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Mohawks prepare for Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization


HOGANSBURG — Pictures of Kateri Tekakwitha hang on the walls of many Mohawk homes. Some Catholic Mohawks have prayed nightly and at every Sunday Mass for Kateri, who lived in New York’s Mohawk River Valley and near Montreal more than 300 years ago.

“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 St. Lawrence the pure and tender lily Kateri,” the Mass attendants at St. Regis Mission in St. Regis, Quebec say each Sunday. “Grant we beseech you, the favor we beg through her intercession that this young lover of Jesus and his cross may soon be counted among the saints by the Holy Mother Church.”

That prayer finally will be answered this year. Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Kateri in Rome this October, making her the first Native American saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

It is a long time coming for many Catholic Mohawks, who believe Kateri lived a holy life in her 24 years and performed many miracles after her death. Her life also serves as a source of inspiration for some on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.

“From my earliest memory, Kateri was a part of our lives,” Darren Bonaparte of St. Regis said. “I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have a picture of her on our wall or mention her in our prayers when we were little.”

Mr. Bonaparte wrote a book about Kateri, “A Lily Among Thorns,” which is available in the Akwesasne Library.

“Although she lived three centuries ago, she’s still a vital figure to us,” he said. “She’s an iconic figure for our people, a larger-than-life entity.”

Kateri was raised with traditional Mohawk values before converting to Catholicism at age 20, former Tribal Chief Alma Ransom said.

“She lived the traditional life, which meant every day you thanked the creator for everything,” Ms. Ransom said.

When Kateri died, the smallpox scars on her face disappeared, Ms. Ransom said. Some took clumps of soil near her grave in hopes of a miracle.

“They prayed to her and she started curing right away,” Ms. Ransom said. “When the miracles started coming, many of the Mohawk Indians became Catholic.”

Ms. Ransom said many Mohawks experienced miracles from praying to Kateri but kept them secret because they did not want to draw attention to themselves. The Catholic Church announced Kateri’s canonization after a boy in the Pacific Northwest with a highly infectious form of flesh-eating bacteria was cured after his family prayed to her.

Since the Vatican announced Kateri’s canonization, area Mohawks have been preparing. Ms. Ransom is coordinating a trip in which more than 500 people will be traveling to Vatican City to see the ceremony.

Last month, Ms. Ransom and several others traveled to Ottawa to visit with Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, the pope’s Canadian representative. The group let Lopez choose which handwoven basket the Mohawk community will present the pope with this October.

The basket he chose, made by Akwesasne resident Sheila Ransom, represents Kateri’s time on earth, Alma Ransom said. She said she hopes the pope will find a nice place for it in his living quarters.

“It’s a tremendous connection to the days of Kateri when she was young and lived with her family and made baskets. This is a direct link to Kateri’s lifestyle,” she said. “Nothing has changed about baskets since Kateri’s time.”

Ms. Ransom traveled to Rome with 55 others in 1980 to see Pope John Paul II beatify Kateri. Beatification is the highest level below sainthood. Since then, half the group she traveled with has died.

Ms. Ransom said she wasn’t sure she would live to see the day Kateri became a saint. Many going on this fall’s trip are stretching their wallets but are making the trip anyway, she said.

“The fact that it’s in our lifetime, we pulled out the plugs to go,” Ms. Ransom said.

“We lived long enough,” she said. “We’ve got to get there.”

Rosemary Bonaparte, Darren’s mother, traveled with Ms. Ransom to Rome in 1980. She said she had no doubts she would see the day Kateri became a saint.

“She was a saint when she died,” Ms. Bonaparte said. “We knew that cures came from her.”

Kateri’s significance is deeply personal for some. When Ms. Ransom was a child, she said many schools on the reservation taught a “white is right” mentality and shunned Mohawk traditions. But through those difficulties, she always had Kateri as a Mohawk role model.

“There was somebody good a long time ago,” she said. “It was Kateri. As a child I heard, ‘Why can’t you be good like Kateri?’”

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