Kateri is symbol of enduring tie between Catholicism, native peoples
By Nancy Wiechec Catholic News Service
FONDA, N.Y. (CNS) -- Under a rustic pavilion a popular hymn of gratitude for God's creation is being sung at the start of Sunday Mass. Nearby, smoke from burning sweet grass and sage hangs in the air as a powwow gets under way.
At the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, there is an enduring connection between Catholicism and the indigenous people of this land.
Blessed Kateri, the Mohawk-Algonquin woman who would be the first American Indian saint, was born and baptized in the area in the mid-1600s.
Situated on 200 acres of wooded land on the north bank of the Mohawk River, the shrine is a testament to the young Indian maiden, who despite objections from some in her own clan, came to know and love Christ.
"This is the most peaceful place I know," said Marian Sarchet, a Fonda Catholic who frequents the shrine.
The focal point is St. Peter's Chapel, a converted barn adorned with Christian and Indian art and objects. Below the chapel, a museum features American Indian artifacts. On display is a model of the 17th-century village of Caughnawaga, the settlement where Kateri is believed to have lived on a hill above the present-day chapel. A rare image of her painted by her spiritual director following her death is also part of the exhibit.
When American Indians visit, they often drop tobacco leaves at the Caughnawaga site as an offering and sign of respect. At an adjacent spring, the place where Blessed Kateri was probably baptized, Catholics leave prayers, sometimes rosaries and devotional medals.
Conventual Franciscan Brother James Amrhein, acting administrator of the shrine, said many people come here with one burning question: "They want to know when she is going to be canonized."
He said he explains that the sainthood process is usually a lengthy one, and then adds, "Soon, we hope and pray."
Msgr. Paul A. Lenz, vice postulator for Blessed Kateri's cause, is among those waiting for news from the Vatican about a final miracle to be validated before she can be declared a saint.
Documentation supporting a healing through her intercession was sent to the Vatican in July last year.
The case is still pending, but "very hopeful," Msgr. Lenz said.
Kateri Tekakwitha died April 17, 1680, at a mission near Montreal. Records indicate she was about 24 years old.
American Indians have made appeals to the church for her recognition since at least the late 1800s. Documentation for her cause of beatification was sent to the Vatican in 1932. She was declared venerable in 1942 and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.
The memorial to Kateri in Fonda was established in 1938.
Theresa Steele, a Canadian-born member of the Algonquin nation, sits on the Fonda shrine's board of directors. She has known Kateri's story since childhood.
"I grew up thinking of her as a saint, because that's how my people revered her," said Steele. "We've always seen her that way."
Kateri was not the only member of her community to embrace Christianity during a colonial time fraught with conflict and struggle for native tribes. But she was remarkable, even to her older, more educated Jesuit mentors at the Caughnawaga mission.
Her deep faith, joy, spirituality and generosity were well noted by the Jesuit missionaries, said Msgr. Lenz. "She so vividly lived the life of a holy person."
When she worked in the fields, he said, she would carry a cross out as a source for contemplation. Her last words were reported to be, "Jesus, I love you."
Orphaned at age 4 during a smallpox epidemic, Kateri was left pockmarked and nearly blind by the disease. Later, when she embraced Christian meditation and prayer and refused to marry, she was the subject of scorn by other Mohawks. She was taken from Caughnawaga to a Mohawk Catholic mission in Canada for her own safety. There she taught prayers to children and tended to the sick and elderly.
Steele, who portrays Blessed Kateri in a one-woman dramatization, said Kateri viewed her own troubles as minor when compared to the sufferings of Christ.
Blessed Kateri's example is one of "perseverance," she said, "and love of our creator, love of one another, love (of) our mother earth and all of creation."
The U.S. church marks her feast July 14. She is listed as patron of American Indians, ecology and the environment and is held up as a model for Catholic youths.