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A faithful holds an image depicting Kateri Tekakwitha, the first aboriginal to be declared a saint, before Pope Benedict XVI conducts a special mass to canonize seven new saints including Kateri at St. Peter's square in Vatican City October 21, 2012. (STEFANO RELLANDINI/REUTERS)
A faithful holds an image depicting Kateri Tekakwitha, the first aboriginal to be declared a saint, before Pope Benedict XVI conducts a special mass to canonize seven new saints including Kateri at St. Peter's square in Vatican City October 21, 2012. (STEFANO RELLANDINI/REUTERS)

In an act of atonement, Vatican makes Kateri Tekakwitha the first native Canadian saint Add to ...

All canonizations are political to some degree, but the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first indigenous Canadian saint, was more political than most. The First Nations considered it a key step in the Vatican’s long and haphazard campaign to repair relations with a people it had mistreated for centuries.

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Kateri, who was born in what is now upstate New York and who died in 1680 near Montreal after a short, miserable life, was canonized Sunday in St. Peter’s Square by Pope Benedict XVI, along with six other saints.

An estimated 80,000 pilgrims gathered in the square, thousands of them from American and Canadian indigenous communities who claim Kateri as their own, making her a truly international saint. To the delight and amusement of the Italians in the crowd, many of them wore colourful traditional costumes, such as feathered headdresses and leather-fringed tunics.

To some, she represents unconditional commitment to Jesus; to others a bridge between Catholic and native spirituality and culture.

To the Finkbonner family of Washington state, Kateri represents a miraculous life-giving force that saved their son, Jake, now 12, from flesh-eating disease – necrotizing fasciitis bacteria – six years ago.

Jake, whose family is part of the Lummi tribe, had 21 surgeries as doctors frantically tried to cure him. Near death, he was given last rites. At that point, the local priest suggested praying to Kateri for an intervention. Jake recovered and the cure was deemed by the Vatican to be medically inexplicable – a miracle.

Jake received communion Sunday from the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. “It is certainly something I will remember forever,” he said afterward. “I had that feeling of freedom, comfort and happiness.”

He explained that the last time he has such a feeling was after the miracle, “in the hospital, when I was recovering.”

His father, Danny, said he is thrilled that Kateri was finally made a saint. “She crossed borders and her sainthood crossed borders too,” he said.

Kateri was born to a Mohawk father and Christian Algonquin mother. When she was 4, a smallpox epidemic killed her parents and left her scarred and nearly blind. She was baptized at age 20, joined a Jesuit missionary at Kahnawake and devoted herself to a life of piety, chastity and corporal mortification, including flogging and sleeping on a bed of thorns. She died at age 24.

Among the other pilgrims who came for the ceremony were Verla and Hughie Robertson, who are Ojibwa from Manitoba. It took them 17 hours to travel from Berens River First Nation, on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, to Rome – a trip they had been planning for almost a year.

Ms. Robertson said that her people were often treated abysmally by the Catholic missionaries and that Kateri’s canonization was part of an overdue healing process. “We have to learn to forget, forgive and move on,” she said. “The canonization of Kateri brings the natives and the Catholics together.”

Healing was indeed the theme of the Kateri canonization. Some native groups on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border have been promoting Kateri’s inclusion into the Vatican’s saint-making machine for decades, but progress was slow. The woman known as the Lily of the Mohawks was beatified – the first step in the canonization process – by Pope John Paul II in 1980 and her supporters had to wait another 32 years before their dream came true.

“Saint Kateri, Protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint, we entrust to you the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in North America,” the Pope said, speaking in French and English. “May God bless the first nations.”

The timing of the canonization was no mystery to home-care nurse Judy Carlin, 64, of Edmonton. “I believe the Vatican chooses very timely canonizations,” she said in St. Peter’s Square. “There has been abuse. This will help end some of the pain that happened between the Catholic church and the native Americans and Canadians since the time of the settlements. Now is the moment to give hope to the American and Canadian natives.”

Canadian native leaders attending a post-canonization reception hosted by Canada’s ambassador to the Holy See, Anne Leahy, had similar views, but they said they were more concerned about the sexual-abuse scandals at the residential schools than the missionaries sometimes other shocking behaviour, such as forcing natives to give up their language and culture, in previous centuries.

Canadian aboriginal leader Phil Fontaine met with the Pope three years ago and obtained an apology for abuses that happened in First Nations schools in the last century. Speaking at the reception after the Kateri canonization, he said: “We see this as a continuation of the healing process and a significant part of the reconciliation. We had an apology in 2009 and now it’s up to each individual to accept this or not.”

Others canonized Sunday were Pedro Calungsod of the Philippines, who was killed doing missionary work in 1672; Mother Marianne Cope, a 19th century Franciscan nun who cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii; French Jesuit Jacques Berthieu; Italian priest Giovanni Battista Piamarta; the Spanish nun Carmen Salles y Barangueras; and German laywoman Anna Schaffer. Portraits of the new saints hung from the marble facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the crowd gathered there cheered as each name was called.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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