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Category: Local History

The Mother Cabrini Shrine

By MICHAEL LANGLOIS – Lake Champlain Weekly, Dec. 9, 2015

 

The patron saint of immigrants inspired a community of Peru’s faithful to make the impossible possible.

 

“Give me your tired, your poor; Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore; Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Seventy-five years before Emma Lazarus’ words would be forever linked to the Statue of Liberty, a community of Irish immigrants in Peru, New York, was living America’s future promise. Devout Christian settlers sustained through farming and local mills, they were geographically isolated and sought their own place of worship.

St. Patrick’s Church, a simple one-room, white clapboard-sided structure nestled beside Huckleberry Mountain and overlooking a picturesque Champlain Valley below, was the result of their toil. “The church, at that time, was the center of the community,” explained Rev. Alan Shnob, pastor of St. Augustine’s Church in Peru. “The church was their life and Sunday was a day of worship.”

In a century’s time, the little “mission” church would become a beacon for future multi-cultural American generations. That’s because the distinct paths of the Irish community, an Italian-born saint and a French carpenter would eventually converge on the rural church.

The roads close to St. Patrick’s – Donohue, McGarr, Mannix, and Allen – are names that bear witness to a rich Irish history. By the mid-1800s, the now Irish-Americans were well-settled on the former Elkanah Watson land patent (today’s Patent Road). The Reverend John Rooney, a fiery priest from the First Roman Catholic Church in Plattsburgh (St. John the Baptist), of whom it was said, “suited the wilderness far better than less emphatic characters,” had championed the construction of the church.

The “patent” parishioners continued to work the land or in the area’s various iron, grist, or lumber mills. The young were married and raised a new generation of Americans; the old passed on the Irish traditions and, eventually, were consecrated to the church’s modest cemetery.

However, the fate of St. Patrick’s was always tied to the financial well-being of the Diocese of Ogdensburg. Although the flock of the patent church remained steadfast, the shepherds to whom they followed did not. In seventy-three years – 1858 to 1931 – St. Patrick’s became a mission church to the Keeseville, Cadyville and Peru parishes.

In 1931, the Rev. Louis Brisson of St. Augustine’s took over St. Patrick’s from the Cadyville parish. For an unknown reason, he ordered St. Patrick’s to be closed. It wasn’t until 1939, after repeated pleas from the patent parishioners, that Bishop J.H. Conroy intervened in the matter. The Rev. Daniel Finnegan, an Oblate priest, assumed the administrative duties of St. Augustine’s and Rev. Brisson was replaced as pastor with the Rev. Arthur Trudel. “There is great interest being shown in the restoration of this Church and a willingness on the part of many non-catholic as well as Catholics to help,” wrote Finnegan to Bishop Conroy about St. Patrick’s reopening. “I can assure you that there will be no difficulty in securing money, material, and labor for the repairing of the Church.”

In 1945, the Rev. Harold McCabe was installed as pastor of St. Catherine’s Church in Clintonville and St. Patrick’s became his responsibility. McCabe, who as did the Rev. Rooney one hundred years before him, had a profound reverence for the Irish immigrant influence at St. Patrick’s. In a short time, he would also become passionate in his devotion to an Italian-born woman soon-to-be canonized as America’s first saint.

Maria Francesca Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850 in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, Lombardy, Italy, near the city of Milan. A frail woman, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart would not permit her to join their organization. In 1880, she proved resilient in spirit and founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Cabrini, who had always hoped to perform missionary work in China, was instead urged by Pope Leo XIII to “go west, not east.” In 1889, she set sail for America to help the thousands of desperate Italian immigrants there. By the time of her death in 1917, Maria Frances Cabrini had opened sixty-seven schools, hospitals and orphanages in Europe, Central and South America and the United States. In 1946, she was canonized as Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini by Pope Pius XII and soon was known as the patron saint of immigrants.

McCabe began a grassroots movement within the Diocese to build a shrine to the newly canonized Saint Cabrini. “He was a really excellent speaker,” recalled Richard Duprey, who as a twelve-year-old boy had known McCabe. “He was very, very good with people. He was very talkative and friendly. He could pretty much talk anybody into anything.”

