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October 2009

O Father, Where Art Thou?

The first white visitor to the Adirondack Mountains arrived as a prisoner. Pilgrims return to Lake George each September to honor the martyr Isaac Jogues

Photograph by Jason Hupe

Motorists slow at the sight of a long line of pedestrians—more than 270 of them—stretching single-file along the dirt shoulder of Route 9N south of Lake George. A few of the walkers, teenage girls, wave cheerfully at the passing cars, and the gesture is occasionally re­ciprocated, if with quizzical looks.

A long walk in the Adirondacks is a common enough endeavor. Even a 65-mile trek, like the one this group is undertaking, is barely notable—dozens of people hike the 133-mile North­ville-Placid Trail each year—but most distance-walkers follow wooded trails, not two-lane highways.

Other details about this procession are bound to stoke the curiosity of passersby: Almost all of the females wear long skirts—hardly the usual hiking attire—and many cover their hair with lacy scarves. At the head of each group of 15 or so is a leader carrying a satin banner or flag proclaiming the name of the “brigade” it represents—Sainte Jeanne d’Arc, Our Lady of Fatima Scouts. Others hold up tall wooden crucifixes. If these hints don’t clue the drivers in to the fact that they are witnessing a religious pilgrimage, the smattering of nuns in habits and priests in black robes might clinch it.

The Pilgrimage for Restoration, organized by Pennsylvania-based National Coalition of Clergy and Laity, has brought hundreds of the faithful to the Adi­rondack Park each September since 1996 for four days of walking, prayer and fellowship. The route—from the village of Lake George to the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, at Au­riesville, 40 miles west of Albany on the Mohawk River—commemorates the life and martyrdom of the saint Isaac Jogues, a 17th-century French Jesuit missionary who was captured, tortured and eventually murdered by the Mohawks, one of the five original nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Jogues is believed to have been the first European to see the heart of the Adirondacks.

Photograph by Jason Hupe

The pilgrimage begins with dawn Mass in front of the bronze monument to Jogues in Lake George’s Battlefield Park, set atop a small, grassy hill in an open-air cathedral of pine trees. It was somewhere close to here, perhaps, that Jogues first glimpsed the body of water he christened Lac du Saint Sacrement. He arrived in May 1646, on the eve of Corpus Christi, en route to Mohawk territory for the second of three visits (and the only one with a positive outcome, but more about that later).

The coalition is an organization of traditionalist Catholics who prefer to practice their faith as it was before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s. Mass is spoken in Latin, and the priest faces the altar, rather than the congregation.

As Lori Fameree, a stay-at-home mother of 10 from Green Bay, Wisconsin, explains, “In the changing world, it’s good to find the traditions that don’t change.” Fameree, along with four of her children, is on her fourth pilgrimage.

Following Mass, the pilgrims assemble in the adjacent state campground, where many have spent the night. Chief of Brigadiers Michael A. Six, wearing a ranger hat, addresses the crowd by loudspeaker. “It’s a pilgrimage,” he says. “It’s not a march. It’s not just a walk in the woods. It’s about prayer and suffering, and we’re going to give you plenty of both.”

Adirondack athletes, whether Ironmen or 90-Milers, are familiar with the concept of suffering. But Six is talking about enduring pain not for the glory of personal accomplishment but for the glory of Jesus Christ, whose gruesome, agonizing death, with its promise of eternal salvation, forms the basis of the Christian religion.

“It’s a paradox,” says Michael Lohman, a 35-year-old mailman from Cincinnati, who is walking his sixth pilgrimage here (he has also done the much larger Chartres pilgrimage, in France, on which this one is modeled). “You learn that joy does come through suffering, if it’s done for the right purpose.”

Isaac Jogues exemplifies the Christian ideal of noble suffering. He was born in 1607 in Orleans, France, the hometown of another martyred saint, Joan of Arc, who lived two centuries earlier. After seminary Jogues went to North America as a missionary, at the age of 29. He had a measure of success with the Hurons, in present-day Quebec, converting some and maintaining friendly relations with others.

In 1642 Jogues and his party—at least 20 Hurons and two other Frenchmen, René Goupil and Guillaume Coûture—were ambushed by Mohawks near Trois Rivières and taken prisoner. According to Stephen B. Sulavik’s 2005 book Adirondack: Of Indians and Mountains, 1535–1838, “the Iroquois, by holding Jogues captive, thought that the French would not interfere in their attacks on the Hurons and Algonquins.” Jogues was knocked unconscious, and when he came to, he later described, warriors were ripping out his fingernails and gnawing on his fingertips. At another point his left thumb was sliced off, and countless other torments were inflicted on him. Describing his ordeal, Jogues wrote, “God alone knows for how long a time and how many were the blows that were dealt on my body; but the sufferings undertaken for his glory are filled with joy and honor.”

