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The journey of America's newest, oldest saint

When I was in Catholic grade school (in the late 1980s-early '90s), I can remember being encouraged to pray for the intercession and eventual canonization of then-Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. I don't know what inspired our teachers to bring her to our attention, besides her fairly recent beatification (in 1980). Maybe they were flush with success after the 1975 canonization of St. Elizabeth Seton -- the patron of Catholic schools, as we were so often reminded -- and were hoping to energize us with another American cause. Or perhaps they assumed, correctly in my case, that she was a figure who would appeal to our young imaginations: American like us and yet exotic, a figure who stood out from the crowd of saints with whom we were familiar; a laywoman, and young at that, when she made her courageous commitment to Christ. Probably, too, the story of Kateri fit in well with a curriculum, and as I recall a wider culture, that was heavy on the study of Native Americans -- a sudden burst of respectful attention to compensate for many decades of neglect and worse. As I look back, I remember learning a lot about American Indian nations and their ways of life in grade school: who lived where, in what sort of dwelling, wearing what, and so forth. As older kids we got more information about where all those noble tribes disappeared to, and why. I couldn't summon many details from my social-studies books now, but the general sense of respect and awe has stuck with me. (Of course, all that sensitivity training didn't stop me from dressing up as an Indian maiden for Halloween when I was eight or nine -- but I meant it as a tribute. I wanted to be like Kateri Tekakwitha. Plus, I had a hand-me-down costume with lots of tiny beads and leather fringe that was just so cool.)

Thus my ten-year-old self is very pleased that Kateri Tekakwitha has become a saint at last, though perhaps without much help from me. Kathleen Sprows Cummings's article in our June 1 issue (subscription required) is a fascinating look at the circumstances that led to her canonization last October, after a journey of more than a century. Cummings explains what made Kateri a promising candidate when the U.S. bishops opened her cause in 1884, and how her cause fell out of style in the generations that followed. Other home-grown saints surpassed her in popularity -- almost always women, hence the article's title, "Native Daughters" -- and Cummings proposes that their varying fortunes reveal something about the eras in which they were elevated. We like to think that there's a timeless standard of "holiness," and exemplars of that standard will be easily identifiable in any era. But as Cummings shows, different times call for different models of holiness, and the same person's story can be put to different uses depending on the needs of the day. It's another angle on the story of who gets to official sainthood, and when, and why.

As for Kateri Tekakwitha, she might never have been canonized had it not been for significant developments both in the Catholic Church and in American culture. One was the 1979 election of John Paul II, who streamlined the saint-making process, in part to give Catholics from nations without wealth or influence a better chance to secure saints of their own....

By then the Lily of the Mohawks symbolized something quite different from the Tekakwitha whose name had appeared on the Baltimore petition a century before. No longer an effective national symbol, she had reemerged as an ethnic one. Since the 1970s, Tekakwithas most enthusiastic devotees have been Native-American Catholics, both in Canada and in the United States. It is telling that while all U.S. church leaders had supported the 1884 petition that initiated her cause, only one issued a public statement when it finally succeeded: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the lone Native American in the hierarchy.

While celebrating the "tangible signs of inculturation" that greeted the canonization of Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope, Cummings also worries that "in 1884, canonization offered the American church divided then, as now, by ethnic and ideological conflict a way to rally behind a common goal. Today, canonization reveals just how tribal U.S. Catholicism has become." Read the article. What do you think?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an associate editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Treasure Chest provided its readers (parochial school children) with two stories about Kateri, one in 1947 and another in 1962. The language is not PC by today's standards, but the second story is well drawn (by Joe Sinnott) and well written (by Frater Earnest Larsen, C.SS.R.)."On the 17th of April, 1680, the greatest Indian of them all died. This Mohawk was not a chief or a brave, but a little squaw named Kateri. She will probably be the first Native North American canonized by the Church." was present when the Estella Loretto statue of Kateri was unveiled at Santa Fe. Thrilling to see so many representatives of various tribes in their beautiful clothing.)

