'Embarrassment:' Why the Pope Won't Come to the Capital Region

More is coming about on why Pope Francis will not visit the Capital Region when he comes to the United States in September. Shrine leaders say the Vatican worried the pope would be embarrassed by visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Montgomery County. But as Geoff Redick reports, the shrine believes the concern actually lies with the neighbors.

AURIESVILLE, N.Y. — Through overgrown weeds, you can still see where the driveway used to lead to the Buddhist temple in Auriesville.

Piles of broken pavement sit beside a larger pile of dirt, which sits beside an eight-foot white vinyl fence: a symbolic reminder of what may have blocked Pope Francis from visiting upstate New York.

“It’s very disappointing,” says Joey Caruso, the fundraising chairman for the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, which owns the fence. “The window of opportunity sort of closed on us suddenly."

PREP, BUT NO POPE

On Tuesday, the Vatican released the public schedule for Pope Francis’ planned September visit to the United States. The five-day itinerary includes time for daily naps, meetings with President Obama and New York City schoolchildren, and the celebration of Catholic mass in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. There is no plan for visiting upstate New York, despite months of promotion, praying and pleading by shrine leaders, desperate for the attention Francis would bring.

“The shrine only has four people on staff,” says Caruso, “and it’s almost impossible to host an event with Pope Francis, with four people.”

The formal "first refusal" of the shrine’s application for a visit reflected that: Vatican leaders said the facility lacked "apostolic organization."

“In other words: we needed more people,” Caruso said. “And everything revolves around being able to afford to bring a pope here, financially.”

The first refusal was many months ago; by springtime 2015, the shrine had bolstered its application. The International Knights of Columbus had agreed to donate $650,000, with corporate sponsors committing $2.5 million more. Plus, Caruso says the Knights had promised up to 1,000 staffers to help with planning, execution and security for the event.

Still, the official word came Tuesday: no pope.

“It’s not because we didn’t have the money,” Caruso says. “It’s not because we didn’t have the apostolic organization, we have the world’s largest Catholic organization putting their blessing on it.”

The unexpected death of Cardinal Edward Egan had delayed support from the Knights and from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, which may have been a factor. But Caruso suspects there may have been another reason Auriesville was left off the schedule.

“One of the things we started realizing,” he says, “was the embarrassment of bringing the pope here, due to our neighbors.”

GOOD FENCES, NOT-SO-GOOD NEIGHBORS

Since 2006, the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs has shared its rural Montgomery County hilltop with a six-story Buddhist temple, called Guang Huan Mi Zong. The temple is housed in a former residence, and is owned by the World Health & Peace Organization (WHPO), a group often associated with controversy in Fultonville and the neighboring city of Amsterdam.

“It’s been ongoing problems from day one,” explains Caruso. A popular man with a distinctive mane of bleach white hair, Caruso’s normally jovial voice drops to a monotone when he speaks about the neighbors. According to Caruso, the rift between the faiths began with an amicable agreement in 2006 when the Buddhists purchased an old Jesuit retreat house less than 300 yards from the shrine. As part of a three-way sale agreement, the Catholics had agreed to let the WHPO use a shrine driveway to access the property, for five years or until they could build their own road. The shrine would also provide treated well-water to the temple for five years at $6,000 per year, while it was under construction and until it could develop its own infrastructure.

Caruso, who was not working for the shrine at the time of the agreement, says the WHPO never paid the water bill, and temple pilgrims were still using the shrine’s driveway. By 2013, the priest in charge of the shrine had taken all he could. The shrine shut off water to the temple and blocked the roadway, later tearing it out completely. The white fence was built on shrine property in 2014, along the dividing line between the properties. Visitors to the temple now either walk around the fence, or drive an unpaved path from nearby Ripley Road, behind the temple.

“That (shrine) road should belong to pilgrims, tourists, and the public interest,” said WHPO spokeswoman Jenni Wong Wednesday. The WHPO filed a lawsuit against the shrine in 2013, claiming the shrine’s driveway was publicly-owned, but a judge tossed the case when the WHPO could not prove it. Wong confirmed that another lawsuit has since been filed, and is working through the court.

“The fence is not only a physical barrier, but a spiritual barrier. We are alienated,” says Wong. “We feel very sad. Their actions need to be more positive.”

Caruso acknowledges the frustration, but says his hands are tied.

“We did nothing wrong. We provided the water for a period of time; we provided the driveway,” he said. “But nothing is done.”

CHURCH & STATE OF AFFAIRS

Differences of faith are not of worry to the Vatican: Pope Francis is known to carry on famously with world leaders in other faiths. But in Auriesville, the lawsuits, the big white fence and the torn-up road would be very visual problems for a pontiff who is lauded for his human compassion, and who has tackled many uncomfortable Church issues with fervor.

“It’s about protecting the integrity and the respect; not to embarrass the pope,” says Caruso. Already, the temple has placed signs along Route 55 leading to the shrine, stating “Stop the Father from discriminating against Chinese and blocking the roads!” (One sign has since been vandalized with the words, “Pay for it”). Since the conflict began, Caruso says the organization has often sent dozens of protesters to various shrine events.

“Some of our fundraising dinners, they picket,” he says. “They picket in front of the bishop’s office, they picket in front of Cardinal Dolan’s office; they picket in front of the United Nations.” The worry is that the WHPO could form an especially large group to picket a papal visit.

For its part, WHPO claims to only have protested once — the temple website shows pictures of only two protests — and says its mission is not to cause argument or anger.

“We hope that everything will work out positively, and two faiths can co-exist,” said Wong.

PUTTING PEOPLE IN THE PEWS

The shrine at Auriesville has a proud history: it overlooks Revine Creek, where three seventeenth-century French missionaries were martyred by Native American tribes. All are now saints. It is also the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the church’s first and only Native American to be canonized to sainthood.

That rich heritage has drawn millions to the shrine’s 600-acre campus since it opened in 1885. In 1930, a church-in-the-round was built atop the hill, known as “the coliseum.” The structure features five altars and can seat 6,000 worshipers for mass. Later decades brought new gardens and new monuments, and a clearing of the Revine Creek gorge, where St. Isaac Jogues, St. Renè Goupil and St. John Lalande were killed and disposed.

Over the last two decades, though, pilgrimage and donations have both dwindled. The coliseum has not been filled for a mass in any staffer’s recent memory. On a tightening budget, the board and managers struggle to renovate and innovate.

“You look around the surrounding diocese (of Albany), and there’s closure of churches, mergers of churches,” admits Caruso. “Catholics are walking away upset...and yet we’re expecting them to come here?”

The draw is still the saints, he says — “If we can’t believe in them, we can’t believe in anything.” The shrine is now banking on another rumored papal visit to the U.S., in early 2017, as yet unconfirmed by the Vatican.

Without that, Caruso worries the shrine will continue to slip into irrelevance.

“We need to get people back into the pews. We’ll never fill up 10,000 people in this coliseum (on our own),” he says, gesturing around the empty seats. “The only person who can fill this coliseum, is Pope Francis.”

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