As a girl growing up in the Mohawk Valley, Beth Lynch didn’t always feel so comfortable visiting the Auriesville Shrine.
“I knew that something very dramatic and very painful happened here, and as a kid I was scared by it,” remembered Lynch, events coordinator and museum manager at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs. “Now, it feels so wonderful to be here, especially after being away for a while. Now I am able to understand how suffering gives rise to resurrection and faith in the church.”
A psychiatric nurse and an Arizona resident much of her life, Lynch grew up in Ilion and returned to the area five years ago following the death of her husband. She has been working at the shrine for more than four years and has been particularly busy lately, helping to plan events surrounding today’s Kateri canonization celebration.
Kateri Tekakwitha, a native American woman who was born at the site in 1656 and died at the age of 24 after converting to Catholicism, will become Saint Kateri, the first Native American to be so honored. A mass of Thanksgiving inside the shrine’s Coliseum will begin at 2 p.m.
“We’re expecting a lot of people, and hopefully many of them will get here early and check out the museum and the site,” said Lynch. “This is a very big day for the shrine, certainly the biggest since I’ve been here, and we want people to enjoy this beautiful place.”
Kateri, also known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” was beatified in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. In February of this year, Pope Benedict XVI announced that she would become a saint.
“The Jesuits back then knew Kateri was a sanctified woman; they knew how special she was,” said Lynch. “People began praying to her right after her death, and though it’s been more than 300 years since her death, that’s just a blink of an eye in God’s way.”
Kateri’s story, along with that of the three Jesuit missionaries martyred at the site during the 1640s, is told at the museum with various pieces of artwork, artifacts and interpretive panels.
“I’ve kind of revamped the museum over the last two years,” said Lynch. “I’ve combined the whole story of the Mohawks, the fur trade, and how the Jesuits were brought here and their martyrdom. Then, about half of the museum tells the story of Kateri, and we have a timeline on display to help more easily learn her story.”
The story of the three Jesuit missionaries murdered at the site — Father Isaac Jogues, René Goupil and Jean de Lalande — is nearly as compelling as Kateri’s, according to Lynch.
“I was fascinated by the North American martyrs and the first fruits of their labor, which included Kateri,” said Lynch. “The blood of the martyr is the seed of the church, and if you look at what happened here and the brave witness of those men, it really is inspirational. We also encounter a lot of anti-Christian and anti-Catholic feeling today, so we look to them to help us stand strong in our faith, despite the contemporary culture.”
Wooden statues of Kateri and the three French missionaries are placed in prominent positions on the altar inside the shrine’s large Coliseum, which can seat 6,600 people.
“With standing room only you can get up to around 10,000,” said Lynch, “and if you walk around the circumference it’s a sixth of a mile. There are 72 doors, which are a symbol of the 72 disciples Jesus sent out two by two to evangelize, and the four altars are dedicated to our four holy souls, Kateri, Isaac, René and Jean. There were also four gospels, and four directions of the world where we can preach the gospel. The Coliseum is a very symbolic place.”
Lynch says her Catholic faith never left her, although like many people she experienced a time in her life when it wasn’t that strong.
“Many people, especially of my generation approaching their sixties, fall away from the church for a time or experience some kind of spiritual wanderlust,” she said. “We go through a period when we look at ourselves and say, ‘OK, I recognize now that what I left is exactly what I’m looking for.’ For me, that’s part of the real joy of being here now. I really appreciate the fullness of the truth, the sacraments and the moral teachings of the Catholic church, and how we encounter Jesus Christ in that church.
“Coming back here after spending some time away makes being here a much richer experience,” she continued. “It has deepened my Catholic faith. I have reaffirmed my love and zeal for my church, and that makes it a very exciting time for me.”
Lynch said her experience is similar to thousands of others.
“You have this wonderful panoramic view of the Mohawk Valley, and our grounds are just lovely with the grass, the flowers and the trees we have here,” she said. “This time of the year with the autumn leaves it’s especially beautiful. But it’s also peaceful and quiet and that’s what people typically say to me. As soon as they step on the grounds, they feel so peaceful. It really is a spiritual place.”