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Celebrating 150 years

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

August 17, 2022

Editor’s note: The following is Bishop Terry R. LaValley’s homily from the 150th Anniversary Mass celebrated Aug. 10, the Feast of St. Lawrence, in St. Mar’s Cathedral.

Prior to erection as a diocese, the North Country’s spiritual welfare was provided by several Churches, churches across the St. Lawrence River as well as from the other side of the Atlantic, and by the church of New York, and then Albany. I use that phrase, the North Country, cautiously, because there is beautiful land and people North of the North Country, like Kingston, Ottawa/Cornwall and Valleyfield.

Bishop Dubois of New York made his first visit to this most wooded part of his diocese, to St. Regis and Waddington, back in 1827. Historians tell us that in the 1830’s and ‘40’s missionary priests from New York “gave the best part of their lives to the severe conditions and labored in the wilderness of the North Country.”

We are indebted to all those early missionaries, those devoted daughters and sons of the Church who brought the Eucharist, the sacraments and Catholic education, who cared so deeply for the poor and the orphaned – all so committed to the folks of this rugged land so long ago. The seed of faith was sown and nurtured.

One writer observed that these missionaries “carried to their work a buoyancy, a sacrificial stance and cheerfulness that only deep faith could supply.” He commented that their common virtues were such that “they desired to safeguard the faith and honor of their people.” Sisters and brothers, in this local Church’s history, where that honor was denied and human dignity stolen, we express our sorrow and seek the Lord’s forgiveness.

On February 16, 1872, Pope Pius IX wrote: We, with definite knowledge, mature deliberation, and by our Apostolic Authority, in virtue of the present document, separate and sever from the Diocese of Albany, the following territory – the counties of St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, Jefferson, Lewis, and Essex, together with that part of the counties of Herkimer and Hamilton which lies above the northern line of the townships of Ohio and Russia; and this same territory we erect and constitute as a true and properly called diocese. And so, the Diocese of Ogdensburg was born!

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” For generations, that fruitful martyr, St. Lawrence, has had a special place in our hearts. The river which claims his name, has brought untold numbers from foreign lands to settle here. It continues to serve as an important route for commerce and recreation.

You know his story. Lawrence was “first among the deacons who served the cathedral church in Rome.” This was a position of great trust that included the care of the treasury and riches of the Church and the distribution of alms to the poor. After the execution of Pope Sixtus II, the Roman civil authorities demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Lawrence asked for three days to gather the wealth. He worked quickly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, to prevent it from being seized by the prefect.

On the third day, as the head of a small delegation, Lawrence came before the prefect, and when ordered to deliver the treasures of the Church he presented the poor and the suffering. He insisted that these were the true treasures of the Church.

The prefect was so angry that he had a big gridiron prepared with hot coals beneath it and had Lawrence placed on it. As you look at the sculptural work on the exterior of St. Mary’s Cathedral, you’ll see a depiction of St. Lawrence with the gridiron. His act of defiance led to his martyrdom. The grain of wheat fell.

Our first shepherd, Bishop Wadhams, gave all. He sowed God’s Word and followed Christ in the most severe of conditions. Cardinal Dolan is using Bishop Wadham’s original pastoral staff at this special Mass. St. Lawrence’s deep faith, love for the poor, and courage are telling attributes of our first shepherd. Jesus told His disciples: Whoever serves me must follow me. And that, the bishop did.

What was in store for Bishop Wadhams? One chronicler wrote: “The Ogdensburg mission is the wildest part of the state, and the stories that could be told of endurance and suffering in it are as real and interesting as any from the remote West. I attended him once on a visitation to a county up there. The parish visited lay in a region well scoured by the winds of Lake Ontario. We travelled seven miles from the railway to the parish town the first night, and seven more in the morning to another mission…The Bishop said Mass, preached, confirmed and went through the ceremony of dedication in a half-finished church.
The writer goes on: “After a breakfast of poor coffee, a tough steak, soggy bread, and doughnuts, we rode back to the parish town, where the bishop preached and confirmed in the town hall and talked the rest of the day with the natives about politics and crops.

