, no Twitter or Facebook account, no email to get in touch with them, just a phone number that wasn’t successful with. Luckily, I’ve known Patrick and Sue who are from Laos for years because we are always at the same Starbucks at the same time. I asked them if they knew much about the temple and sure enough Sue had a family member, Tom, on the board at the Buddhadham! She had him get in touch with me, and after numerous emails and phone calls, Luke and I had a tour lined up.
Entrance to Shrine (don’t forget to take your shoes off!)
We arrived a few minutes early like we always do and took our photos. The driveway was filled with cars, we had been told ahead of time that a ceremony and then lunch (which happens every week) would just be ending and we could just walk in. I won’t lie, even though we were following directions by just walking in and asking around for our contact it feels a little uncomfortable and almost intrusive to just walk in to a place of fellowship and say, “Hey we’re here!!” I suppose one of the reasons Luke and I have had such great experiences on this project is because we don’t shy away from it, but it’s definitely uncomfortable when you don’t speak the language or know the customs. I walked in and asked around for our contact, Kennedy (the President of the Board of the temple) and was greeted by smiles and hellos by everyone and directed to him. Kennedy said his hellos and immediately introduced me to Pubien, who is the current Vice President. Though it wasn’t our fault, I feel a little bad because she wasn’t expecting us. Pubien walked us to the main temple and chatted with us, telling us a little about the history of the property.