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A Native American
Candidate for Sainthood
By Amy Radil
April 21, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the MPR News project Religion in Everyday Life

Kateri Tekakwitha was a Mohawk Indian woman and Christian convert who lived in the 1600s. In 1980 she was beatified, or declared "blessed," by the Vatican, making her the first Native American candidate for sainthood. In Minnesota and around the country, small groups meet to pray to her and study her life. She is a source of inspiration for these Catholics, but for her to be canonized it will still take a miracle. Literally.

ON A RECENT SUNDAY MORNING AT HOLY FAMILY CHURCH on the Fond du Lac Reservation, a small group of Catholics, most of them Native American, comes together for what they call their "Kateri circle."

Group chanting: Oh God, who, among the many marvels of your grace in the new world, did cause to blossom on the banks of the Mohawk and of the St. Lawrence, the pure and tender Lily, Kateri Tekakwitha...
The group prays for Kateri, asking that she soon be counted among the saints, and to her, asking for help in strengthening their own religious faith. According to the records of Jesuit missionaries, Kateri Tekakwitha had smallpox when she was young. It left her scarred and physically frail, but she dedicated herself to helping others. At age 20 Kateri was baptized a Christian, a decision those around her could not understand. Sister Rose Messinschlager is with the Catholic Diocese in Duluth.
Messinschlager: To keep peace she left her village and joined a Christian community. Some see that as running away from her people or culture; I don't see it as running away; I see it as being a peacekeeper.
Kateri was only 24 when she died near Montreal in 1680. The church says upon her death her smallpox scars suddenly disappeared, and lilies sprouted on her grave, so that she's often called "The Lily of the Mohawks."

The movement to have her declared a saint began in the 1940s. The saint-making process is a long and bureaucratic one, with the workings of the Vatican often cloaked in mystery. Father John Paret is the US liaison for Kateri's case. He says for her to become a saint, a miracle must be credited to her influence. Paret's role is to encourage people to pray to her so this can happen.

Paret: And we hope through these prayers somebody will be cured in a way that's beyond the comprehension of medical science, and that's what we could call a miracle.
These days nearly all approved miracles involve medical cures that cannot be explained. The miracles are scrutinized by a board of doctors, then by theologians before being approved. Each candidate must be credited with two miracles - one to be beatified and then another to be canonized. In Kateri's case the first miracle was waived because the pope was anxious to have a Native American saint.

Kateri has long been a spiritual guide and role model for Native American Catholics. Since 1979 Catholics from around the country have come together for an annual conference in her honor. Between 2,000 and 4,000 people, mostly Native American, gather each year for a pow-wow complete with speakers, seminars, and healing ceremonies. Sister Rose says Kateri shows it's possible for two cultural identities to harmoniously co-exist.

Messinschlager: This isn't someone from Europe or a European background handing the faith to them. She's one who can remain Indian and at the same time follow Catholicism; she didn't have to leave who she was as a Mohawk.
Since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has emphasized the commonalities between different faiths rather than rigid distinctions. Audrey Smith is a member of the Kateri Circle at Fond du Lac. As a young woman she hoped to become a nun, then she left the church for a few years. Now she's heavily involved in Holy Family Church, raising money through bingo and bazaars. Smith prays to Kateri, calling her a "spiritual leader." Smith's home in Cloquet reflects her devotion to Catholicism and Native American spirituality.
Smith: Like, I say, I got Catholic stuff there, angels there, Indian art there, Indian vases there, so I can't be prejudiced!
In her bedroom a rope of sweetgrass sits next to a figure of Christ. Underneath a crucifix and holy water there's a bowl with sage and cedar for offerings. Smith says her 6-year-old grandson likes serving mass AND going to pow-wows. Smith says she rejected the Indian way early on, preferring holy water and mass to smudging with sage or burning tobacco. But over the years the two ways came together, and now she combines rituals from both traditions, depending on her mood each day.
Smith: The only thing different is the way we communicate with a higher power. Like the Native Americans use tobacco, and so now it's - it's the same to me.
On Snith's bureau there's a ceramic figurine of Kateri, looking serious and holding a wooden cross. In the early days of the church, saints were created spontaneously by the faithful rather than by the church itself. Among Native American Catholics, who see their own lives reflected in Kateri's, her legacy appears secure.