At six o’clock Monday morning the ride to the depot was repeated, and the bishop got home by noon to recover from an attack of dyspepsia and rheumatism, the consequence of official visits to the mountains. Such a rigorous life was hard upon the priests and the religious laboring in the diocese. Most of them were poor, unable to receive much more than mere sustenance from equally hard working and poor parishioners.

Being a local boy, as was Bishop Wadhams, at my Episcopal ordination, I shared these words that he had written: “I know well the task I have before me. I know that country well. The population is poor and scattered. It is a land of small settlements and long distances. The people cannot be reached by railways or stagecoaches. Even good wagon roads are few. But I’ll tell you what I mean to do.

I shall get a good pony that will carry me anywhere; and you take my word for it, it will not be long before I visit every family; and every man and woman, barefooted boy, and yellow-headed girl in my diocese will know me. Yes, sir-ee,” he wrote.

As you know, as part of our diocesan Envisioning Process, we sought to visit every household in our diocese, most often on wheels, rather than by hoof. Yes, sir-ee!

Within his first month here, Bishop Wadhams had begun to insist on the practice of announcing the Incarnation. In one village, the pastor complained to the new bishop that he was too poor to ring the Angelus because he had to serve as his own sacristan and when away at the out missions, there was no one to care for the church. “What!” the bishop exclaimed, “too poor to ring the Angelus?”

He quickly called in the cook, Margaret, and promised her two dollars a month extra if she would accept the responsibility of ringing the bells and that she did! Bishop Wadhams set church bells pealing out the Angelus three times daily in whatever village he visited. From the very start, the people of this local Church have turned to the Blessed Virgin as our Patroness and Maternal help.

For the last 150 years, the Diocese of Ogdensburg has been blessed with the ministry of so many faithful consecrated religious, priests, deacons, bishops, and devoted lay faithful. Through the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, they have seen us through World Wars, the Great Depression, a sexual revolution, the introduction of the Internet & cell phones, terrorist attacks, heinous sins against our youth, and through the Pandemic. Through it all, like the flowing streams tucked in the valleys flowing between our mountains, the grace of God continues to flow in the lives of the folks who call the North Country “home.”
It’s no secret that with the disappearance of the family farm, to this day, we encounter certain significant challenges. But there’s nothing, nothing that can’t be accomplished with strong faith and sacrifice.

That missionary spirit which introduced the faith to the native population here back in the 18th and 19th centuries took a new turn, generations later, when Bishop Brzana, in response to the teachings of Vatican Council II, sent priests of the North Country as missionaries to Peru, South America. Our continuing supportive relationship with the Diocese of Mollendo and with Bishop Chbeir and the faithful of Latakia, Syria help safeguard the Catholic faith and honor the people, far beyond our borders.

My sisters and brothers, over forty years ago, the world witnessed the “Miracle on Ice” at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Truth be told, miracles are not so rare. Raw faith has the power to change everything! Through the power of God’s Spirit, the faith continues to thrive in this local Church because of the early pioneers of the Church who trekked the trails, rafted the rivers and rode the rails to share the Good News of what our God has done and continues to do for us, here in the North Country.

Yes, we remember the sacrifices experienced so that the faith might increase.

Yes, we renew our commitment to follow Jesus and build up His Body, the Church. Yes, at every Mass, we celebrate the love poured out upon us by the Lord.

We proclaim “YES!” because that early missionary spirit continues to cover the land and is planted into the hearts of our folks. You carry to your neighbor a certain buoyancy, a sacrificial stance and a cheerfulness that only your deep faith can supply and sustain. In 1732, the first recorded Mass within the territory of our Diocese was celebrated in Crown Point. 290 years later we gather at Eucharist and continue to do what folks up here have done faithfully since that time, because, after all, we are Christ-led, Christ-fed and Hope-filled. Yes, sir-ee! We are disciples in mission! May God be praised…forever may God be praised!

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