Who is Kateri Tekakwitha, Canada's first aboriginal saint?
Published Saturday, October 20, 2012 1:53PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, October 20, 2012 11:21PM EDT
Years of prayers have been devoted to Kateri Tekakwitha, a woman that never let her faith waver despite persecution from her fellow natives. Nearly 300 years since her death, Tekakwitha is now set to make history.
Tekakwitha’s devotion is being celebrated by the Catholic faithful as she is canonized on Sunday, becoming the first aboriginal from Canada deemed a saint. The “Lily of the Mohawks” will be honoured alongside six other people by Pope Benedict XVI who will preside over the ceremony in Rome.
For many Catholics today, Tekakwitha remains a role model for retaining her Christian faith despite the ostracization of her peers.
According to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, only a select few Canadians have been honoured as Saints. Tekakwitha will join St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, St. Marguerite d’Youville and Saint Brother Andre, along with the North American martyrs who have been honoured by the Vatican.
“You could say she’s the mender of all cultures. She’s drawing all peoples together. I think this was her mission,” Deacon Ron Boyer, at St. Francis Xavier Mission in Mohawk Territory told CTV’s Canada AM.
Tekakwitha is entombed in a marble shrine at St. Francis Xavier Mission in the Mohawk Nation in Kahnawake, Que. It is expected that approximately 1,500 members of that community will be in Rome to attend the celebrations, including Boyer and his family.
“It really lifts my spirits for somebody to be recognized in that way,” Saskatchewan resident Brenda Montgrand, who is visiting Rome for the event, told CTV News. “It’s a great honour and I just love it, I love being here.”
It is thought that Tekakwitha’s canonization could help heal old wounds left by the Catholic Church on native communities, where the church oversaw residential schools intended to assimilate children into Canadian society.
In 2009, the Pope expressed sorrow to a delegation from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations over the abuse and treatment that aboriginal students suffered at the schools.
Some of the former students of the residential schools travelled to Rome for the canonization.
“For the church to do this, tells our people their attitude is changing,” said British Columbia resident Gordon Chualna. “We can use this to build a new relationship.”
Above Tekakwitha’s tomb reads an inscription that Boyer said translates from Mohawk to mean “she is someone special, unique, someone we hold in high esteem.”
“It’s not only important to the church but it’s very important to the church of the world,” said Boyer.
Boyer is the third individual appointed by the Vatican to take on Tekakwitha’s case for canonization, a process that began in the 1880s before she was eventually beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.
Tekakwitha’s journey began when she was born to a pagan Iroquois father and an Algonquin Christian mother in present-day upstate New York in 1656. She was hit with smallpox at the age of six. While her family died from the disease, Tekakwith was left scarred and disfigured but alive.
After a move to her uncle’s home near Montreal, Tekakwitha was baptized by Jesuit missionaries. She was granted the Catholic name “Kateri,” which is Mohawk for Catherine.
“It was a dramatic time of terrible conflict and change as her Iroquois people were having contact indirectly with the French in Canada, and the Dutch in New York,” Allan Greer, author of Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits told CTV News Channel.
Greer notes that, as a historian, Tekakwith’s life is fascinating because it is so well chronicled.
“She is the best documented individual Native of North and South America in the period of the initial contact of colonization.”
Tekakwitha is qualifying for sainthood based on a “miracle” that cured a boy suffering from flesh eating disease. The Vatican must certify a miracle performed through the intercession of a candidate. A miracle such as an inexplicable cure of someone that can only be linked to direct prayers to the candidate from the faithful.
It was the prayers offered to God through Kateri’s intercession that the Vatican says saved Jake Finkbonner’s life, a young boy from Washington.
Finkbonner was just six year’s old when he struck his lip while playing basketball. After a sudden onset of a high fever and subsequent battle with flesh-eating bacteria, the boy’s future seemed grim. Finkbonner’s parents even discussed donating the young boy’s organs.
Yet the family summoned Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Mohawk from the Akwesasne reserve who had a bone relic of Tekakwitha. The family held it on the son’s chest, and began to pray. From that point forward, the infection stopped spreading.
It took many years for the family to connect the turning point of their son’s health to Sister Mitchell's visit to the hospital.
Jake Finkbonner, now 12, and his family will be present in Rome on Sunday for the celebrations. Archbishop Thomas Cardinal Collins of Toronto will join 17 other bishops making the trip. House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer will also be attending.
A Hamilton school named after Tekakwitha is also set to host celebrations to coincide with the canonization. St. Francis Xavier Mission will honour her during Sunday’s celebrations as well.
Boyer said they have waited 332 years for this and now the world is coming together to celebrate.
“We are going to pay homage to this beautiful girl,” said Boyer.
With a report from CTV’s Ben O’Hara-Byrne and files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press