ROME -- The Roman Catholic Church, whose missions to convert the natives of North America to Christianity go back nearly four centuries, opens a new chapter in its relations with the indigenous peoples of the continent Sunday when it canonizes a 17th century Mohawk Indian as the first Native American saint.
The ceremony honoring Kateri Tekakwitha, born in what is now upstate New York, is set to take place in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican along with that of six others whom Pope Benedict XVI named in December, including Blessed Marianne Cope, a German-born nun who ministered to lepers in Hawaii. Thousands of Native American pilgrims are expected, many in full tribal regalia, and Hawaii is sending dancers.
Native Americans have venerated Kateri from the time of her death in 1680 at age 24 near what is now Montreal, and many cures have been attributed to divine intercession following prayers to her. But it took 332 years for her to reach the pantheon of saints, following what the church deemed a miraculous recovery of a young boy of Lummi Indian descent in Washington state from a dread bacterial infection.
She was first proposed for inquiry in the late 19th century and given “venerable” status in 1942, the first step to sainthood. She was beatified in 1980, the second step in the process.
“We have an expression in the Catholic Church: the church thinks in centuries,” said the Rev. Wayne Paysse, the executive director of the church’s main liaison with Native Americans, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. “Nothing moves quickly.”
Making Kateri a saint is “is embracing Native peoples,” said Emil Her Many Horses, a senior curator in the History and Culture Research Unit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Historically, the missionaries were “coming in and considering Native people as pagans and savages and in a childlike role: We need to educate them,” he said. “Today, Native people who have embraced Christianity have the freedom to be part of the church.”
For individual Native Americans, Her Many Horses said the naming of St. Kateri means “having someone whom you can look to and pray to for whatever your petitions are.”
The Jesuit priest who promoted Kateri’s cause for more than half a century said the canonization should be seen in the context of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to respect the languages and customs and acknowledge the identity and richness of indigenous peoples, who have suffered for those very attributes.
“That’s why it’s important that the church presents one of them precisely as an example to all the peoples of the world,” the Rev. Paolo Molinari told McClatchy. Kateri Tekakwith “belongs to those Native Indians who have been suppressed, deprived of many rights, both in Canada and in the States.”
The wounds lie just below the surface for many Native Americans, including some of the more than 700 pilgrims who’ve traveled here under church auspices to attend the ceremony.
“I went to a Jesuit boarding school in Montana,” recalled Larry Hogan, 56, a Crow Indian from Montana, who was attending a reception for the pilgrims thrown by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See at the Vatican museum Friday evening. “They would punish anyone speaking Crow. They’d slap your hands with a ruler.” An avid follower of Catholic television, he recalled only one archbishop ever apologizing for the mistreatment.