Saturday, July 21, 2012

A hill on the Mohawk River


By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Hundreds of gravestones in neat white rows cover the crest of a hill overlooking the Mohawk River in upstate New York. It may appear to be a military cemetery—the kind the United States leaves behind in all the countries in which it has fought—but the men buried here were not soldiers. They were nonviolent, peace-loving, and, it must be admitted, only a few looked very much like warriors.

The hill overlooking the Mohawk once held Iroquois villages where French Jesuits arrived by canoe in the 17th century to evangelize the Indians. The Jesuits had little success, though one young woman, Kateri Tekakwitha, will soon be canonized. The Indians tortured and killed some of the missionaries, including St. Isaac Joques.

Centuries later, the missionaries gained control of the land where the Indian villages had stood and built a shrine in honor of the French Jesuits. They named it Auriesville. The bones of the laymen working with the Jesuits and killed along with them have never been recovered. These lie somewhere on that hill or in the valleys around it, along with the bones of the Indian chiefs, the few converts the missionaries had made, the young warriors dead in the ceaseless intertribal wars, the Indian mothers and children, some of whom died of diseases brought by the Jesuits and other white men. Along with them are the remains of 500 or so New York Province Jesuits who have died since the 1970s and lie in the neat white rows.

They are all there in the sunshine with the trees, summer clouds, flowers and songbirds. Sadly, there are no traces left of the Indians.

My brother Ned is one of the men lying there, one of the most recent Jesuits to be buried. We came to visit and say our prayers. Then I walked back and forth through the long rows of gravestones, reading each of them; I knew those buried there almost as well as my brother did.

They were all types of men—some were missionaries sent to the Caroline and Marshall Islands and the Philippines; others were parish priests, superiors, authors, scientists, and teachers. There were men who ran labor schools, greeted guests in the novitiate, ran world-famous aquariums, men who campaigned for peace and others who campaigned against pornography. Sometimes other Jesuits didn’t appreciate a man’s work. Peace work was criticized by some of them. Some Jesuits were well-known, others were not. Many were quite eccentric: The Jesuits give their members so much freedom, it is the rare man who doesn’t end up somewhat free-spirited.

I looked up from time to time as I walked through the long rows and realized: This is beautiful country. There are lakes, mountains and a forest bulging with pine, elm and maple. There are deer, hawks, and small furry animals none of us could identify. There are dark blue rivers and farm land sweeping down to the river banks.

I think the Jesuits are content to be there together in that earth with the tiny wild daisies that grow among the graves and the songbirds that sit atop them.

When we were young my brother never dreamed he would end up on that hill. I don’t think he would have imagined being anything but a Latin-Greek professor. He worked eventually with Fr. Dan Berrigan in the peace movement and then he set up with friends a soup kitchen that has grown into a very effective social center for poor people in the Bronx. On his tombstone—if the Jesuits allowed brief summaries of people’s lives on their tombstones—might be the words: “He tried to make peace. He fed the hungry.”

We walked away with peace in our hearts, leaving the French Jesuits, the Iroquois and the more recent dead to God’s warm and calming care.

The last stanza of “Amazing Grace” could have been written about the Jesuits of Auriesville and the Indians of the Mohawk River: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years/ Bright shining as the sun/ We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise/ Than when we’d first begun.”

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. Please send your feedback to

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