Kateri Tekakwitha will formally become saint


For The Recorder

Kateri Tekakwitha will be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint Oct. 21 by Pope Benedict XVI. While the pope holds mass at the Vatican, the two Montgomery County shrines that honor Kateri will be celebrating with their own events.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville will have a Mass of Thanksgiving at 2 p.m., before which the grounds, visitor's center, and gift shop will be open.

Documentaries about Kateri's life will be shown in the Saints of Auriesville Museum from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and a Kateri art exhibit by artist Bob Renaud of Carthage will be on display in the Shrine History Museum that morning.

Books, sacramentals, rosaries, holy cards, and other mementos of Kateri will be available in the gift shop and a snack bar will be open for refreshments.

Beth Lynch, events coordinator at the Shrine in Auriesville, could not release the number of people they expect to come to the canonization events next Sunday, which is also the last day of their summer season.

The National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda will also hold a celebratory Mass that morning. An opening prayer and dedication will take place at 10 a.m. on the front lawn of the chapel, followed by a procession with the relic of Kateri via the stations of the cross and a mass at 10:30 a.m. The Mass will be followed by a simple reception.

The Shrine in Fonda expects up to 500 people to celebrate the canonization, according to friar James Amrhein.

Lynch said that local clergy, visitors to the shrine, and area residents are excited that Kateri will be canonized -- a cause many have pushed for years.

"She's one of our own, and she crossed boundaries," said Lynch. "You know, everybody somehow relates to her at some level or another.

"That's part of the Gospel, you know, that the least will become the greatest. And that's what happened."

Kateri, who was beatified in June 1980 by Pope John Paul II, is the first Native North American to be canonized by the Catholic Church. Two other Americans will be canonized alongside her on Sunday: Marianne Cope of Syracuse and Pedro Calungsod of Guam.

"We have certainly been very devoted to blessed Kateri for a good number of years, and we're really excited about her being canonized finally," said Theresa Schweigert, who volunteers at the shrine in Auriesville. "[In] New York state we're so proud to think that two people have been recognized by the Catholic Church for this incredible honor. Both interesting personalities but certainly very dedicated to their faith and ... expressing their love of God through love of neighbor."

Theresa's husband Michael, who volunteers as a photographer for the shrine in Auriesville, will be traveling to Italy for the canonization next weekend.

"There's multiple motivations [for going]," he said. "I mean the first obviously is that we are honoring somebody who stands out in our religion, the Catholic faith, as a guide for us to follow in their footsteps in the way that they have lived their life, the way they have used their faith as part of how they have interacted with other people in their life."

Born in 1656, Kateri lived near the site of the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville in a Mohawk village called Ossernenon. Three Jesuit missionaries -- Father Isaac Jogues, Jesuit brother Rene Goupil, and lay missioner John Lalande -- were martyred there during the 1640s by the Mohawks they were trying to convert.

The 6,500 seat coliseum at Auriesville was constructed to hold crowds that flocked to the site to pray to these men, who were canonized in 1930.

Kateri was the daughter of an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief father. Her parents were killed by a smallpox epidemic that left her face scarred and her eyesight impaired when she was just 4 years old. These disabilities caused her to be named Tekakwitha, which according to Lynch means "someone who bumps into things."

She moved into a longhouse with relatives and when she was eight she was betrothed to a young village boy. Then when she was 10, a war party of French solderis and other Native Americans attacked Ossernenon.

Kateri and other survivors moved across the river and built a fortified village called Caughnawaga, where she lived until age 20. The National Kateri Shrine in Fonda is built near the site of Caughnawaga.

During her teen years, Kateri came in contact with more Christian missionaires and became devoted to the faith despite ridicule from other villagers. She was baptized in Fonda but she fled the village to avoid being forced to marry.

She lived the rest of her life in a settlement of Christian Indians in Canada, where she worked with the elderly and sick and practiced self-mortification and hours-long prayer. She died there on April 17, 1680, at just 24 years of age. Jesuits who witnessed her death said that her scars disappeared after she died.

Native Americans and settlers began praying to Kateri immediately after her death and many have reported healing miracles through her intercession. Two miracles have been officially attributed to her since her death.

The first, approved in 1943 by Pope Pius XII, was the disappearance of her smallpox scars just after she died. The second miracle involved a boy who survived a severe flesh-eating bacteria with no apparent medical explanation in 2006, whose parents said they prayed to Tekakwitha for divine intercession. That miracle was approved in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI.

"Native American Catholics were very proud of her, to have this fully sanctified woman among the other saints of the Catholic church," said Lynch. "She was what we would call a powerful intercessor. You know, she answered prayers. I think that's what it came down to. She's been answering prayers since she died in 1680."

Priests and friars at both shrines were instrumental in pushing for the canonization by keeping track of letters and testimonials about answered prayers and miraculous cures, checking medical evidence, recording interviews with witnesses, and then sending all the documentation to Monsignor Paul Lenz in Washington, D.C. for review. Lenz chose to send documentation of the boy with the flesh-eating bacteria to the Vatican.

Local residents were also important parts of raising awareness of Kateri as an intercessor, according to Lynch.

One of these was Bob Renaud, who grew up in Syracuse but visited Auriesville often as a child. Renaud, who is a high school art teacher in Carthage, will display his paintings of Kateri at the shrine in Auriesville next Sunday. One of his depictions of her is part of the Vatican's permanent collection.

Learning to paint in college, Renaud perfected his realistic style himself. He painted his first version of Kateri in 1998; it now resides in the Auriesville museum. When he decided to paint another, he brought it to the 350th birthday celebration of Kateri where a woman named Anita Cenzi convinced him to sell the painting.

"Usually I do sell my work, but I kind of was attached to his one," he said. "But by the end of our conversation I said yes, it's for sale, because I just felt like she was the person it was supposed to go to."

Cenzi lent the painting to local churches for the next few years to raise awareness about the cause for Kateri's canonization. Then, when Pope Benedict XVI visited New York City in 2008, she worked hard to get the painting sent to him. She succeeded and he accepted the gift with the knowledge that Kateri might be a saint someday, according to Renaud.

"This happened back in 2008 ... and I'm still, it just doesn't seem real. It's very exciting, I'm humbled by it all," he said. "I think she's a great role model for our youth in America. Standing up for faith and a lot of the animosity of being told by your family, and her whole tribe, that what you are doing is wrong. And she still stood strong in her faith. Being a teacher ... I think I'm naturally attracted to those who kind of are good role models for our youth."

"It isn't just one thing [that makes Kateri special]," said Lynch. "She was very humble, she was persecuted, she was made fun of for her faith and for her ... disabilities. Yet she was very hard-working. Very charitable. She didn't let her disabilities stand in her way of helping other people."