Mass celebrates the six-month countdown until the first canonization of a native American
By Alistair Burns
The B.C. Catholic
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the first native American to be declared blessed, died over 300 years ago. Her impressive story of converting to Catholicism inspired Sacred Heart Parish to host a special Mass April 22, the Third Sunday of Easter.
Native drums beat in unison inside the small church a few blocks away from the intersection of Main and Hastings in Vancouver to pay tribute to Blessed Kateri (1656-1680).
Father Aloys Luken, OMI, pastor of the parish, started his homily by asking parishioners to turn to the east for a prayer. Then he told something of her story.
Blessed Kateri was born in a village on the Mohawk River called Ossernenon, now Auriesville, N.Y. Her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother a Catholic Algonquin raised among the French.
When she was only 4 a smallpox epidemic claimed her parents and baby brother. She survived, but her face was disfigured and her eyesight impaired. "She personally experienced the struggle of disease," Father Luken said.
She was taken by her Mohawk relatives at the age of 5 to live with their people, still in what is now New York State. The tale of woe for Blessed Kateri's people continued when war was declared between the French and native Americans in 1666.
"When the war ended," Father Luken explained, the peace treaty had a specific clause: the Jesuit missionaries, the 'black robes,' had the right to visit Mohawk villages." This gave Blessed Kateri the chance to find out more about Catholicism.
As she heard about Jesus, "Her heart began to burn. As the disciples heard on the road to Emmaus; she heard the same calling. Her extreme mortification (because of the effects of her smallpox) made her stand out as a woman committed to Christ's message."
At 20 Blessed Kateri defied elders in her village and was baptized by a Jesuit missionary. Her baptismal name, "Kateri," is "Catherine" in the Mohawk language. Many village elders shunned her; they could not "distinguish between the Good News brought by the Jesuits and the policies of New France."
Blessed Kateri decided to go north and moved to a village in Kahnawake, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. She took a vow of chastity, and although not formally educated, became a teacher who tried to bring Catholicism to her people. The smallpox that had disfigured her led to her death at 24.
Her face was miraculously healed 15 minutes after death; this was witnessed by many who kept a bedside vigil. Father Luken's homily concluded with her final words, "I will love you in heaven."
Rennie Nahanee, archdiocesan coordinator of First Nations Ministry, led the choir at Sacred Heart. He said he thought Blessed Kateri's canonization would lead to a "time of reconciliation between Catholics and natives. It's important for (native people) to have their own native saint ... our own representative in heaven to pray to."
He said, "It's difficult for first nations Catholics because of the residential schools, but we've always been part of the Roman Catholic Church. Thanks to Blessed and soon-to-be Saint Kateri, I'm sure reconciliation will happen in our time."
Blessed Kateri was beatified in 1980 by Pope John Paul II; her canonization is scheduled for Oct. 21.