A single small bell rang through the Coliseum at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs on Sunday afternoon, bringing 5,000 devoted Catholics to their feet as one.
They gathered from all over the state and all over the country under one great roof at the place of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha’s birth to celebrate her canonization.
Shrine director the Rev. George H. Belgarde led the crowd in what he called perhaps the most important event of their spiritual lives.
“It’s a Mass of thanksgiving,” he said, explaining that for Catholics, especially for those of Native American descent, Kateri’s freshly bestowed sainthood brings closure to years of prayer.
“Today is a day of victory,” he said, “connected to the victory that was won on the cross.”
Between the hymns and the prayers, Belgarde spoke of Kateri’s life, begun in 1656 on what is now the shrine grounds. He spoke of her giving spirit and devotion to the faith.
“Though she was in the midst of heathenism,” he said, “she was destined for heaven.”
A cold October wind blew through a dozen open doors as he spoke, but few seemed to notice.
Patty Venditti blinked away happy tears as she waited in line for the confessional.
“I can’t put it into words,” she said, “that someone who was persecuted and persevered in the faith should be so honored by the church.”
Venditti spent a large part of her life praying that Kateri attain sainthood. The Indian woman who died at just 24 more than 300 years ago, entered the canon at a ceremony in Rome while the Venditti family slept in their Galway home. Now that it has happened, “I’m overwhelmed,” she said.
She was one of many carrying a strong devotion to the new saint.
Shelley MacInnes brought her native regalia all the way from South Dakota to take part in the celebration. She’s of Lakota descent, one of the few she knows who is also a practicing Catholic.
“I think this will bring a lot of healing,” she said, explaining that Kateri is the first Native American to reach sainthood. “I hope it brings conversion.”
An air of solemn joy hung over the ceremony. Children were calm as thousands of voices spoke the Nicene Creed and filled the Coliseum’s dome with echoing prayers.
Even 2-year-old Jude seemed peaceful on the shoulders of his father, Jim Agnew. Jim Agnew strolled around the outer walkway taking it all in, letting his son do the same from a higher perch. The two were a bit stunned by the spectacle.
“The Albany Diocese is contracting. Churches are closing,” Agnew said. “You come out here on a Saturday afternoon there might be 100 people. Look at what’s going on today.”
All but a narrow wedge of benches with no view of Belgarde were filled shoulder-to-shoulder to the edge. People stood and knelt along the aisles and leaned against the outer wall.
One man in a crisp black suit balanced on a folding table taking pictures. Behind him an old poster-sized black and white photo of a crowded service was mounted to the wall.
“It’s a better angle up here,” he said, introducing himself as L. Paul Masto, the Amsterdam photographer who snapped the 63-year-old picture.
He recounted how he had climbed a ladder to the Coliseum roof back in 1959 the day Cardinal Cushing led a Mass that filled every seat.
“I was lucky there was a window open,” he said.
People and parking
That day marked the last time the Coliseum was as full as Sunday afternoon.
The parking lots were full of every variety of buses and the lawns jammed with 3,700 cars, according to Montgomery County Sheriff’s Sergeant Ray Waldynski, who directed traffic.
“We had such an influx of vehicles,” he said, “there was a line all the way back to Fort Hunter.”
With the 2 p.m. Mass as a deadline, he had to open up the lot exits to ease traffic.
“At 1:50 the last car came in,” he said, “I think we did it.”
Belgarde brought the Mass to a close with a blessing.
“By the example of our Saint Kateri, bring us wisdom.”
He encouraged the faithful to emulate her selflessness and devotion. The scores who spent years of prayer in petition for Kateri’s sainthood are already on their way to following his instructions. But the church itself certainly hopes for something more.
When Jim Agnew spoke of churches closing he touched a nerve. Several years ago the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese announced the Called to be Church program, a timetable for shrinking churches to be condensed, bringing congregations together.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs has not escaped the declining turnouts.
Many at the shrine hope the canonization will inspire people to make more regular pilgrimages to Kateri’s birthplace.
Shrine volunteer Ken Mazur stood at the doors passing out Kateri information pamphlets as the Mass let out.
“What a way to end the season,” said another volunteer as she passed him.
“I think it’s just beginning,” he said.