Church to canonize first Native American saint

This Sunday at the Vatican, two women with roots in Central and Upstate New York will be canonized. One of these “Saints Among Us” is Kateri Tekakwitha.
Syracuse (WSYR-TV) - This Sunday at the Vatican, two women with roots in Central and Upstate New York will be canonized. One of these “Saints Among Us” is Kateri Tekakwitha.

Kateri – the Lily of the Mohawk – will be the first Native American Saint canonized within the Catholic Church.

Native Americans have long believed they had a saint among them, one of their very own.

“She's always been a saint. The Vatican just finally caught up with it. As far as her native people were concerned, she'd been a saint from day one,” said Father James Carey.

Day one was the day she died at the age of 24. Within 15 minutes of her death, her face – covered since childhood with smallpox scars – became clean and clear, the scars disappeared.

“When she did die, the pox marks of her smallpox disappeared, and when they buried her, lilies grew from her burial, and that's why she's known as the Lily of the Mohawks,” she said.

The “Lily” is now a saint – Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. In Mohawk, her name is pronounced Gah-Dah-Lee Day-Gwah-Gwee-Day.

She was born along the Mohawk River in 1656, where Auriesville now stands, about 40 miles west of Albany.

After the smallpox epidemic killed her parents and wiped out her native village, Kateri and other survivors settled on the north bank of the river near Fonda, NY.

Land near there now houses her national shrine. Franciscan Friar Mark Steed is the shrine’s director.

“It's where Kateri lived. And I often tell people, where you're standing now is probably the same ground she walked on 300 and some years ago,” Friar Steed said.

There, Kateri embraced Catholic Christianity taught by Jesuit missionaries. At age 20, she was baptized. Because of her conversion, she was shunned by many of her own people. She fled to a Catholic Indian settlement in present day Quebec.

Her Jesuit biographers say she spent the last four years of her life helping the sick and elderly and teaching prayers to children. She took a vow of virginity and would pray on her knees for hours, outdoors in the winter, as one means of self-mortification.

Illness took her life at 24. But as soon as she died, legend says favors and miracles were granted to those who prayed to Kateri.

“I always thought she was a saint and most Native people did think she was a saint. As a matter of fact, in Mohawk, it is Saint Kateri. This just makes it official,” said Emily Garrow-Stewart, a parishioner at St. Lucy’s in Syracuse.

Garrow-Stewart spends a lot of time at St. Lucy’s in a special chapel dedicated to Kateri. There, Native American spirituality melded with Catholicism decades ago. The stained glass windows commemorate each clan of the Iroquois.

In the late 70s, the pastor at St. Lucy’s was Father James Carey. He organized Central New York efforts to work toward canonization for Kateri. To this very day, one of his personal treasures is his own relic of the Lily of the Mohawks.

For Mohawks like Emily and Native Americans elsewhere, the elevation of their saint to official sainthood is a watershed moment.

“It's almost similar to say, we had a Native American president. That would be the next best thing to Kateri,” said Garrow-Stewart.

The best thing about St. Kateri, in the minds of many, is the life she lived along the Mohawk and later in Canada.

“In this very simple person, who died very young, 24 years old. There was a quality of life that lends itself available to all of us today. To be open to listening to the gospels and seeing within them a way of living and then reaching out to people in the community,” she said.

But why did this 17th Century Mohawk woman, a convert, make her life into one that her contemporaries, and generations ever since, have honored and revered and praised? Friar Mark says it’s simple:

“She fell in love with Jesus Christ. Anybody who falls in love with someone, their whole life becomes a focus and so, they eat and live and sleep the person they're falling in love with. They become the object of every aspect of living that they want to be as well. I think that's what happened with her,” he said.

And what happens now on the land where Kateri fell in love with Jesus? It’s quiet most of the time, as the faithful and the curious read again her last words and gaze on the various images of the newest saint who is anything but new to the first Americans.

“We call this place, a place of peace and healing.  And that doesn't mean healing, miraculous healing, but people leave feeling, you know, more well put together, they feel good about themselves,” Friar Mark said.

Faithful Native Americans and many others have considered Kateri holy, a true saint, for over 300 years.

Canonization by the Vatican, after all this time, may simply prove that patience is a virtue unto itself.

“Well, that's exactly what I think. Finally the church is recognizing her,” Friar Marks said.

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