Duprey recalled that it was his uncle, Phillip Duprey, who played a critical role in making McCabe’s dream for the shrine a reality. Phillip Duprey was American born, but a second generation French-Canadian. Richard Duprey and his younger brother, also named Phillip, had worked with their uncle as he built the cobblestone grotto in summer, 1947.

“He was a master carpenter,” recalled Duprey of his uncle. “He could cut every member of a house from a framing square. He’s the only guy I ever knew who could do that.

“I suppose that it was like a calling to him and he was very dedicated to the church,” added Duprey. “There weren’t too many people around who could plan (a job) and then do the work.”

A history of St. Patrick’s by Victoria Morey and Joyce Lucia Kolb compiled for the church’s 150th anniversary recalled the following of the shrine’s dedication ceremony:

“Under sunny skies at 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 31, 1947, the shrine was blessed and dedicated by the Bishop of the Ogdensburg Diocese, Most Rev. Bryan J. McEntegart. Members of the Plattsburgh Council of the Knight of Columbus formed a guard of honor, and twenty Christian Brothers from Mount Assumption Institute formed the choir.”

On Wednesday, September 3, 1947, the Plattsburgh Press-Republican reported, “an estimated 2,000 persons from four states Sunday witnessed the dedication of the newly erected St. Frances Xavier Cabrini shrine at the “Patent at West Peru.”

Bishop McEntegart remarked on the naturally beautiful setting of the shrine. He urged the crowd to emulate the country’s only citizen saint to whose creed was, “To do not the possible, but the impossible.”

For the next eight summers, thousands of Christian faithful arrived by busloads from as far away as Detroit, Michigan, and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to pay homage to Mother Cabrini. Regular church services were held throughout the week and McCabe hosted a Sunday Broadcast of the Mother Cabrini Hour on local radio station WEAV. Many visitors to the shrine claimed to have witnessed miracles at this time.

“It was very busy for the first few years,” recalled Duprey. “But then, like everywhere else across America, people stopped going to church.”

Phillip Duprey went on to build the fourteen stone stations of the cross adjacent to the original Mother Cabrini grotto. McCabe remained director of the shrine’s seasonal operation until his transfer to St. Cecilia’s Church in Adams, New York, in 1955.

In 1961, St. Patrick’s was transferred back to St. Augustine’s under the Rev. Arthur J. Trudel. Rev. Shnob became St. Augustine’s pastor in 2005.  Recently, a group of volunteers built an Adirondack style wood pavilion to protect the stone grotto from the elements. And generous benefactors have donated land substantially expanding the church’s property.

In its 175th year, St. Patrick’s doesn’t get the crowds it once did. It’s mostly local people seeking quiet meditation or the occasional out of town visitor who stops for curiosity more than devotion. A walk along the church’s grounds reveals Italian, French, Turkish and German heritages in the predominately Irish cemetery.  It is a testament to how St. Patrick’s is as relevant today as when it was first built, says Rev. Shnob.

“At this time in history, we have a question of immigrants (in our country),” he said. “We can’t let terrorists in, but families (we should). Canada will let woman and children (immigrants) into the country, but not men. That is inhumane.

“Whether people know it or not, everybody is on a journey,” he added. “The shrine has been a best kept secret because it is in the middle of nowhere. People come across the shrine and it just draws them in. The whole purpose, as it was years ago, is to bring all people closer to God.”

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St. Patrick’s Church, Peru NY

 

 

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Mother Cabrini Shrine, Peru NY

 

 

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Maria Francesca Cabrini

 

 

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Reverend Harold McCabe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The North Country’s Forgotten Platoon

Lake Champlain Weekly –  February 10, 2016
By Michael Langlois

On Wednesday, February 2, 1966, the North Country’s temperatures hovered near the mid-teens. That frigid morning, outside Plattsburgh City Hall, twenty-three fresh U.S. Marine Corps recruits gathered with family and friends. The get-together had been organized to offer cheerful support, but a palpable uneasy feeling permeated the small crowd.

