LIVERPOOL, N.Y. -- One year after reopening as a volunteer-operated museum,
Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois strives to tell the story of 17th century
cross-cultural contact between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and French
missionaries. But while the museum desires historical accuracy, it lacks an
In a late 2002 cost-cutting move, Onondaga County closed Sainte Marie and
dismissed its staff of six in order to save $336,000. After an 18-month
hiatus, volunteers coalesced to reopen the museum, one of few educational
venues in the area to feature American Indian history.
"They have done exceptional work -- above and beyond anyone's
expectations," said Robert Geraci, commissioner of parks for Onondaga
County, in praise of the volunteers. "They show a great level of
Sainte Marie, located in suburban Syracuse, recreates a French Jesuit
mission active on the eastern shore of Onondaga Lake in 1656 -- '58. During
its 20-month existence, the original mission housed over 50 priests,
soldiers and workers who came to explore the region and spread the Catholic
According to volunteer coordinator Linda Pacelli, a retired elementary
school teacher, 156 volunteers between the ages of 7 and 86 contribute
their time to keep Sainte Marie operational. She said that between August
2004 and July 2005, almost 7,900 people, including 95 elementary school
classes, visited the museum. The volunteer-driven effort is only open to
the public for 16 hours per week, although group tours are available by
Sainte Marie hosted almost 29,500 guests in 2001 when it operated
full-time. Between 1991, when the facility underwent a $2.3-million
renovation, and 2000, Sainte Marie averaged 45,000 visitors annually.
Jon Anderson, a sergeant with the county sheriff's department, worked at
the museum years ago. He has returned for a second tour of volunteer duty,
portraying either a Jesuit or a soldier.
"Sainte Marie depicts a very captivating history," Anderson said. "It's not
an isolated adventure, but a chapter in the larger epic of the intersection
between two cultures."
A dozen children from the summer youth program at the Southside Family
Resource Center in Syracuse visited Sainte Marie for the first time on Aug.
"This place is very interesting; it's always good for people to learn about
other cultures," said Umoja J. Vaughn, the group's coordinator, as
volunteer Paul Finochio explained the fur trade to the kids and offered
them beaver pelts to touch.
Finochio, a retired high school history teacher, led them through the
visitor center exhibits. He paused before a display of two statues, one of
a Frenchman and the other of an American Indian, trading glass beads for
wampum. He explained to the kids that the exchange is a sign of good faith,
like a handshake.
Once outside the visitor center, Finochio guided the group past the
vegetable and herb gardens, the bread oven and the half-built dugout canoe
and into the mission itself, where they toured the blacksmith shop,
kitchen, soldiers' quarters and the chapel.
Re-enactors, or interpreters, at the mission portray Jesuit priests,
soldiers and donns, workers who have donated their lives to the church.
Anderson explained that they perform in the third person, allowing them to
step "out of character" and answer questions in a modern context.
Indians, however, are noticeably absent. While Sainte Marie frequently
features Indians as guest artists, speakers and demonstrators, it has not
attracted any Native interpreters.
"We will not play the parts of Native Americans," said Lee Miller, chairman
of the organizing committee. "We don't want to misrepresent them -- that's
not the right way."
According to a former Sainte Marie employee, rebuilding bridges with the
nearby Onondaga Nation, whose ancestors interacted with the French at the
original mission almost 350 years ago, will not likely be easy.
"They really need involvement from Onondaga," said Karen Crow, Seneca
Turtle Clan, who worked at Sainte Marie for nine years before the 2002
closure. "They do seem sincere, but after hundreds of years of adverse
relationships, people don't forget."
Crow, who still works for the county at a nearby nature center, said that
she recently met with Miller and offered him some suggestions. She misses
her old job.
"It's a shame the way it turned out -- I guess I am a little bitter," Crow
said. "But I wish them the best."
Geraci welcomes Indian involvement at Sainte Marie. "The door is wide
open," he said. "This is a great opportunity for [Indian individuals or
groups] to tell their stories."
Whether potential Indian interpreters step forward or not, Onondaga County
intends to keep the current volunteers involved. The county will continue
to provide facilities support but will go no further.
"There's no talk about a paid staff," Geraci said. "This group has proven
that 'where there's a will, there's a way.'"