Editor's note: Learn about the life of the first Native-American saint on EWTN in a docudrama that covers everything from young Kateri Tekawitha’s life and faith to the miracles that resulted in her canonization. See what it was like to walk In Her Footsteps at 9pm ET, Sunday, July 14.
When Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Kateri Tekakwitha last October, she became the first American-Indian saint.
This Sunday, July 14, marks her first feast day since her canonization.
“It has been an affirmation of who we are,” said Sister Kateri Mitchell, a full-blooded Mohawk with the Congregation of St. Ann. She is the executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference in Great Falls, Mont., a group that has spread Kateri’s story since 1939.
“With her canonization, we feel we are definitely a part of the universal Church and not just on the fringe,” said Sister Kateri, who credits St. Kateri’s elevation to sainthood with having a huge impact in the lives of American-Indian Catholics. “It has done a lot to support our people’s faith experience and helped deepen our relationship with God and our Church.”
Miracle in Seattle
Sister Kateri, who grew up on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in New York, was directly involved in the miracle that led to the canonization.
She received a request to bring a relic of Blessed Kateri to pray with Jake Finkbonner, a 5-year-old boy who was dying in Seattle from an aggressive flesh-eating bacteria.
When all possible treatments failed, Jake was given last rites in February 2006.
“I put the relic in the palm of his mother’s hand, then put my hand over hers, and, together, we placed it on Jacob’s bandaged body and prayed,” Sister Kateri recalled. “I asked Blessed Tekakwitha for Jake’s healing and ended by praying three times for her canonization.”
Not until several months later, when Sister Kateri was asked to fill out paperwork for the Vatican investigation, did she learn that a miracle had occurred: When Jake’s bandages were removed following those prayers in February, his body was healed. It was deemed medically inexplicable and accepted as a miracle.
Although it took several years of investigation to verify that miracle, Friar Mark Steed, director of the St. Kateri Shrine in Fonda, N.Y., said he often hears miracle stories attributed to this saint from people who visit the shrine.
Born in 1656 in Auriesville, N.Y., St. Kateri was the daughter of a Mohawk warrior. Smallpox left her face scarred and damaged her eyesight, and it took the life of her parents and brother when she was 4 years old.
Relatives adopted Kateri, but she faced great hostility from her tribe after her baptism at the age of 20. She lived a life dedicated to prayer and service and was devoted to Jesus in the Eucharist.
When Kateri died just before turning 24, witnesses reported that, within a few minutes after death, the scars on her beautiful face vanished.
Immediately, both Native Americans and settlers began attributing healings and miracles to her intercession.
Saint for the Native People
Since St. Kateri’s canonization, Father Steed said the numbers of visitors to the shrine have increased.
“Her canonization is a boost to all indigenous people around the world,” he said.
Father Steed acknowledged, however, that it is not without controversy. There is some tension between traditionalist Native Americans and the Native Catholic communities. Through elevating St. Kateri in this way, Father Steed said it is viewed as giving the Church’s blessing to the Native people: “My goal is to encourage traditionalists to see that the Church has recognized a Mohawk woman and, therefore, recognizes the inherent goodness in all the Native peoples.”
Bismarck, N.D., Bishop David Kagan declares Kateri a saint for everyone: “We find a model of holiness not just for Native Americans, for which they can be rightfully proud, but a model of holiness for all of us.”
He planned a two-day celebration, July 13-14, in honor of St. Kateri at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck for all the tribes throughout the state, to include a parade of colors, dancing, speakers, Mass and Eucharistic adoration.
“The celebration for St. Kateri Tekakwitha is one we need to celebrate as a diocese and the entire state of North Dakota,” Bishop Kagan said.
Mark Thiel, an archivist of native Catholic collections at Marquette University and co-author of Native Footsteps: Along the Path of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, is the keynote speaker for the event.
Thiel’s book is about Kateri from a Native-American perspective. Much of it was taken from interviews he conducted with various American Indians throughout the United States.
“I’ve been impressed with the thousands of people who have been devoted to her for years, and this was part of the momentum for her canonization,” Thiel said.
He attributes the love that Native-American Catholics have for Kateri with the fact that they see someone like themselves and see a common struggle, like Kateri herself experienced growing up. “She experienced rejection and hard times, was somewhat handicapped through poor eyesight and had a devastating disease,” said Thiel. “Many Native people who I have met have also had many hardships; it’s part of their identification with St. Kateri.”
He said that people find strength through her example: “I have met many with devastating illnesses, and many have felt she has answered their prayers.”
Popularity of ‘Kateri’ Name
One mark of St. Kateri’s significance among Catholics has been an increase in naming babies after her and the popularity of her name for confirmation.
Kathleen Whitfield of Plano, Texas, learned about Kateri as a young girl growing up in western Massachusetts; her parents took her to the shrine in Auriesville.
“Her story captured my imagination, and when I was pregnant with my second child, I remembered her and her struggles,” Whitfield said.
Although she is completely of European descent, Whitfield found the name “Kateri” as beautiful as the saint’s conversion story.
“Since the name is so unique, we have had lots of chances to tell St. Kateri’s story to a lot of people,” she said of her family’s connection to Kateri.
“Kateri had such a devotion to the Eucharist that it is a chance to present that to people who don’t fully understand it. It’s something for them to think about,” Whitfield said, “and it’s something for me to aim to imitate as well.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.