The young men – dubbed the North Country Platoon – had a tight travel schedule. Be in Albany Thursday morning to take the military’s Oath of enlistment. From there, fly to Parris Island, S.C., for basic training.

Although the group was never officially recognized by the military or government, it’s formation bolstered local recruits joining the Vietnam War effort. The majority of the platoon members hailed from Clinton County, but Essex and Suffolk counties also contributed recruits. This year will mark the platoon’s 50th anniversary.

The North Country had supported the United States during wartime before.  As early as the Korean War, Marine Corps recruiters throughout many upstate New York counties had urged young men to form their own “North Country Platoons.” What made the ’66 platoon stand apart was the sheer number of Selective Service-aged men to enlist at the same time. Regrettably, the platoon members would fall victim to an unpopular war where returning soldiers were vilified by a disillusioned American public.

Gus Angelos, 19, and Mike Jabout, 20, both of Plattsburgh, had spearheaded the platoon.  The two men enlisted in the Marine Corps on January 3 and would spend the next month convincing their friends to join the “party.”

“We were all facing the draft,” recalled Gary Walker, one of the first to join. “We went in the marines because they had the best training. They were the best soldiers. It was either volunteer for the marines or get drafted into the army.”

The Clinton County USO was on-hand to offer moral support to the recruits and their families. Mayor Francis D. Steltzer gave a heart-warming farewell speech expressing the community’s appreciation to the brave volunteers. Platoon members gradually walked through the crowd reassuring parents, siblings, and sweethearts.

“Most people, especially the mothers, were a little distressed that their sons were going off to war,” said Walker.

As the military chartered bus pulled away from city hall, American losses in Vietnam totaled nearly 2,500. By the end of 1966, that number would exceed 6,000 servicemen killed.

The local media had made the platoon members’ minor North Country celebrities. Hometown WIRY radio personality, Tiny Hare, visited the platoon during basic training. He would conduct taped interviews with platoon members and return home airing them on local radio.

The Plattsburgh Press-Republican reported February 21, on “Marine Corps Platoon 338” as they progressed through basic training.  A photo showed four platoon members sitting on the edge of a swimming pool, their legs dangling in the water, preparing for “drown proof” training. On March 1, the newspaper published a Letter to the Editor by Walker and fellow platoon member Mike Conley. The two eighteen-year-old Plattsburgh natives, speaking for the entire platoon, thanked the community for their “warm friendliness that we received on our departure from Plattsburgh.”

The letter concluded, “Your kindness is deeply appreciated and we guarantee that wherever the “North Country men” shall go, we will always hold a deep sense of loyalty to the friendly people of Plattsburgh.”

On March 31, a contingent of North Country residents traveled to South Carolina to witness the platoon’s graduation from Parris Island. A photo was taken of the Marines holding a hometown sign that read, “Congratulations Platoon 338 “Q” Company.” The young men had departed the North Country as green recruits; they now faced Vietnam as a band of brothers.

The platoon relocated to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where they received eight weeks of secondary military training. The Infantry Training Regiment (ITR) is where the Marine Corps ensured that “Every Marine is, first and foremost, a Rifleman.” The group had remained a tight unit during initial military training, but the Marine Corps ended that indulgence after ITR.

“We went home for leave,” explained Walker. “When we returned (to duty), most of us went to different schools or for staging to Vietnam.”

Vietnam became a reality for almost all of the platoon members. Mike Norcross, Andy Phaneuf, Mike Conley, and Tom Goddeau, were assigned to 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, India Company. The 3/26 had been deactivated after WWII; its revival was a point of pride to the new infantrymen.

“It (the 3/26) was being formed as a completely new outfit,” explained Norcross. “The only other time the 3/26 had been activated was for Iwo Jima. There were very few people who ever served in the 26th marines.”

The four platoon members remained together until Goddeau and Conley transferred to 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, in Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province. Tragedy struck on May 22, 1967, when Conley was wounded by a sniper’s bullet in Con Thien. Initially reported in good condition, he later died of his wounds May 31 at Da Nang Naval Hospital, South Vietnam.

