For the new director of religious education and youth ministry at St. Mary's/St. Paul's parish in Hudson Falls, uncovering stories is second nature.

Abigail Herlihy of Glens Falls is an archaeologist. She has a bachelor's degree in Near Eastern studies from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and a master's degree in anthropology from The University at Albany.

Mrs. Herlihy plans to use her archaeological background to help her students uncover their own journeys in faith. Her background, she said, allows her to see what "people believe [in] strongly."

In 2002, while completing her undergraduate degree, Mrs. Herlihy was able to go to a temple in Luxor, Egypt, dedicated to the Egyptian god Mut, to observe why its tunnels were built in specific locations and how that impacted the site. The dig focused on finding the temple's sacred lake.

"Human nature, a lot of times, doesn't change," Mrs. Herlihy said. "So, when we find a belief, it's going to influence how we design our architecture."

On the Nile
The temple Mrs. Herlihy worked on overlooked the Nile River. Seeing that famous waterway allowed her to understand the importance it held in the Bible: Water is "embedded in our Church beliefs," she said. "Christ is the water of life. We have a baptismal font" in every church. Water fills "your thirst for things in life."

Working on archaeological digs has "absolutely given me perspective on things," she added. "It really made the Bible stories more real. I've seen the landscape; I've touched the dirt. I know what it looks like, feels like, smells like."

Mrs. Herlihy has worked as a project director in New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Connecticut for Harken Anthropology, a company that does archaeological surveys on potential building sites.

She talked about working on the Almshouse Cemetery in Albany, "the local poor-house cemetery. We were excavating the graves and then documenting the bones."

In the grave
The experience showed her that, even in poverty, those people had "really tight religious beliefs." She recalled unearthing the skeletons of people who still wore their wedding rings: "There was importance attached to those vows."

Traditionally, she added, laypeople were buried with their heads facing west and priests facing east, so that a priest could rise and address his congregation.

"Nothing is more personal than someone's religion," the archaeologist said.

By looking at how people were buried or left their homes, Mrs. Herlihy was able to understand people's faith and everyday lives through things they left behind.

"For my master's thesis, I did a study of a gardener's cottage. There were a lot of kid toys: marbles and dolls and things like that. But then there was a cap of a flask near the back door. It made [the scene] really come alive, all of those tiny details. They made a personal connection."

The new DRE/youth minister is excited to share these experiences with her students. She hopes to make Bible stories "more lively" by explaining the historical perspective.

Mrs. Herlihy told The Evangelist that "our religion affects [our] identity as an individual." She wants her students to understand that "they are part of this family of Christ" -- something she calls "the key component" to help young Catholics grow into "who they want to become in the future."