Kateri feast day draws Native American Catholics eager for own saint
Small offerings are tucked between the feet on a statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in the chapel of the shrine dedicated to her in Fonda, N.Y., July 14. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service
FONDA, N.Y. - With the beat of a drum sounding and the scent of burning sage and sweet grass permeating the hot, humid air, Native American Catholics honored a woman they already consider a saint July 14, her feast day.
This year’s celebration was special, because in October the Algonquin-Mohawk woman who died more than 400 years ago will at long last become a saint.
That jubilant feeling was demonstrated as pilgrims from as far away as Georgia and Quebec stepped off the buses they took for their journey to the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda. Many kneeled before the many statues of the Native American woman who devoted herself to the Catholic faith.
“I wanted to be in the place where she lived, where she was baptized and where she is still honored,” said Eddie Ryder of Bay Shore, a town on Long Island. “I’m part Native American and I’ve always wanted to come here and really feel Kateri’s presence. Since this is the year she is going to officially become a saint, the first Native American saint, I knew it was important to come now.”
Kateri’s sainthood cause was opened in 1932, and she was declared venerable in 1943. In June 1980, she became the first Native American to be beatified, giving her the title “Blessed.”
In December, Pope Benedict XVI advanced her sainthood cause by signing the decree recognizing the miracle needed for her to become a saint. On Feb. 18, the pope announced she would be canonized at the Vatican Oct. 21, along with six others.
As Franciscan Father Mark Steed prepared to celebrate the feast day Mass in a rustic pavilion on the shrine’s 200 acres of wooded land on the north bank of the Mohawk River, he thought about how important it is for North American Catholics with an indigenous background to finally have a saint of their own.
“It authenticates who they are as a people, and who she was as an individual living all of those numbers of years ago,” Father Steed told Catholic News Service. “It gathers them in now to the whole church. So, they are not sitting on the fringe. Now they are part of the inner circle.”
The recognition and acceptance is very important to Native American Catholics in both Canada and the U.S., he said.
“I think that follows through with the plight of the (Native Americans), not being accepted, reservations and all of that business,” Father Steed said. “Moving them from land to land because someone discovers oil and now they have to get rid of them to get the oil. All of that kind of thinking that goes back hundreds of years.”
In his homily, he told the congregation that recognizing Blessed Kateri is not just a devotion.
“It’s not a fairy story. We see in Blessed Kateri what part she played in bringing God and Jesus into her world,” Father Steed continued. “This young maiden of Jesus took her part in the ongoing proclamation of the word of God.
“We cannot re-create her relationship with God. That was hers. She was a person filled with the love of Jesus. We, too, must step into our world of ministry. We celebrate today this role model of holiness and we strive to see that we are holy, too,” he said.
Despite temperatures in the 90s and an even higher heat index, the outdoor pavilion where the Mass was celebrated was filled with congregants. That evening a healing service took place at the shrine, invoking the intercession of its patroness.
Theresa Steele told CNS she felt an enriched sense of pride in both her heritage and Catholicism as she participated in the Mass.
The Canadian-born member of the Algonquin nation sang traditional Native American songs of worship while beating a drum. She also performed a cleansing ritual called smudging, where she waved the smoke of burning sage and sweet grass over members of the congregation.
Though Steele is over the moon that Kateri will be canonized in October, she said that for herself the ceremony is merely a formality.
“Growing up back home and for many natives my age or older, we were raised believing she was already a saint,” she told CNS. “We didn’t know she wasn’t already a saint. We didn’t know what canonization meant. We were told she was our saint in heaven.”
Blessed Kateri, known as “the Lily of the Mohawks,” was born to a Christian Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father in 1656 along the Hudson River in what is today upstate New York. A Jesuit missionary baptized her in 1676 when she was 20. A year later she fled to Canada and died there in 1680.
She astounded the Jesuits with her deep spirituality and her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. She took a private vow of chastity and devoted herself to prayer and to teaching prayers to the children and helping the sick and elderly.
Soon after Blessed Kateri died, Catholics started to claim that favors and miracles had been obtained through her intercession. Native Americans have made appeals to the Catholic Church for her recognition since at least the late 1800s.
Among those gathered in Fonda was a group of pilgrims from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who included members of the Cree and Metis tribes. The group was completing a 5,000-mile trip to visit the sacred sites associated with Blessed Kateri, including the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in nearby Auriesville, where Blessed Kateri was born.
Larry Chaplinski, a Northville, N.Y., resident, recalled the great devotion to Blessed Kateri of his late mother. She was a full-blooded Mohawk who lived to be 105 years old.
“She passed away last October, but she would be so pleased that Blessed Kateri is going to be canonized. It’s an inspiration for all Native Americans of all tribes how one of our race could live a truly holy life with love and kindness,” Chaplinski told a reporter from The Anchor, newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who was in Fonda to cover the feast day events.
After the feast day Mass, Kathleen McMahon walked out of the pavilion, wiped the perspiration from her forehead and gazed at the land that has been dedicated to Kateri.
The parishioner of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Fulton made her second trip to the shrine that day to honor the soon-to-be saint and to ask her for a few special intentions and favors.
“I call on her in particular for my nieces,” McMahon said. “I place them in her care a lot, for prayers in heaven on behalf of them.”
Kateri is reported to have said on her deathbed that she would pray on behalf of others in heaven.
Contributing to this story was Dave Jolivet, editor of The Anchor in Fall River, Mass.