Blisters and aching muscles are only a fraction of the suffering Jogues and his fellow martyrs endured, but the modern-day pilgrims see their minor discomforts as a way to honor Jogues and, in some small sense, experience what he did. “It gives you a chance to live heroically,” Fameree says. “You grow in trials.” One year she did the pilgrimage carrying her six-month-old, whom she was nursing.

The pace of walking is brisk, and enforced. When members of a brigade begin to straggle, the leader yells, “Close the gap!” A modified pilgrimage is available for people who can’t walk the 15 to 20 miles per day, or who need a break—a van shuttles between the back and front of the line. A trailer hauling Port-a-Potties also follows the group, and any gear beyond day-packs is carried by the shuttles to each night’s campsite.

Despite the aerobic pace, some brigades sing “Ave Maria” and “Alleluia.” The mood, at least on this first day, is buoyant, especially among the young people who make up more than half of the group. “By the third day,” says Joe Meier, 16, of Worcester, Massachusetts, “you’re walking through farm fields and you can’t see how far you’ve got to go. It’s physically and mentally challenging.” But, he adds, it’s also a lot of fun.

Each night the group sets up at a private campground and has bonfires. Soup and other simple fare is served, and on the second night a talent show is held. “It started one year when it had been raining; people were wet and we wanted to get our minds off of it,” says Gregory Lloyd, the director of the pilgrimage. This year’s talent show includes a brother–sister violin duet, a Gaelic bagpipe performance, plus hu­mor­­ous skits and singalongs.

But Father Andreas Hellman, an Austrian-born priest who is now rector at St. Anthony of Pad­ua in West Orange, New Jersey, emphasizes that the event is about spiritual contemplation. “You do it to find grace,” he says. “It’s one thing to sit comfortably in their pew and talk about mortification.” The pilgrimage is a chance to, literally, walk the walk.

After Jogues and his companions were captured they were taken by canoe down Lake Champlain and over to the Mohawk River. According to Francis Talbot’s 2002 book Saint Among Savages, the party probably continued on land from the bottom of Champlain to the junction of the Hudson and the Sacandaga Rivers, below the present town of Luzerne, and then along the Sacandaga (now flooded to form Great Sacandaga Lake) through Broad­albin to Auriesville, then known as Ossernenon. Along the way they stopped at a small island in Lake Champlain, in a bay south of Westport, where Jogues and the other captives were forced to run a gauntlet of beatings.

A 1911 biography of Jogues, by T. J. Campbell, described what happened next: “The torture was drawing to an end, and a huge savage stood above him with a knife to slash the nose from his face—the usual prelude of death by fire. Jogues looked at him calmly, and, to the surprise of all, the executioner strode away. Again the effort was made with the same result. Some unseen power averted death at that time. His martyrdom was to be more protracted, and at another place.”

Instead, the party continued on to Ossernenon. By this time the other captives aside from Jogues and Goupil were either killed or sent elsewhere among the tribes. On September 7, Dutch and French envoys came to arrange for their ransom, but the Mohawks would not give up the prisoners. “Soon afterwards, Goupil was killed for making the sign of the cross on the head of a child,” Campbell wrote. “A savage stole up behind them and buried his tomahawk in the skull of Goupil, who fell on his face uttering the Holy Name.”

As winter approached, Jogues was sent as a servant on a hunting trip near the Saranac Lakes region, making him the first white visitor to the Adirondack interior. During this time, Campbell wrote, Jogues “was often in a condition of semi-starvation as he crouched in a corner of the filthy wigwam and saw the savages gorging themselves with meat, which had been first offered to the demons, and which he therefore refused to eat, though his savage masters raged against this implied contempt of their gods.”

Accounts such as Cambell’s, and the one Jogues himself was ordered to write for the Jesuit Relations, a series of publications describing contact with indigenous people in the New World, reflect the Eurocentric attitude of their times; the Indians are described as brutal savages, and their religious be­liefs are derided as superstition. Few texts describe events from the Mohawk viewpoint, partly because they had no written language at the time; they recorded history orally or through images.

Doug George-Kanentiio, a journalist raised on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory along the St. Law­rence River, recalls being taught the story of Isaac Jogues in Catholic school as a child in the 1960s. It was around this time that the Mohawk Pride movement was beginning to take hold on the United States side of the river, sparked in part by a teacher, Ray Fadden; George-Kanentiio found it hard to reconcile the conflicting messages about his people’s identity and worth.

The treatment of Jogues by his ancestors, he says, “was a collective guilt. It was a stain on our souls.” As he grew older and learned more about Mohawk culture and history, his perspective on what happened with Jogues changed.

“The Mohawks were in a very defensive position,” he says of the time that Jogues and his party were captured. “They were concerned about the intrusions of the French, and they noted that the Jesuits kept detailed records. Jogues was seen as a political operative, or spy, for the French.”

Indeed, at one point during his captivity, on June 30, 1643, Jogues managed to have a letter delivered to Montmagny, the governor of New France, informing him that the Mo­hawks were about to make a raid on Fort Richelieu and enabling them to repel the attack.

