Many Native Americans have always considered Kateri Tekakwitha (pronounced GadaLEE DaGAgweetha) a saint. Now the Vatican is recognizing her, at Sunday's canonization ceremonies. It comes over 300 years after her death, and the campaign for sainthood has been going on that long. "To us, she's a saint," says Syracusan Emily Stewart. "She's always been a saint. We just need announcement to the rest of the world, and now we have it."
In Syracuse, there's been an active Kateri Tekakwitha group at St. Lucy's since the 1970s, when Native Americans refurbished a church storage room into a chapel dedicated to her. Now, that room is full of native american made or designed tributes to the 'Lilly of the Mohawks,' including statues, paintings, stained glass and the chapel altar, made of a slab of polished tree trunk.
Emily Stewart is Director of the Kateri Tekawitha Committee. She remembers a picture of the soon-to-be saint hanging in her childhood home. After living on the Mohawk-St. Regis reservation for many years, she came back to the Syracuse area, and happened to see a print of Kateri in the Regional Market flea market. That started her on a collection of books, pictures and even a car license plate related to her spiritual guide. She never goes without her Kateri medal, saying she feels protected by it.
Kateri grew up along the Mohawk River in what is now Fonda, survived smallpox, which left her scarred and with weak eyes, converted to Catholicism at 20, walked to near Montreal to avoid a forced marriage, and spent the rest of her life ministering to and evangelizing residents at a Jesuit mission. She died at age 24, and Jesuit priests and other witnesses said that within 15 minutes, all the scars from the smallpox disappeared from her face. Almost right away, a campaign started calling for sainthood, with many coming forward saying that prayers were answered with miracles. But it took until 2006, when a 6 year old from Seattle developed flesh-wasting disease. A priest and his congregation prayed to Kateri, and the boy recovered--it's now being counted as the second miracle needed for sainthood.
Long-time supporters of the effort at sainthood say that saying 'Saint Kateri' sounds strange, but they'll get used to it. And their efforts don't end with Rome's blessing. At St. Lucy's the next big project is to re-install a big bell, brought down by the Labor Day Storm that also toppled one of the church's steeples. Stewart says that older members of her group remember when it rang to call them to mass, after they settled on the city's West Side in the 1950s.
A group from Syracuse will travel to the Kateri Shrine in Auriesville (Fonda) on Sunday morning, for the canonization celebration. At St. Lucy's, the big celebration will be on Saturday, November 3rd at the Falling Leaves Mass, remembering the departed.