Miracle-seekers visit Mohawk shrine Blessed Kateri draws thousands of pilgrims


AURIESVILLE, N.Y. - Ellen Pagano came here looking for a miracle just as the sun was rising on a Saturday morning.

First-time miracle seekers tend to fumble around the Blessed Kateri, the star attraction at the National Shrine of North American Martyrs.

The other day, as a flock of pilgrims hovered about the shrine, as usual, it was easy to spot the novices. They kept walking around and around the statues, as if looking for instructions.

Pagano, in her blue silk dress and black patent leather pumps, stood clutching a set of rosary beads in her right fist. She had driven all the way from Mount Vernon, N.Y., to ask the Blessed Kateri one favor.

"I'm a little nervous," she said.

She tried to take her cue from the visitors who seemed to be old hands: They'd stop at the shrine, bow their heads for a few minutes, kiss their fingers and press them to the Blessed Kateri's robe. Then they would walk on to the Kateri Chapel or the Martyrs' Shrine Dining Hall.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims flock every year to this shrine in the middle of New York, about 40 miles west of Albany.

A recent report on the Kateri Tekakwitha by the Associated Press has made the shrine even more popular. The other day, the lines all along Route 5S for the first Saturday morning Mass at 11:30 were long and thick.

A busload of French visitors showed up shortly afterward, chanting and singing as they strolled the grounds.

But it's like this on other days, too, as though the whole world wants to get its prayers to the 17th-century Mohawk martyr before the shrine closes for the season at the end of October.

Just about everyone who comes is looking for a miracle, a healing. Kateri Tekakwitha, who was persecuted by her tribe for converting to Catholicism, here in a village along the banks of the Mohawk River, has been likened to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. She is said to intercede with God to heal all kinds of psychic and physical maladies, according to the Kateri Tekakwitha newsletter.

Pagano, who is 46 and works as a nurse in the South Bronx for a 77-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease, was praying to St. Jude when she was told about the Blessed Kateri by her client's daughter a few weeks ago.

"She read about it in a Catholic newspaper, I think," Pagano said. "Then, after she told me about her, someone else mentioned it to me, like a week later." Pagano took this as some kind of omen.

Desperate to have her prayers answered, she decided to make the trip to Auriesville. This is a farm town, so far out of her experience it might as well be Kansas.

"Desperate people do desperate things," she said. Her mother came with her, but waited for her in the parking lot while Pagano prayed at the Blessed Kateri statue.

"My mother doesn't really believe in saints," she said, dropping her voice to a whisper.

The Blessed Kateri is not a saint yet. Pope John Paul II beatified her in 1980, the 300th anniversary of her death. Going beyond this limited honor will take one authenticated miracle. A vice postulate assigned to the shrine by the Vatican has been trying for six years to authenticate claims of miracles attributed to the Blessed Kateri.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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