By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
"Eat your heart out, Rome."
That's how Father George Belgarde welcomed more than 5,000 people into the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville Sunday afternoon.
Though the canonization of the former Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was made official by Pope Benedict XVI in a ceremony in Vatican City hours earlier, thousands of pilgrims made their way to both Auriesville and the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda on Sunday to celebrate the momentous occasion on the grounds where Saint Kateri, now the first Native American saint, spent most of her short life.
During the Homily, Belgarde spoke of Saint Kateri's "life of innocence" and immense devotion to her faith through extraordinary hardship.
"Her life (was) a rich mixture of spiritual joy and constant suffering," Belgarde said. "She was a person of the cross and she would not yield her position to anyone.
"She was physically weak, yet bound and determined to accomplish what we celebrate here today -- Saint Kateri in heaven," Belgarde said.
An estimated 10,000 people made their way through the picturesque grounds in Auriesville throughout the day Sunday, creating near grid-lock on a portion of Route 5S for a period of time.
Among those who made the trip was Nina Goodwin, who traveled by bus with 130 of her fellow parishioners from Blessed Kateri Church in Rochester.
"It's Saint Kateri, now," Goodwin beamed.
"This is wonderful," she added. "It's perfect weather."
Goodwin said it was her first trip to the Shrine, but it will likely not be her last.
"I want to come back," she said.
Goodwin was one of many who traveled considerably to take part in Sunday's Mass of Thanksgiving at the Shrine.
Beth Lynch, event coordinator and museum director at the Shrine, said she welcomed visitors from throughout the country on Sunday.
"They recognize something significant is happening," Lynch said.
Also in Auriesville on Sunday was Kevin Gordan, an internationally recognized portrait artist whose life-size painting of Kateri served as a centerpiece at Sunday's service.
The work was originally commissioned by the National Museum of Catholic Art and was exhibited just last month at the Italian Embassy museum in Washington D.C.
Gordon said he knew very little of Saint Kateri when the piece was first commissioned, but conducted exhaustive research in order to make the portrait historically accurate.
Through the process, Gordon said, Saint Kateri endeared herself to him, inspiring him to infuse the painting with expressions of her character.
"Sometimes a painting takes on a life of its own and she did," Gordon said. "That face just kept coming back to me."
Hours before Belgarde celebrated Mass in Auriesville, Father Mark Steed was welcoming hundreds of visitors to the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda.
There, the day's festivities began with a processional featuring an actual relic from Saint Kateri herself.
The service there opened with a song that featured the chorus: "Pray for us, Saint Kateri."
"We have been waiting a long time to sing that song," Steed told the crowd.
In Fonda, the service took place beneath an open air pavilion, with additional seating beneath a vinyl tent set up alongside for the occasion.
Despite the chilly autumn air, Steed celebrated the Mass before a standing-room-only crowd.
"All of us are her people," Steed said. "Today, we are lifted up to her with new life."
As in Auriesville, visitors walked the grounds of the Shrine, with cameras close at hand, for most of the morning, awed by the sanctity of the site and the historic nature of the occasion.
Among them was Dawn "Standing Woman" Marczak, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Mohawks.
It was one of several celebrations Marczak planned to attend throughout the day.
"We're here to honor the celebration and the greatness of this day," Marczak said. "We're proud that a Native American is being honored with this status."
Sue Cridland, a Caroga Lake resident who regularly attends Mass at the Shrine, echoed Steed's joy in finally being able to celebrate a long-awaited recognition.
"Even as children, we always hear about Kateri and becoming a Saint," Cridland said. "I'm so glad we came down."
While thousands converged upon the Mohawk Valley on Sunday to celebrate an event many said they had waited a lifetime for, others were not as fortunate.
Kateri DeMartino traveled from her home in California, in part, she said, to pay homage to her father, who gave her the name, and who passed away earlier this year, just four months short of being able to witness a day the family had spent a lifetime praying for.
"The last prayer we said together was prayer to canonize Kateri," DeMartino said.
DeMartino said her father fought pancreatic cancer, a disease that has been known to take its victim's in a matter of months, for more than two years.
It's a feat, she said, he often credited Saint Kateri with.
"There were a lot of miracles that he attributed to her," DeMartino said. "This means so much to me."
DeMartino said she was often taunted as a child for having a name so different from others. Today, though, it's a name she bears proudly.
"As an adult, I love the name," DeMartino said. "It's a beautiful story and it's really amazing."
For some local residents, the occasion was worthy of much more extensive travel plans.
Michael May, of Perth, was among them; May was among thousands in Vatican Square on Sunday bearing witness to the canonization celebration first-hand.
"We had such a great week on our pilgrimage," May wrote in an email Sunday evening. "It was so moving to celebrate the canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born right in our local area at Auriesville.
"For me, the highlights were to have our own Bishop Howard Hubbard concelebrating the Mass with the Pope in Vatican Square," May continued. "Also, it was great to see just how many people were there in honor of Kateri, not just from our diocese, but from all over our country and Canada."