"Fabulous." "Beautiful." "Wonderful." These are the first words that come forth when older Catholics in the Diocese of Albany are asked about their memories of the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville.

"We went after Mass on Sundays with my family. We said the Rosary all the way over." "We always brought sandwiches for a picnic. An Italian family from our church brought lots of really good food for their picnics." "We went with my family and my Canadian grandmother; she loved the shrine. Later, I took my children and grandchildren to the shrine." "My father organized family trips because his mother loved the shrine." "I went with the Boy Scouts; we camped out in tents." "I went with the Girl Scouts from school. It was something we did every year." "I went with my family when I was a girl, but my children went with their parochial school. The eighth-graders always had a retreat there." "Our parish priest used to take the altar boys to the shrine."

For many, the Auriesville shrine played a big role in the experience of growing up Catholic in the Diocese. The site of the martyrdom of Jesuit missionaries Ss. Isaac Jogues, René Goupil and John Lalande -- also dedicated to the memory of the five other Jesuit martyrs of North America: Ss. John de Bréboeuf, Antoine Daniel, Gabriel Lalemant, Noel Charbanel and Charles Garnier -- exerted a powerful draw for Catholics young and old.

Two other extraordinary witnesses to Christ are associated with this holy place: St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born on the site; and Rev. Walter Ciszek, a 20th-century Jesuit who spent 23 years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union and may someday be canonized, who prepared for his final vows at the shrine.

The Jesuits bought the land at Auriesville in 1885. Four thousand pilgrims attended the first Mass at the shrine on the feast of the Assumption that year. The shrine has been a place of pilgrimage and a center of Catholic faith and culture in the Diocese ever since.

Many factors have contributed to the fading of the strong Catholic identity and culture that once marked the Diocese. The vocations crisis and the closing of Catholic schools are just two examples of national trends that have thinned the Catholic community.

The Jesuits struggled to keep the shrine going in the midst of falling attendance and fewer men responding to priestly vocations. The Jesuit provinces of North America consolidated, as did the order's staffing of Jesuit schools, retreat houses and other ministries.

As attendance at the shrine dwindled, the buildings and grounds suffered neglect. In 2015, the Jesuits began massive fund­raising to restore the shrine. Through the generosity of many donors, the most pressing repairs were made: The roof of the Coliseum was replaced by the Knights of Columbus. The Kateri Chapel was renovated and its roof replaced. The buildings were painted. Foundations were repaired and sealed. These repairs were vital if there was to be any future for the site as a place of pilgrimage.

Supported by donors, the funding for two new grottos is in place. The Our Lady of Martyrs grotto is scheduled to open in the fall; the St. Kateri Tekakwitha grotto, in 2018.

At the end of 2015, due mainly to the shortage of priests in the order, the Jesuits decided to withdraw from ministry at the shrine. An uncomfortable period of not knowing what was going to happen followed, sorting out complex matters of canon (Church) law and ecclesial administration.

After months of discussion and exploring alternatives, it was agreed that the Jesuits would transfer 158 acres of the 400-acre shrine property as a gift to a new not-for-profit organization, the Friends of Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine, formed under the direction of Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger. The formal transfer recently took place.

Now, a new chapter begins! Plans for renewing the shrine as a center of Catholic evangelization, devotion and culture in the Albany Diocese are underway. Already, the pulse of activities at the shrine has quickened! Many interested parishioners of the Diocese met there for a Vocations Summit and a Festival of Families last year. The St. Kateri Tekakwitha Pow Wow, an international gathering of North American Indians, was held at the shrine in July last year and again this year.

The first annual Martyrs' Feast, bringing together local and national supporters of the shrine, was held last fall. A new chapel in honor of Our Lady Undoer of Knots was dedicated by Bishop Scharfenberger, and a lecture on Father Ciszek was presented by John DeJak of the Friends of Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine.

Over five months of 2016, more than 75 pilgrimage groups were welcomed at the shrine. The Boy Scouts held a campout; numerous confirmation and school groups, as well as many priests and religious, visited. Plans are in the works for more retreats and campouts, school and parish events. It is hoped that conferences and pilgrimages for local, regional and national Catholic groups will again offer opportunities for devotion and spiritual growth. With the help of retired and active priests of the Diocese, regular daily and Saturday Masses, confession and adoration are being celebrated at the shrine again.

Celebrated artist Tim Schmalze has agreed to mount his spiritual sculptures in a new art path through the woods at the shrine. A popular Amsterdam Christmas light show was purchased for the shrine, which promises to become an annual family tradition.

As the North American martyrs sowed and watered the soil of our region with faith, a revival of attendance at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs will help reignite the faith of those seeking spiritual revival. Let us return to make the witness of the martyrs once again a source of renewal!

(Mrs. Cromie attends St. Mary's parish in Albany. To support the shrine, send donations to Friends of Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine, 136 Shrine Rd., Suite 2, Fultonville, NY 12072. Read previous stories on the shrine at