Potawatomi celebrate first Native American saint
by Joe Bollig
MAYETTA — It took a proclamation of Pope Benedict XVI to make official what Native Americans already knew: Kateri Tekakwitha was a saint.
On Oct. 21 in Rome, the Holy Father proclaimed seven new saints of the Catholic Church — one of them being St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.” She is the first Native American saint.
“This should have happened a long time ago,” said Glenn Levier, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, who lives on the Potawatomi Reservation in Jackson County.
Many Potawatomi — as well as individuals representing 22 Native American nations or tribes — and Catholics of a constellation of ethnicities gathered for a Mass celebrating the canonization on Oct. 21 at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows on the Potawatomi Reservation.
“Many Native peoples have come together to pray for her canonization and already felt she was a saint before she was officially recognized by the church,” said Laura Thackery, a member of the shrine community. She hoped the saint would be a source of inspiration to young Catholic Native Americans.
Saint Kateri was known for her faith even during her own lifetime. It was only four years after her death, on April 17, 1680, that a chapel was built near her gravesite at Kahnawake in Quebec, Canada.
A convent of Native American nuns in Mexico began praying for her canonization 50 years after her death. For many years, miracles and healings have been attributed to her intercession. American Catholics initiated the canonization process in 1884, and many Native Americans have gone to Tekakwitha Conferences for more than 60 years to promote the saint’s cause.
One of them was Kathy Redbird, a White Mountain Apache and member of the Haskell Catholic Campus Center at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence.
“Obviously, I would have rather gone to Rome, but to come here and pray with other Natives and celebrate this glorious occasion means the world to me,” said Redbird.
Redbird credits her family to the intercession of St. Kateri.
“The doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to conceive,” said Redbird. “They said I would be a barren woman.
“So, I went to a Tekakwitha Conference as a pilgrimage in the late 1970s. I went up there and I asked her to pray for me. I said, ‘You chose not to have any kids, but if I am to be a barren woman, I want to be like you.’ After that, I became pregnant, so I named my daughter Tekakwitha. I wanted her to emulate the love for Jesus that Saint Tekakwitha has.”
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, who was the homilist and main celebrant for the Mass, was joined by five concelebrants. Among them was Father Chris Rossman, who serves the shrine and is pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Holton; and Father Duane Reinert, OFM Cap., chaplain of the Haskell Catholic Campus Center and a frequent Mass celebrant at the shrine.
The Mass was celebrated in a large tent pitched on a parking lot next to the shrine. A crowd of more than 400 people crowded the tent and filled chairs set up outside.
In his homily, Archbishop Naumann welcomed the gathered Potawatomi in their own language, saying, “Bosho anish nah bak.”
He also passed on the greetings and blessings of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., the archbishop of Philadelphia and a native of Concordia.
Archbishop Chaput is an enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi. His Potawatomi name is “Pyet-ta-sen,” which means,
“Wind is Stirring the Leaves.”
“He told me that he was very pleased you were having this celebration today, and that he is in Rome for the canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha along with six other saints of the church,” said Archbishop Naumann. “He asked me to assure you that he was united with us in prayer.”
Saint Kateri grew up in the context of the rich culture of Native Americans, which had a great affinity for the spiritual and the divine, said the archbishop. This affinity disposed her heart to receive the Gospel from French Jesuit missionaries.
Despite much hardship — she lost her family to disease, was left partially blind and scarred by smallpox, and was persecuted for her Christian faith — St. Kateri lived a life of heroic Christian virtue.
“She had found the love that could never be denied,” said the archbishop. “She knew the joy of being loved by the One who was love itself.”
The Mass was followed by a dinner, which included Native American foods such as fry bread and buffalo stew.
The canonization celebration had been planned since June by a joint committee of representatives from the Haskell Catholic Campus Center and Our Lady of the Snows Shrine.
Rey Kitchkumme, a member of the celebration committee, said St. Kateri now gives Native Americans a saint of their own.
“On a personal level, knowing there is a Catholic Native American who in her lifetime lived devoutly . . . is an inspiration to people like me, Native American Catholics,” he said.