A second devastating blow for the North Country Platoon came one month later. On June 30, Goddeau was killed by enemy fire as his company searched for the survivors of a downed Marine Corps helicopter. The patrol had been near Hill 174; located 7 kilometers west – southwest of Con Thien. He had received the Purple Heart in January after being wounded by shrapnel on December 21, 1966. Marine Pfc Gary J. Walker was assigned to escort Conley and Goddeau back home to their families in Plattsburgh.

“I brought them both back,” said Walker. “We flew from Dover, Delaware, to the Plattsburgh airport. I stood duty for the two days it took for the funeral.

“It was tough,” added Walker. “It was an honor. What really hurt was to see their mothers suffering.”

While stateside Walker noticed a distinct change in the nation’s attitude toward the Vietnam War. The U.S. bombing campaign of North Vietnam beginning in 1965 made the war increasingly unpopular with certain segments of the American public.

“The first time I saw live action (of the Vietnam War) on T.V., I was amazed,” recalled Walker. “We didn’t see cameramen running around. The media was very powerful.

“It was like we had done something wrong,” he added. “We didn’t have a choice in the matter.”

Reflecting on the North Country Platoon’s 50th anniversary, Walker holds a pragmatic view of the past.

“The North Country Platoon was a good experience to go into Vietnam because we relied on each other,” he explained. “We had common experiences even though we weren’t always together (in Vietnam). I wouldn’t want to do it alone.”

The Clinton County Veterans Service Agency is working with local veterans groups to coordinate a 2016 North Country Platoon reunion. At least acknowledging that the platoon existed is important says Walker.

“It’s going to be great to see a lot of them again,” he said. “It’s not good to bring back some of the memories. We don’t need to talk about what happened to us. We were tight. The relationships you make in combat are as about as tight as you can make with anybody.”

 

 

 

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The North Country Platoon holds a homemade sign following their graduation from basic training at Parris Island.

 

 

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The Marine Corps ensures that every recruit is proficient in the water. Here the members of Platoon 338 receive the infamous “drown proof” training.

 

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Platoon 338, including members of the North Country Platoon, receive instructional training during boot camp.

 

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Members of Platoon 338 during bayonet training at Parris Island, SC, circa 1966.

The Pirates Of Dingley Dell

Lake Champlain Weekly –  October 14, 2015
By Michael Langlois
A history of an early twentieth century Vermont Boys’ Camp.

Few people who live in the Champlain Valley know that there once existed a magical place on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain. A place inspired by three extraordinary individuals who sought to heal their souls and, in the process, helped to shape the character of a younger generation.

Camp Aladdin. The name evokes images of fairytale characters in faraway lands, but for eleven glorious New England summers – 1928 to 1939 – the camp in South Hero, Vermont, was a very real place where adolescent boys spent their summers learning to navigate life’s challenges through hard work, discipline and, of course, a lot of fun.

“When you talk about a pirate ship, well, your mind just runs to all kinds of fantasy,” said Bret Corbin, author of the book, The Pirates of Dingley Dell: A True Swashbuckling Story at a Vermont Boys Camp. “I had heard talk about the founders and how they had done great things; how they were unconventional and I thought it would make an interesting piece.”

In 1928, husband and wife Francis Godfrey Baker and Marion Georgina Weller Baker with their good friend, Ellen “Nell” Edwards, opened the Adventures Summer Boys Camp (later renamed Camp Aladdin) at Beech Bay on the southern end of South Hero Island. The three friends had spent the previous five summers working as councilors for Camp Lanakila, part of Vermont’s Aloha chain of summer camps. Initially, the friends had used Lanakila to seek refuge from the lasting effects from their time during WWI. They soon realized, however, that their part-time hobby could be a full-time venture.

“They (Francis and Marion) had an opportunity to be young and happy,” Corbin said. “They were both creative people and they had a chance to place those heavy war experiences in the background.”

