Hat-tip to Catholic World News:
A New York Times article on Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha’s upcoming canonization focuses on the “complex emotions” that surround it.
The Times finds that the reaction is “complex, particularly among American Indians. Some are proud, because Kateri was a Mohawk. Some doubt the truthfulness of her story as told by the church. Some hope the canonization will ease tensions between Catholic and traditional American Indians. And some are euphoric that the Church is about to name its first American Indian saint, even if they wish it had happened sooner.”
Complex Emotions Over First American Indian Saint
A statue at the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda, N.Y., where the inclusion of American Indian practices is stressed.
By SHARON OTTERMAN
Published: July 24, 2012
FONDA, N.Y. — The last time the Vatican canonized saints from along this stretch of the Mohawk River, it was 1930, and more than 35,000 Catholic pilgrims came to mark the occasion. The Jesuits here constructed a coliseum-size church to hold the crowds, and placed wooden statues of the new saints at the peaks of its stockadelike altar.
Those saints, three of them, were French Jesuits, tortured and murdered in the 17th century by the Mohawk Indians they were seeking to convert, according to the church. But in a twist of history, this October the Vatican will canonize a fourth saint from the Mohawk Valley: Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman born in 1656, a decade after the missionaries were killed in her village.
This time around, the reaction is more complex, particularly among American Indians. Some are proud, because Kateri was a Mohawk. Some doubt the truthfulness of her story as told by the church. Some hope the canonization will ease tensions between Catholic and traditional American Indians. And some are euphoric that the church is about to name its first American Indian saint, even if they wish it had happened sooner.
“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,” said Pat Whyland, 67, a Mohawk from Syracuse, who offered a prayer to Kateri, as well as to the water, wind and sun, at the start of a small powwow held at her shrine in Fonda in early July. “Not everyone knows about her,” she added, “but once you become familiar with her, you become very attached to her and her story.”
According to the Jesuits who documented her life, Kateri was born in what is now Auriesville, N.Y., on the southern bank of the Mohawk River, about 40 miles west of Albany. When she was 4, a smallpox epidemic killed her Algonquin Christian mother and Mohawk-warrior father. The disease also badly scarred her face and impaired her eyesight, earning her the name Tekakwitha, which means, “she who bumps into things.” At age 10, after war destroyed her birth village, she moved with her uncle’s family to a long house on the other side of the river.
In contact with missionaries as a teenager, she decided to become a Catholic, despite opposition from her clan and an impending arranged marriage. After she was baptized at age 20, she fled to a Catholic Indian settlement in what is now Canada. There, she worked with the sick, took a vow of perpetual virginity, and began practicing self-mortification, which included praying for hours outdoors, on her knees, during the winter. She became ill, and died at 24.
It was a simple life, marked by devotion. But after her death, Jesuits and others said they saw miraculous signs. The pockmarks on her body disappeared, they said. Prayers seeking her assistance were followed by healing.
In 1880, Catholics began petitioning the Vatican to declare Kateri a saint, and 100 years later, the Vatican certified the first miracle attributed to her intercession. Last year, the Vatican credited her with aiding in the healing of a flesh-eating infection in an American Indian boy in Washington State, the second miracle that was required for canonization.
Some American Indians question the church’s account of Kateri, said Tom Porter, who leads a small traditional community of Mohawks about five miles from where she grew up. Still, when he was asked by the Fonda shrine to speak about Kateri’s Mohawk background, he accepted. “She was raised mostly by our tradition, so her spirituality was mostly of the real old faith,” he said.
According to local residents, miracles occur here, too. Grace Hammons, 72, of Northville, said that after doctors told her she had uterine cancer, she prayed to Kateri and her biopsy came up clear. And Toby Whyland-Rich, 39, said that when he splashed some water from the natural spring dedicated to Kateri in Fonda on an ulcerous sore on his leg, it healed.
“I don’t look at it like she gave up her native beliefs,” he said as he got a Mohawk Bear Clan tattoo in a tent at the powwow. “She added to her faith.”
In the valley where Kateri grew up, two very different shrines honor her. At the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, built to honor the slain Jesuits, there is a wooden altar to Kateri inside the 6,500-seat iron-and-brick coliseum. Decades ago, when this region along the Erie Canal was bustling with industry, Polish, Ukrainian and Italian families and others of European descent would pack every seat on summer Sundays, then stay to picnic in the devotional park, which occupies over 400 acres.
“It’s holy ground, where the blood of the martyrs was spilled,” said Anne Vicinanzo, a recent visitor to the shrine who moved to the area with her family in 1958.
Across the river, the much smaller shrine in Fonda focuses on devotion to Kateri. It has an impressive name — the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine — but the sanctuary is up in the eaves of a simple 200-year-old barn, where a faded museum of Native American artifacts occupies the ground floor.
It was opened in 1938 by Franciscans, who also sought to excavate the village where Kateri moved after being orphaned. The effort resulted in the only fully excavated Iroquois village — even though there are only outlines and postholes — making the site sacred for both Catholics and traditional Indians.
The shrine emphasizes the inclusion of American Indian practices. Behind the altar, the four major medicine plants — cedar, tobacco, sage and sweet grass — are represented, along with crosses and a portrait of Kateri in prayer. On the lawn, there are prayers to the Great Spirit posted alongside biblical readings. Sage smoke, the Mohawk language and drums are incorporated into the Mass when some of the nation’s estimated 680,000 American Indian Catholics come to pray.
“It’s their tradition; it means the same as ours but it’s just different,” said Friar Mark Steed, 72, the director of the shrine. “In some small way, we are trying to recover and bring their culture back into focus.”
Both shrines have only modest attendance. The Fonda shrine regularly has about 90 people at Mass in an outdoor pavilion on summer Sundays; the Auriesville shrine attracts 600 to 700, its director said.
But Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, 73, the head of the Albany diocese and a visitor to the shrines since boyhood, said he hoped the canonization would bring new life to the sites.
“It is the hope that with the canonization of Kateri, both within our own diocese and among Catholics throughout the United States, the idea of pilgrimage will be revisited, and hopefully it will start to revive the attendance,” he said.
Stanley M. Perry, a Navajo who came to the powwow seeking support for an effort to save a sacred wetland in Kansas, said having a shared Mohawk figure of respect might also heal rifts.
“She can help us by connecting us together,” he said. She may be a saint of the Catholics, he said, but as a Mohawk she can signify the sacredness of all life. “We are all saints,” he said. “You, me, Mother Earth. The wetlands.”