Jogues was also viewed with suspicion, George-Kanentiio says, because the Mohawks understood that the recent plague of smallpox, which had inflicted a terrible toll and brought changes as profound as the Black Death had in Europe, was connected to the arrival of the French, even if the Indians did not know how.

Plus, the Mohawks considered Jogues dan­­gerous because of the persistence of his efforts to convert them. The mangling of the missionary’s fingers was a message, George-Kanentiio asserts, warning other Iroquois to avoid him. They chose his hands be­cause he was so frequently gesturing with them in a way that seemed to them to have mal­evolent power.

Jogues was taken in by an old woman he referred to as “Aunt,” and eventually his ill treatment decreased somewhat. Still, some wanted him dead, and the woman warned him about plots against him and urged the priest to escape. Jogues wrote that he could not find it in his heart to leave while there were any Christian captives to whom he might be of service. He managed to baptize dozens of people during his year of captivity, he wrote, most of them right before death.

He changed his mind about escape, however, when it ap­peared his own death was imminent, and the Dutch offered to help him. He vowed to return again when peace was restored. After fleeing by ship, Jogues reached New York, where he was received by the governor as a guest of honor. In December 1643, he arrived in France. The Queen Regent, Anne of Austria, hearing of his ordeal, wanted to meet him in person.

His stay in his homeland was brief. In 1644 he returned to New France. In May 1646 he was sent back to the Mohawks as an ambassador, because he was familiar with the language. The meeting went well, but when he went again a few months later, this time as a missionary, he had a premonition of his death. He went anyway. As he wrote in a letter to another priest in France, “I would be happy if our Lord were willing to finish the Sacrifice where he has begun it, and if the little blood which I have shed in that land were as the pledge of that which I would give him from all the veins of my body and my heart.”

In the months since Jogues’s second visit a blight had de­stroyed the Mohawks’ corn harvest, and some blamed him. Shortly after his arrival in Ossernenon, in September 1646, Jogues was beheaded by members of the Bear clan, against the objections of the Turtle and Wolf clans, according to a letter sent by Dutch witnesses to Montmagny.

Jogues was canonized in 1930. In the Jesuit Relations of 1647 Father Jerome Lalemant makes the case that Jogues was martyred because of his religious beliefs (one of the criteria for sainthood), and in so doing acknowledges the reasons for Native American animosity toward the Jesuits: “The Algonquins and Hurons—and next the Hiroquois, at the solicitation of their captives—have had, and some have still, a hatred and an extreme horror of our doctrine. They say that it causes them to die, and that it contains spells and charms which effect the destruction of their corn, and engender the contagious and general diseases wherewith the Hiroquois now begin to be afflicted. It is on this account that we have expected to be murdered, in all the places where we have been.… Moreover, it is true that, speaking humanly, these Barbarians have apparent reasons for thus reproaching us,—inasmuch as the scourges which humble the proud precede us or accompany us wherever we go, as they have preceded and accompanied those who have gone before us in the publication of the Gospel; but, in token of the soundness of the adorable truths which it contains, the result is that finally these peoples will not fail to yield themselves to Jesus Christ; although he comes to them only with scourges in his hands.”

He was at least partly right. By 1691 the Mohawk population dwindled to fewer than 800 people, about a tenth of its precontact number, due to disease and war. Many of those left in the Mohawk Valley migrated or converted to Christianity. Ac­cording to a 2003 report to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, about 12 percent of people who identified themselves as Native American on the last census listed their religion as Catholic, and both numbers continue to grow. Today’s Catholic church aims for a more culturally sensitive approach to missionary work, called inculturation, which seeks to teach Christian principles without devaluing indigenous traditions.

One of the most famous Mohawk converts, Kateri Tekakwitha, was born in Ossernenon a few years after Jogues’s murder, and was the first Native American to be beatified. On the last day of the Pilgrimage for Restoration hundreds join the procession for the final seven miles, from the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, in Fonda, to Auriesville.

The names of places around here often reflect the wars that shaped them: Lake George might still be called Lac du Saint Sacrement if not for the British victory in the French and Indian War. If the French had never come at all, it might still be known by its Native American title, Andia-te-roc-te, meaning “the place where the lake contracts.” To name something is, in some ways, to control it.

Eleven months after Jogues’s death, the Iroquois warrior who killed him was captured in battle. He admitted to the murder and was sentenced to death. But before he was led to his execution he was baptized. He took the name of his victim, Isaac.

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2 Responses to “O Father, Where Art Thou?”

  1. Adirondack Life Blog Archive » Sainthood for Kateri, Lily of the Mohawks Says:

    [...] in the Adirondacks, and an annual pilgrimage from Lake George to Auriesville in his honor, read “O Father, Where Art Thou?” from the October 2009 issue of Adirondack [...]

  2. Famous mohawks | Transportesjmg Says:

    [...] Adirondack Life Blog Archive » O Father, Where Art Thou? [...]