Being part Cherokee, whenever a Native American receives world attention…and especially a woman…it catches my attention. Yesterday a very special woman known as “Lily of the Mohawks,” who lived in the 17th century, became an official “Saint”. She was canonized in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI in a ceremony that drew followers from California to New York and Canada to Mexico where people of American Indian ancestry flourish. Tapestries bearing the images of Kateri Tekakwitha, her real name, were hung from St. Peter’s Basilica.
Kateri was known as the patroness of ecology and nature because of her Native American spiritual traditions which drew her close to “Mother Earth” or everything in Nature being considered symbols of God. Her canonization draws attention to these Native American traditions and shows the importance of letting spirituality infuse all aspects of life and that all spaces are sacred. Even though Kateri lived a relatively short life her faith was never shaken. Born in 1656 in upstate New York on the southern bank of the Mohawk River to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief, her parents died from smallpox, an affliction that disseminated thousands of Indians in the Americas. Unlike her parents and younger brother, she survived the epidemic but remained scarred. However her mother’s Catholic faith stayed within her and she carried it with her for the rest of her life like a sacred banner.
She was adopted by a foster family and the Indians baptized her “Tekakwitha” or “she who bumps into things”. At 18 she courageously decided to live her faith out in the open and was baptized near present-day Fonda, New York. A shrine was built there in honor of her life and sacrifice. She was subsequently ridiculed and ostracized by her tribe and was forced to flee to Canada. She died at age 23 surrounded by a group of Christian Indians in Quebec at the Mission of St. Francis Xavier. They also built a shrine there to honor her memory.
After she died at age 23, a priest reported what is regarded as a miracle — the scars on her face vanished and her skin took on a youthful appearance. Villagers reported seeing visions of her reassuring them she was going to heaven, and for years afterward, the earth she touched was used to treat people’s ills. She had settled at the Mission of St. Francis Xavier with a group of Christian Indians in Quebec. A shrine stands in her name there too.
Two miracles have been attributed to Kateri. The first was the disappearance of all of her scars upon her death as reported by the Christian missionaries in Quebec. The villagers then reported seeing visions of her from heaven and thereafter they used the surrounding areas which had been inhabited by Kateri to treat their ills.
The second miracle occurred when a 6 year old Lummi Nation Indian boy, Jake Finkbonner, from Washington State was on his deathbed being devoured by a flesh-eating bacteria (necrotizing fasciitis) which had started from a cut on his lip. The doctors had given up hope of saving him so his parents called in a priest to give him his last rites. In desperation they prayed all through the night to Tekakwitha, who they considered their own Indian Saint as she had been beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. The next day to the amazement of the parents and the doctors who could offer no scientific explanation, the bacteria had stopped spreading. Slowly Jake recovered. After much study and consideration, the church declared his recovery a miracle. Jake carries scars from his infection and a new found belief in Kateri’s spiritual presence. He and his family traveled to Rome to participate in the canonization ceremony.