KATERI CANONIZED TO CHEERFUL CROWDS

Canonization of Auriesville native Kateri Tekakwitha draws praise around world

BRYAN FITZGERALD
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Monday, October 22, 2012

FONDA -- From the Vatican to this riverside village and all across the Mohawk Valley, the materialization of more than 350 years of prayer, hope and faith was celebrated Sunday as devotees of now-Saint Kateri Tekakwitha cheered her canonization, the first of a Native American Catholic.


Born in present-day Auriesville, 40 miles west of Albany, Kateri has long held celebrity-like status here. As soon as children learn to read and write, they are told the tale of Kateri, who was shunned by her tribe after she converted to Catholicism at age 20, and then lived a life of celibacy until her death at 24. Her canonization has been much anticipated for generations.


"You really can't even put a day like today into words," said Layna Maher, who has lived in Fonda her entire life. "I can't ever remember not knowing about Kateri."


Maher was one of roughly 1,000 who gathered at National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine to rejoice. The crowd, as it was at other sites, including Rome, was a mix of devout Catholics like Maher and both Christian and non-Christian Native Americans, some of whom draped themselves in traditional tribal regalia.


Many Catholics who attended Sunday's service spoke of Kateri's purity, her devotion to Jesus Christ and to the church. To them, Kateri's admission into sainthood is largely, if not entirely, a commemoration of faith.


"She was a true lover of Jesus," Maher said. "There is just such a presence of God here today, you can feel it. His love is palpable."


But to Native Americans, Kateri's canonization was a societal landmark as well.


"She was someone who was basically born as nothing, according to the white people back then," said Pegi "Little Wolf" Knapp, a Mohawk descendent who lives in Schoharie County. "And now, she has been elevated all the way to sainthood. This is a very big deal."


Honored on a worldwide scale, Kateri, some hope, will also draw attention to the plight of modern day Native Americans. Kateri's canonization comes at a time when reservations nationwide continue to wither in poverty.


"There is still a lot of oppression, a lot of segregation," said Dawn "Standing Woman" Marczak, a Mohawk Turtle clan member. "I'm hoping that people researching Kateri will learn more about our way of life -- not just about how we lived long ago, but how we live now. Alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment, gangs. These are all problems now."


Kateri's lengthy path into sainthood was paved with hardships.


One of seven to be named by Pope Benedict XVI at Sunday's canonization Mass in Vatican City, Kateri was born in 1656 in what was then called Ossernenon. The daughter of a Christian Algonquin mother and Mohawk chief father, Kateri lost both her parents to a smallpox epidemic at a young age. Though she survived the deadly outbreak, the disease scarred her face and left her with poor vision.


After defying her culture by refusing to marry, Kateri was ostracized from her tribe after converting to Catholicism at 20. Two years later, Kateri fled to a Christian Indians settlement near Montreal, where she helped missionaries convert other Indians to Christianity and cared for the young and elderly. She died on April 17, 1680, from poor health. Her last words are said to have been whispers of the names of Jesus and Mary. Her smallpox scars, it is said, vanished after she died. In 1943, Pope Pius XII declared the disappearance of the scars a miracle.


Kateri was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. Last year, Benedict confirmed the second miracle needed for sainthood -- that an 11-year-old Native American boy from Washington state had been miraculously cured from a flesh-eating bacteria after his parents prayed to Kateri in 2006.


Countless others say they have prayed to Kateri with success. Michael Patterson of Utica said Kateri cured serious liver problems he suffered several years ago.


"She healed me," Patterson said. "She is very powerful."


Celebrations at Kateri's birthplace in Auriesville and at St. Francis-Xavier Church in Kahnawake, Canada, where she is entombed, also drew massive crowds. Sunday's ceremony in Fonda was held a few hundred feet away from the cascading, grassy hills dotted with statues and shrines to Kateri. Throughout the mild, overcast morning, many walked up the embankments, bowed down and offered their silent praise.


Though some Native Americans who hold ill will against the church have said that Kateri's canonization is offensive to their traditions, there were no hard feelings visible at Sunday's ceremony. Kateri would not have wanted it that way, some said. Many said Kateri should serve as an example of how to mend a fractured relationship between the two cultures.


"During Kateri's time, there were a lot of Native Americans that felt as though Christianity was being shoved down their throat," said Mark Cassidy of East Greenbush. "She did the opposite. She embraced it. And God shined down on her."


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