She’s a small and dark-haired woman who led a short and painful life. And in a native community outside Montreal, she’s showing up on banners, posters and special cards, like a local celebrity who’s getting her due.
Kateri Tekakwitha, a nearly blind Mohawk woman who lived more than three centuries ago in Kahnawake, is on the verge of making history. On Sunday, she will become the first North American aboriginal to be declared a saint.
To the believers who have campaigned for her, and the devout who have prayed to her, Kateri’s canonization by the Pope represents a long-awaited moment. Albert Lazare began working for Kateri’s cause when he was a teenager; today he is a slow-moving 78-year-old. On Friday, while a cold rain fell outside his Kahnawake home, Mr. Lazare was packing his bags for Rome. His wife, Eileen, had slipped a prayer card of Kateri into the mesh enclosure of their luggage.
“After so many years, it’s finally arrived,” Mr. Lazare said with a smile inside his home filled with Kateri figurines. “I was always hoping I would see this day. It took so long.”
The canonization of Kateri is bringing out mixed feelings among native Canadians, for whom the Catholic church has a dark legacy of colonialism, conversions and the trauma of residential schools. For some, the Pope’s move to bestow the church’s highest honour on a native woman is a milestone in their relations with the church.
“This is part of the healing process. It’s acceptance,” said Arnold Lazare, Albert’s son, who is accompanying his parents to Rome. “In the early years of residential schools, native kids were considered second-class citizens. By recognizing Kateri, the church is saying she’s one of the chosen people. By accepting her, they’re accepting native people and our traditions, whereas before, they weren’t.”
Kateri has always enjoyed a degree of fame – she’s been the subject of hundreds of books and even became the object of fascination for Montreal poet Leonard Cohen in his experimental novel Beautiful Losers (“Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you? … Are you the Iroquois Virgin? Are you the Lily of the Shores of the Mohawk River?”)
The lead-up to Sunday has turned a spotlight on Kahnawake, a reserve about 20 minutes south of downtown Montreal better known as a pit stop for tax-free cigarettes. The St. Francis Xavier Mission, the stone church overlooking the St. Lawrence Seaway that holds Kateri’s white marble tomb, is holding a vigil for her and a special mass over the weekend; on Friday, a tour group from California came to attend mass and snap photos of Kateri’s tomb.
Above the church’s large front doors, a banner depicted the woman of the hour: Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks.
Kateri was born into an Iroquois tribe in 1656 in what is now upstate New York to a Mohawk father and Christian Algonquin mother. At age 4, a smallpox epidemic killed her parents and left Kateri scarred and nearly blind. Her Mohawk name, Tekakwitha, means “she who bumps into things.” Baptized at age 20, she fled to the Jesuit-run native missionary of Kahnawake. She devoted herself to a life of chastity, piety and extreme penance that included walking barefoot in the snow and piercing herself with thorns.
She spent her final years by the side of the Jesuits and died in 1680, at the age of 24. Witnesses reported that after death, her skin cleared up, a testament to her miraculous curing powers.
Response to her sainthood varies in Kahnawake, where Catholic religious observance is on the wane and interest in longhouse traditions has gained strength. Only a few hundred feet from the Kateri shrine, a sales clerk and a customer in a tax-free cigarette shop expressed profound indifference to Sunday’s canonization.
For others, Kateri represents a bridging of Catholic and native spirituality. Even the non-observant see a moment of pride in Sunday’s canonization. Kahnawake grand chief Mike Delisle Jr., who considers himself a non-practising Catholic, was preparing to board a flight for Rome on Friday. He is one of more than 2,000 pilgrims who are expected in Rome this weekend, many of them aboriginals from across the United States and Canada.
“I’m going to pay homage to a proud Mohawk woman who stood up for what she believed in, right up to her death,” Chief Delisle said. “She was part of this community, this nation, this culture, and she’s a Mohawk regardless of your religion or culture. We’re matrilinear,” he said, “and people should take pride.”