When the first group of pilgrims file into the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs Coliseum in Auriesville early next month for spring Mass, they’ll hear something never before spoken from the pulpit of that cavernous structure — a plea for money.
The shrine, which overlooks the Mohawk Valley from a hill in Auriesville, is facing financial problems. Attendance shrinks by the year, and the 8,000-seat coliseum needs a new roof. That’s a $500,000 job by itself and crews will also have to bring in a massive crane to straighten the 2-ton copper crucifix, currently leaning at a worrying angle at the coliseum’s very top.
“If we don’t raise some money,” said Joe Caruso, “The shrine will close itself.”
Caruso, a Saratoga businessman and former radio station owner, is a regular at the shrine. He’s managing a season-long fundraising effort at the site and hopes to net $1 million between its May 4 opening and seasonal closure in the fall.
“In the next week, we’ll be sending out 10,000 pamphlets to people across the Capital Region,” he said.
Each envelope was hand-stuffed and addressed — a lot of work, but the pamphlets are just the beginning of Caruso’s plan. Over the summer, he’s lining up radiothons and TV events, along with a $20,000 raffle and several events in Saratoga Springs.
Our Lady of Martyrs is historical home to four saints — Isaac Jogues, John Lalande and Rene Goupil, all Jesuit missionaries martyred on the grounds centuries ago, along with the recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha. She was born within yards of the deteriorating facility. Thus far, that fact hasn’t attracted a lot of cash, but Caruso said it soon will.
“We have more saints than any other place in the Western Hemisphere,” he said. “Catholics will give if they know what’s at stake.”
The shrine’s current funding issue, he said, doesn’t have to do with the relative generosity of pilgrims, but rather the financial structure of the place. A regular church passes a plate. There are obvious expenses. People tithe.
The shrine is mainly visited by people who already attend and give to a different church. There are offering boxes scattered around, but Caruso said people don’t think about giving substantial donations, and the shrine doesn’t remind them.
The Rev. George Belgarde, the shrine director, called the 600-acre compound a “simple place of prayer.” According to Caruso, since the shrine was established in 1885, directors had never really asked for money.
“But if you don’t ask for it,” he said, “you won’t get it.”
Now Caruso and Belgarde are trying to inform people of the need. Caruso said the effort is higher stakes than a roof project. If the roof isn’t fixed, bits of the coliseum will eventually start falling in, three stories down on the heads of praying pilgrims.
Our Lady of Martyrs is a national shrine. It’s not connected to the Albany Diocese, but rather managed by the Jesuit Province. As such, it can only be closed down by an order from the Vatican. Caruso said a Vatican order is incredibly unlikely, but fears instead of a functional closure.
If the coliseum closes, there won’t be a place to conduct Mass. What’s left will be a park — great for picnics, but not a pilgrimage end point.
“Saints walked this ground,” Caruso said. “You can feel the difference when you get out of your car. We need to preserve that.”
The key, he said, is just to ask.