No one making a religious pilgrimage to Catholic shrines in this scenic yet hardscrabble stretch of New York's Mohawk Valley is going to mistake it for Italy. Yet starting next year, the region can boast of being the home of two of the Roman Catholic Church's newest saints.
The Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian, spent most of her life here during the 17th century. About 200 years later and 40 miles to the west, the Blessed Mother Marianne Cope began a religious life that focused on providing medical care in central New York and the Hawaiian islands.
On Dec. 20, Pope Benedict XVI certified miracles attributed to the two women, the final step toward sainthood. The women's canonization is expected to happen this year.
When they are elevated to sainthood, they'll be among just 12 of the Catholic Church's thousands of saints who either were born in America or ministered in what is now the United States.
Elevation to sainthood for Blessed Kateri, a first for a Native American, is expected to boost visits to a pair of local shrines linked to her life. The National Shrine of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda and the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in nearby Auriesville are located amid the hilly terrain and faded industrial towns along the Mohawk River Valley that stretches from the Albany area to Utica.
Both shrines had already closed for the winter when word came out of the Vatican that the pope had affirmed the women for canonization. Officials at both sites say they expect bigger crowds next year as a result.
"We've been praying for this for a long time, years and years and years," said Friar Mark Steed, the Kateri shrine's director. "It will mean a bit of work in terms of how we can promote it, how we can present the shrine in a better light."
Spread over 200-plus acres of sloping ground on the river's north bank, the property contains the archaeological site of the Mohawk village where Kateri spent her youth and where she was baptized by French Jesuit missionaries in 1676. The shrine's centerpiece is a 230-year-old barn that doubles as a rustic chapel and museum. Images of Kateri's life decorate the rough-hewn wooden crossbeams in the upstairs chapel where American and Iroquois flags hang side by side.
Blessed Kateri's sainthood could be a big step toward helping to heal centuries of conflict between whites and Native Americans, Friar Mark said.
"That may be her spiritual gift to all of us," he said.
Just downriver on the south bank, officials at the shrine of the North American Martyrs say they're also expecting to see an increase in the tens of thousands of visitors who make pilgrimages each year, some from as far away as Europe and Asia.
Kateri was born in the Mohawk village that sat atop the hill where the Auriesville shrine was founded by the Jesuit order in the late 19th century. A decade before Kateri's birth, Father Isaac Jogues and two fellow Frenchmen were killed in the village by the Mohawks. All three were canonized in 1930, along with five other Jesuit missionaries martyred in Canada in the 1600s.
The Auriesville shrine features a coliseum church that can hold about 10,000 worshippers and a separate chapel dedicated to Kateri, the daughter of an Algonquin mother and Mohawk father. Her parents died of smallpox when she was 4, and the disease left Kateri badly scarred and nearly blind. Later, after enduring scorn from other Mohawks because of her Christian beliefs, she fled to a Jesuit mission near Montreal.
Known for tending to the sick and elderly, Kateri fell ill and died at 24. Her remains are entombed in a marble shrine at St. Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake, Quebec. Dubbed "the Lily of the Mohawks," her story of devotion and kindness is familiar to many Auriesville visitors, said Beth Lynch, the shrine's event coordinator and museum manger.
Mother Marianne Cope's roots in the Mohawk Valley began in Utica, where her family settled in 1840 after emigrating from Germany the previous year, when she was a year old. A factory worker until she joined the Franciscan sisters in Syracuse in the early 1860s, the young nun worked as a nurse and hospital administrator, helping to found two hospitals _ St. Joseph's in Syracuse and St. Elizabeth's in Utica _ that are still in operation today. Under her direction, no one was denied medical care, according to Sister Patricia Burkard, general minister of the Syracuse-based Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities.
"Her policy is very much like the Patients' Bill of Rights today," Sister Patricia said.
In the 1880s, Mother Marianne answered a plea from Hawaii for help providing care for leprosy patients at a settlement on Molokai island run by Father Damien, who gained sainthood in 2009. She died of natural causes at the settlement in 1918 and was buried there. In 2005, her remains were brought to Syracuse, where they're in a reliquary located in the chapel at the St. Anthony Convent, which is also home to a Mother Marianne museum.
Leaders of the Sisters of St. Francis say they expect an increase in visitors at the chapel and museum when Mother Marianne is canonized.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II declared Mother Marianne "venerable," the first step toward canonization after the Vatican recognized her intercession for the unexplained cure of a New York girl dying of multiple organ failure. The Vatican recommended her canonization in December after a second recovery was attributed to her intercession.
Kateri Tekakwitha was beatified in 1980 when John Paul II waived the first miracle typically required. Prayers to her are credited for the second Tekakwitha miracle: the recovery of 6-year-old Washington state boy who had a flesh-eating disease.
"We're considered quote, `a young country,' compared to Italy, France and Germany," Sister Patricia said. "That we're seeing more saints named from the United States really means that the faith in our country is maturing to the point that we have people who have lived among us who have given us many examples of a good life."