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.”