Glad you posted this. I commented on the original story when I first saw it. I remember well the canonization as my wife is First Nation and we celebrate at a church dedicated to Kateri. Members of the community attended the canonization and drummed at it. It is quite amazing to actually hear the drum in the church after the entire painful legacy between the institutional Church and the First Nation people.Her story is current. Still there is tension around traditional practices or Christian practices; how much should be mixed; how much should not be. On both sides - Catholic and native.Strictly speaking, Kateri is not American or Canadian, but First Nation. Growing up in Canada, we were woefully ignorant of our own history. And my parents emigrated from the US to a small northern Ontario town where we we were surrounded by many different First Nation communities. I suspect that the history is still no widely known and it is still controversial up here. It was not until the late 80's and 90's that the name of the communities switched from reserves to First Nation. This was both political and educational. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established the legal title of the Indian people to the land and the principle that the land could not be used by Crown unless ceded to by the Indian people in the form of treaties (the spirit and letter of which have not always been followed!). It also established that the government was supposed to negotiate on a nation to nation basis. Of course with residential schools and the Indian Act that all came unraveled quickly.It is difficult to talk about native people, the church, and Canada without discussing the legacy of residential schools. Recently, the Prime Minister apologized to the native people on behalf of Canada for the existence of residential schools. Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as well. were involved in the delivery of education in residential schools.Needless to say a lot of healing still needs to occur both within the Church and in Canada around this whole issue.I am not as familiar with US situation as far as native people are concerned. I am somewhat familiar with the manifest destiny doctrine that supposedly justified the American government to push westward but I do not know the details. I just remember one quote from the book Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee where one woman succinctly summed it up by saying, "They made us many promises, more than I can remember; but they only kept but one. They promised to take the land and they took it".At any rate, I am pleased that she was canonized, hopefully it will help begin a new chapter in healing for the country of Canada and the First Nation people.

The story of "Katerina" Tekakwitha was a favorite of the Dominicans who taught at my elementary school. We heard her story many times, including about her struggle with the smallpox that left her very scarred. While I have nothing against the many clergy who have been canonized, I think it a good thing to increase the numbers of worthy lay people elevated to sainthood. We need them as role models, too. Our parish book club recently read about Jerome Lejeune, a French physician and geneticist who discovered the chromosomal basis for Down Syndrome and other inherited disorders. He was also a strong advocate for the mentally challenged, the disabled, and the unborn, and some believe that his pro-life views were an impediment to receipt of a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking scientific work. JPII named him as the first president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, but that was more honorific than substantive because Lejeune was quite ill at that time, and he died just a few short months after. His cause for canonization is also pending at the Vatican. Interestingly, Lejeune and his wife had had a private lunch with JPII just few hours before the assassination attempt on the Pope's life. The politicking by interest groups for particular canonizations has likely been going on for many centuries. As the author of the article notes, such efforts say more about we imperfect beings here on earth than it does about the many known and unknown individuals who have achieved their eternal reward in heaven and who do not crave personal distinction among the rest of us.

Thanks for the post and the article. Both very thoughtful and thought-provoking.If it's true that "(t)oday, canonization reveals just how tribal U.S. Catholicism has become...", then on the evidence of the article, that tribalism had set in no later than the 1930s. For better or worse it's not a post-1960s phenomenon.

Speaking of Dominicans, here is a Venerable who seems to be languishing in the backwoods: founded the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters who seem to have educated every Catholic school kid in the Upper Midwest!

Strictly speaking, Kateri is not American or Canadian, but First Nation The Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations would be quite surprised to hear that the Mohawks were the "First Nation," not to mention the Huron, Tuscarora, all the various Algonquian-speaking nations, and many more.The indigenous inhabitants of North America were and are not a single nation or a single people, but many different nations. Treating them all as if they are the same is as inappropriatae as treating them as inherently inferior to the white man.

BenderAll of those tribes of North American constituted "First Nations". What the term first nation implies is that those tribes had legal possession of the land. It could only legally be claimed by way of public treaty. This was outlined specifically by King George in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 after the seven year war.

And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds -- We do therefore, with the Advice of our Privy Council, declare it to be our Royal Will and Pleasure, that no Governor or Commander in Chief in any of our Colonies of Quebec, East Florida. or West Florida, do presume, upon any Pretence whatever, to grant Warrants of Survey, or pass any Patents for Lands beyond the Bounds of their respective Governments.

And, on the point of those nation to nation treaties:

if at any Time any of the Said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said Lands, the same shall be Purchased only for Us, in our Name, at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians, to be held for that Purpose by the Governor or Commander in Chief of our Colony respectively within which they shall lie: and in case they shall lie within the limits of any Proprietary Government, they shall be purchased only for the Use and in the name of such Proprietaries, conformable to such Directions and Instructions as We or they shall think proper to give for that Purpose

In Canada, the Royal Proclamation is still valid and enshrined in the constitution and charter of rights. In the USA, after the revolution, they set up some other kind of administration but the same principle (I think) applied.Treaties were supposed to apply "as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the rivers flow".

ps so yes it should be plural First Nations or First Nation people or communities.

Let me add a cheer for the John Paul II's recognition of so many saints from so many parts of the Church whose saints had not previously been recognized by the Vatican. By recognizing the sanctity of saints like Kateri, Frances and Elizabeth (as well as saints like Henriette, Augustus and Dorothy), the Church has a concrete way of getting all the "tribes" of Catholicism to recognize the boundless depth and breadth of the Spirit's life among us.

Here's an article about another individual possibly on the fast track to canonization. Can't disagree with this one IMO.




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