On Sunday the Vatican will canonize its first ever Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. A member of the Mohawk tribe who lived in the 17th century, Kateri was chosen for canonization following the miraculous recovery of a five-year old boy in 2006. Large numbers of Catholic Native Americans from the US and Canada will make the journey to Rome to witness the recognition of their own personal Saint by Pope Benedict XVI.
Kateri Tekakwitha, also known as Lily of the Mohawks, was born in 1656 in what is today upstate New York. At the time, Dutch, English and French colonialists were fighting for control of the territory and brought with them foreign diseases. When her village was hit by a smallpox epidemic, both her parents and younger brother were killed. Kateri survived but was left with scars on her face and seriously impaired vision. It was because of her poor eyesight that she came to be known as Tekakwitha — meaning ‘she who bumps into things’. She converted to Catholicism when she was twenty years old, a decision her uncle, the chief of the village, was very unhappy about. After refusing to marry the Mohawk man who had been chosen for her, Kateri traveled by foot and canoe the 200 miles to a Jesuit-run missionary village near Montreal.
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Here she dedicated her life to Christianity. She took a vow of celibacy, a move that was frowned upon by some in the Native American community — mothering children is considered the central role of the Mohawk woman. Kateri also took more extreme measures to prove her dedication to the Catholic faith. In an essay entitled “The tortuous journey of Kateri Tekakwitha, ” University of Connecticut historian Nancy Shoemaker quotes the account of a Jesuit priest, Claude Chauchetiere, who examined the steps Kateri and some her peers took in the name of their faith:
‘They covered themselves with blood by disciplinary stripes with iron, with rods, with thorns, with nettles; they fasted rigorously, passing the entire day without eating. These fasting women toiled strenuously all day – in summer, working in the fields; in winter, cutting wood. (…) they put glowing coals between their tows, where the fire burned a hole in their flesh; they went bare-legged to make a long procession in the snows; they all disfigured themselves by cutting off their hair, in order not to be sought in marriage…’
Shoemaker notes that the 17th century Jesuits who wrote about the young Mohawk woman justified Tekakwitha’s ‘self-mortifications as inspired by God’ while everyone else’s were ‘inspired by the devil.’ The descriptions were written as part of the historical documents used by the Vatican in the late 17th and early 18th century to determine whether Tekakwitha was worthy of veneration.
Efforts to prove Tekakwitha’s sainthood began shortly after her early death in 1860, just shy of her 24th birthday. Witnesses reported that soon after the young woman’s death the scars on her face from smallpox vanished.
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Tekakwitha was actually beautified in 1980 by Pope John Paul II and was made patroness of the World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto in 2002. However, the Catholic Church needed further confirmation of a true miracle in order to canonize her. That came in 2006, when a five year-old Seattle boy named Jake Finkbonner fell and cut his lip while playing basketball. Within 24 hours, Jake was in intensive care fighting a deadly flesh-eating bacterium that was consuming the skin on his face. Doctors tried various surgeries to remove the infection from the young boy’s face but it continued to spread. Then a local priest, Tim Sauer, decided that because Jake was half Lummi Indian, local parishioners should pray to Kateri Tekakwitha to intervene. After three weeks of an induced comma the infection stopped spreading and Jake recovered.
One of the doctors that treated Jake, Dr. Hooper, explained to CBC News that it was a wonderful day when the boy began to recover. “I certainly believe in miracles,” said Dr. Hooper. “It’s a different meaning for everyone. I’m just really happy when things work out well.” Jake’s recovery was the proof that the Vatican needed and six years later Jake, who is now 12 years old, will be a special guest at the canonization.
Sunday’s event will not only be an important step for a young Mohawk woman who lived three centuries ago. Many hope that the canonization will improve often-tense relations between the Catholic Church and Native Americans. As Pat Whyland, a Mohawk from Syracuse explained to the New York Times in July; “At a time when natives are still treated like third-class citizens, it’s very impressive that the Vatican and the Catholic Church is finally recognizing her.”