The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs is hoping to have a very special guest in 2015.
Pope Francis, who was named successor to Pope Benedict XVI on March 13, 2013, will be in Philadelphia and most likely New York City between Sept. 22-28 of next year. And the shrine, which marks the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, is inviting the pope to visit.
“We believe that we have an outstanding opportunity to bring the pope here,” said Joey Caruso, chairman of the shrine’s building-fund drive. “The Kateri shrine is a Jesuit house, which means we are owned and operated by the Society of Jesus. The pope is a Jesuit, and while there were 70,000 Jesuit priests at one time, that number is down to 18,000. We have a coliseum that seats 10,000 people, and we have 400 to 500 acres of land where we can legally put another 500,000 people with no problem that could watch everything on closed-circuit television.”
The Rev. Edward Belgarde, director of the shrine, said he had no idea how feasible a visit from the pope is.
“If he agreed to come it would be a great event, but I just don’t know, and we have nothing in writing yet,” said Belgarde, who is in his third year at the shrine. “The letter [inviting the pope] is going out this week I think, but I haven’t had a lot to do with that. Joey and the committee are all working on it.”
According to Rebecca Cushing, who acts as an assistant to Belgarde and handles administrative and marketing duties at the shrine, the official letter of invitation will head to the Vatican this week.
“We have four or five people that are working on it, and it will be delivered by registered mail,” she said. “It will be short and to the point, and it will probably go out by Thursday.”
The National Catholic Reporter stated earlier this year that according to Vatican sources, Pope Francis has expressed his intention to visit the U.S. in September 2015. Along with the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, the NCR report said that a trip to the General Assembly of the United Nations, which meets in September, is also likely.
‘Ingredients in place’
“He can very easily get here by airplane to either Albany or Johnstown, and then take a helicopter to the shrine,” said Caruso, a 65-year-old Johnstown native and Saratoga resident who has been coming to the shrine his entire life. “All the ingredients are in place to make this happen. I believe when the pope gets our letter and realizes that he’ll be only 45 minutes away by plane when he’s in New York, I think he will accept our invitation.
“Along with being a Jesuit house and having three martyred Jesuits buried here, we are also the birthplace of St. Kateri, and since she became a saint in 2012, there has been an outpouring of love from around the world. Our site has four saints associated with it, and no other site in the Western Hemisphere can say that.“
The “outpouring of love” Caruso refers to is the drastic increase in financial donations to the shrine since Kateri became a saint two years ago.
“It’s been like a miracle,” said Caruso. “The shrine was in danger of closing, and because of the donations that have come from all over the world, we have saved it from closing. We did it all without any marching armies or marketing department or any professional fundraisers. We have a book that we ask people to pass among their friends and other people so that they can send donations. Well, we got donations. We got $25,000 from a doctor in Manhattan, $10,000 from a lady in Georgia. It really is a miracle.”
The 10,000-seat coliseum on the grounds of the shrine is a structure Caruso called the “largest circular coliseum in the U.S.” It was concern about repairing the coliseum that got the movement started to invite Pope Francis.
“We had some financial problems, and we had to make some hard decisions,” said Caruso. “Some snow and sleet got under our three-tiered rubber roof, and the two-ton crucifix started to tilt. Our goal was to raise half a million dollars. We’ve already raised a lot of that, and I believe we’ll have the rest of it by the end of the summer.”
Caruso said there’s also been plenty of interest about a possible movie documenting Kateri’s life.
“We’ve had discussions with producers and directors from New York, Los Angeles and Orlando,” said Caruso. “They want to shoot the movie on our grounds, and if they do that, we will build an Indian museum and village that will continue to belong to the shrine, and people can visit and learn about Kateri and how they shot the movie. We are in the midst of those negotiations now; we are very excited by the possibilities, and we’re working with a lawyer who is digesting all the percentages. It’s all contingent that the producers want to shoot the movie on our grounds, and so far, they have shown plenty of interest in doing that.”
St. Rene Goupil was killed by native Americans in Auriesville in 1642, and St. Isaac Jogues and St. John Lalande were martyred there in 1646. All were Jesuit priests, as is Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope in history.
The first papal visit to the U.S. came in 1965 when Pope Paul VI traveled to New York City and met with President Lyndon Johnson that October. The most recent visit was in April of 2008 when Pope Benedict visited Washington D.C. and met with President George W. Bush.