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Pilgrimage to the Millet Cross

3/1/2016

Kevin T. Di Camillo

For 90 years, New York Knights have honored the missionary and patriotic heritage of Old Fort Niagara

A Fourth Degree honor guard from the St. Isaac Jogues Province stands at attention as Father Michael H. Burzynski, a priest of the Diocese of Buffalo and a member of St. Justin Council 5670 in Cheektowaga, N.Y., raises the chalice at Mass during the 2008 pilgrimage to the Millet Cross. (Photo by Ralph Hanley)

For the past nine decades, Knights of Columbus from across upstate New York have made an annual pilgrimage to the historic Millet Cross at Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, N.Y. Organized and led by local Fourth Degree assemblies, more than 100 Knights and their families gather in early September for a solemn procession to a towering bronze cross, followed by a memorial Mass in tribute to those who served at the old French garrison.

“Father Millet planted the first cross here on Good Friday over 300 years ago,” said John F. Sowinski, master of New York District #4 and a member of Father Baker Council 2243 in Lackawanna, N.Y. “Every year, we come here to honor his strong faith and those who died there. We also remember all who have given their lives in service to our country.”

The Millet Cross, which stands on a bluff overlooking Lake Ontario, with Toronto visible across the water some 30 miles away, was authorized in 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge and an Act of the Department of War. Both the initial concept and the subsequent hard work of fundraising came from the Knights of Columbus, who were inspired by a local historian named Peter A. Porter. Their efforts made it possible for the 18-foot cross to be dedicated in 1926.

FROM WOOD TO BRONZE

Father Pierre Millet (pronounced “mil-LAY”), a Jesuit missionary, arrived to Fort Niagara (then known as Fort Denonville) in the spring of 1688 with reinforcements from France. Built in part to deny British access to the Niagara River, the garrison is located where the mouth of the river spills out into Lake Ontario, 14 miles north of Niagara Falls. Upon landing at the fort, Father Millet and his compatriots were horrified to discover that all but 12 of the more than 100 men stationed there for the winter had died of starvation and scurvy.

Father Millet wasted no time in attending to the spiritual and physical needs of those few survivors. He then ordered the new troops to erect an oak cross in the middle of the fort. Carved on the crossbeam was “Regn. Vinc. Imp. Chrs.” — the abbreviation for the Latin phrase Regnat Vincit Imperat Christus: “Christ reigns, conquers and rules.” Once the cross was set in place, Father Millet offered the Mass of the Presanctified, as it was Good Friday.

An exceptional linguist, the intrepid Jesuit priest served the French colonial forces as interpreter as well as chaplain. After leaving Fort Denonville, he spent the next decade bearing witness to Christ among the Onondaga and Oneida peoples, converting many, including an Oneida chief. He endured five years in captivity and spent the last decade of his life as a missionary in Québec, where he died Dec. 31, 1708.

More than two centuries later, the Knights of Columbus undertook the construction of a permanent memorial in honor of Father Millet and his heroic ministry at Fort Niagara. On Sept. 5, 1925, President Coolidge’s proclamation set aside a tiny parcel of land for the Father Millet Cross as a national monument under the jurisdiction of the Department of War.

That this happened in 1920s America is nothing short of remarkable, explained Thomas Chambers, professor of history at nearby Niagara University.

“During a time of especially high-pitched anti-Catholicism, the Millet Cross — a Catholic monument donated by a Catholic fraternal organization — was still seen as an important tribute to erect on state land,” he said.

The Daprato Statuary Company of New York and Chicago created the cross with a unique inner structure — an iron framework, wrapped in sheet metal specially electroplated with a patented zinc-and-copper alloy.

Measuring 18 by 15 feet, the Millet Cross stands on a concrete block base engraved only with the date “1926.” A dedicatory plaque on the ground reads: “To Father Pierre Millet, French Jesuit Priest, Missionary to the Iroquois and Chaplain at Fort Niagara. Here on Good Friday, 1688, he dedicated a Cross invoking God’s Mercy for the plague-stricken garrison. Erected by the Knights of Columbus, Fourth Degree, 6th New York District, Calvert Province.”

On the horizontal beam the original inscription is reiterated: “Regn. Vinc. Imp. Chrs.” Between “Vinc.” and “Imp.” is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotion characteristic of French Catholicism.

On May 30, 1926, the Millet Cross was officially dedicated and blessed by Bishop William Turner of Buffalo in a ceremony attended by nearly 2,000 people, including state and local officials, the fort commandant, a military escort from the 28th Infantry and a Fourth Degree honor guard.

In 1937, a decade after the annual pilgrimage to the Millet Cross had begun, the U.S. National Parks Service published a historical account of the Father Millet Cross National Monument that included this tribute: “It stands as a memorial not only to Father Millet, but to those other priests whose heroism took Christianity into the wilderness and whose devotion sought to create in this new world a new France.”

A LIVING TRADITION

The smallest national monument ever established, the 320-square foot site of the Father Millet Cross was removed from the national park system in 1949. However, the tradition of annual pilgrimage has continued unabated, with numerous Knights and their families making the journey to pay tribute to Father Millet and the memory of those who served their country.

Lewis Herman, a member of St. Pius X Council 11168 in Getzville, has been making the pilgrimage for more than 20 years and now takes his grandchildren. “My father was inducted into the Army for World War II here at Fort Niagara,” Herman said. “This is a place to experience living history and faith, which is why so many Knights bring their families.”

The Millet Cross has survived the harsh winters and summer heat of Western New York for nine decades, whereas the original wooden cross is estimated to have lasted five years at most.

“While the cross still to this day is quite beautiful and striking, a group of local Knights noticed that it was beginning to show its age, and they brought this to my attention in 2013,” said Jerome Brubaker, curator and assistant director of Old Fort Niagara. “The Knights have been very proactive in their concern for the Millet Cross.”

One of the oldest, largest and best preserved military sites in North America, Old Fort Niagara is still an active base for the U.S. Coast Guard. Since the fort is part of Fort Niagara State Park, the Historic Preservation Office of New York State Parks has begun to formulate a plan to fully restore the Millet Cross to its original luster and grandeur. Local Knights have offered to assist in its restoration.

After the Millet Cross was raised in 1926, the Knights also helped fund the restoration of the small but beautiful chapel inside “The French Castle” at Fort Niagara, which was completed by 1929.

“One year, it rained and we had to have the ceremony indoors,” recalled Michael Flanagan, a member of St. John XXIII Council 7707 in Spencerport, who serves as the New York state program director. “We held Mass at the chapel in the castle, and it was especially moving, praying in a place where so many men over the centuries have prayed.”

A former master of New York District #4, Flanagan led the pilgrimage in 2004 and 2005 and is proud to be part of such a unique tradition.

“The pilgrimage to the Millet Cross lives on because of the faith of our brother Knights,” he said. “It is a special experience, a moving experience, to gather, to recall our history and to celebrate Mass — as Knights and Catholic Americans.”

KEVIN T. DI CAMILLO is a member of Don Bosco Council 4960 in Brooklyn, N.Y.