Francis, an ingenious engineer affectionately called “The Skipper”, was an expert boat builder who was frequently called upon by the military and private sector to solve difficult mechanical problems. Marion was a talented artist in her own right and had served with “Nell” in the Red Cross as nurses for an overseas military hospital. Marion – a well-read woman – promptly dubbed the camp property Dingley Dell, a reference to a convivial society manor house in Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers. “Nell” acted as the head nurse for the camp. Together Francis, Marion and “Nell” worked tirelessly to breathe life into The Adventures Camp.

Camp Aladdin catered to predominately well-to-do families from the larger cities with sons between fourteen and nineteen years of age. Young campers attended a nine-week session beginning on July 1 and were expected to bring, “three suits of underwear, six pairs of sailors’ white Navy trousers, one pair of sailors’ blue Navy trousers, six sailors’ white knitties, jerseys, tennis shoes, Kodak, and musical instruments, if desired,” writes Corbin.

In addition to these personal items, the boys were expected to bring a positive attitude and a strong work ethic to camp. Francis Baker believed that to build a strong character one must be willing to dream, try, fail, try again and, eventually, succeed. “He (Francis) gave them a love of imagination,” said Corbin. “He showed them how you can be unconventional and produce really amazing things.” The young boys never could have anticipated the powerful life lessons that they would take away from Dingley Dell.

Francis harnessed the energy of the young campers who helped bring his engineering designs to life. At any given time, the boys worked on various outbuildings, dilapidated cars or newly constructed watercraft with names like Warlock and Flying Foo. The intrepid engineers’ most ambitious project was a two-decked pirate ship named Aladdin. The seventy-five foot long ship with a twenty-foot beam boasted twenty-two berths and five masts with eight rainbow colored sails. The Aladdin, with a Dutch-influenced bow and a Spanish stern, made its debut on Lake Champlain during the camp’s second season.

“It would have been every boy’s dream to pull up alongside Lake Champlain boaters in a pirate ship with its Jolly Roger flapping in the breeze and replica canon sitting menacingly on the bow,” said Corbin. “The weapon didn’t actually fire any projectiles, but it sure did make a heck of a boom.”

The Aladdin travelled many nautical miles in the course of the summer, ranging from excursions on the Richelieu River or up the St. Lawrence to Montreal, to points on the New York shores of Lake Champlain. It took eight to ten kids just to operate the ship and assure its proper and smooth functioning, writes Corbin.

“Although their travels were filled with magic, mystery and intrigue, there was still a great deal of work that needed to be done to keep the ship on course and operating safely,” he said. “After a few days, they (the boys) were genuinely tired and thought a great deal about the pleasure of rest.

“The “Skipper” made sure that there was minimal time for thought of homesickness or boredom,” Corbin added.

The voyages also incorporated endurance exercises with games like “Shipwrecked Sailor,” where the campers were dropped at a remote location or left to swim to the closest shore or island. In order to eat, they would fish, set animal traps, or search for edible vegetation.
“Self sustainability is something that most kids don’t experience today,” said Corbin. There was an element of being with your peers and deciding how you were going to survive. I think it was lots of fun for them.”

For Corbin, the writing of the book was a ten-year love affair with local history. “It was an opportunity to write a real life historical piece that read like fiction,” he said. “I didn’t believe that anybody would believe (Camp Aladdin) is really true. Adults would like to go back and relive that time and I had an opportunity by writing this book.”

In the summer of 1939, “The Skipper,” Marion and the boys made their last voyage on the Aladdin. The prospect of WWII and ongoing financial problems made keeping the camp open harder to justify. Yet the memories of Camp Aladdin for these young Pirates of Dingley Dell would last a lifetime.

“I think everything there (Camp Aladdin) was just so warm,” said Corbin. “It was a nice time with people who really cared about each other. It was the kind of camp that everyone would like to be at all the time.”

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Marion Georgina Weller Baker and Francis Godfrey on the deck of the Aladdin.

 

 

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A young camper at the helm of the Dingley Dell circa 1920s.

 

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Visitors to Camp Aladdin prepare to take the “Flying Foo” for a sail.

 

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Aladdin in the early construction phases circa 1928.

 

 

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An early flyer used to advertise the magic of Camp Aladdin with a listing of the many camp activities for young men.