Thousands of Catholics, some wearing feathered headdresses and beads, others in colorful Hawaiian shirts and leis, turned out Sunday as Pope Benedict XVI canonized seven saints, including the first Native American and a 19th-century nun who tended to lepers on Hawaii.
VATICAN CITY — Tens of thousands of pilgrims, including Native Americans in tribal regalia, Hawaiians with leis and Bavarians in lederhosen, packed St. Peter’s Square on Sunday as Pope Benedict XVI canonized seven saints, including a Mohawk whose role in the healing of a Lummi Indian from Ferndale, Whatcom County, was a significant factor in her canonization.
In 2006, 6-year-old Jake Finkbonner was on his deathbed after contracting the flesh-destroying bacterial infection necrotizing fasciitis through a cut in his lip.
A priest had given him his last rites, and his parents had resigned themselves to his death. But after they prayed to Kateri Tekakwitha — who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980 — the bacteria stopped spreading and Jake recovered.
The bacteria had traveled too fast, the church found, for there to be any explainable, scientific reason for him to recover.
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The elevation of Kateri to sainthood was a breakthrough not only for Native Americans, but also for the Roman Catholic Church. The pope went out of his way to emphasize the church’s respect for Indian culture and tribal traditions, which wasn’t always the case.
Born in 1656 in what is today upstate New York, Saint Kateri died in what is now Canada just 24 years later, having spent the last four years of her life as a Christian.
Benedict praised her for staying “faithful to the traditions of her people,” except for their religious beliefs.
Unlike most of the others canonized Sunday, Kateri was neither a martyr nor a member of a religious order, but Benedict gave her a bigger challenge than anyone else. “Protectress of Canada and the first Native-American saint, we entrust to you the renewal of the faith in the First Nations and in all of North America,” he said in his homily.
A second American canonized Sunday, Saint Marianne Cope, born in Germany in 1838, was a Franciscan nun who tended a leper’s colony in Hawaii in the 19th century. Saint Pedro Calungsod was a martyr at age 18 in 17th century Philippines. Saint Jacques Berthieu, a French priest born in the mid-19th century, spent much of his life in Madagascar, and Saint Giovanni Battista Piamarta, born in 1841, served as a parish priest in Brescia, Italy. Saint Maria Carmelo Salles y Barangueras, born in 1848, founded a Spanish religious order, and Saint Anna Schaefer, born in Germany in 1882, intended to join a religious order but was prevented by ill health.
Kateri, some of whose bone fragments were presented to the pope as part of the ceremony, was first proposed for sainthood more than a century ago. Phil Fontaine, a spokesman for the First Nations, as Canada calls its Native Americans, said Sunday that the canonization should be a milestone in relations with the Roman Catholic Church.
In 2009, Benedict granted Fontaine and other First Nation leaders an audience in which he apologized for the abuse and mistreatment of Indian children in so-called residential schools that the church operated on behalf of the Canadian government. This led to the start of a broader reconciliation.
For the family of Jake Finkbonner, 12, Sunday was an uplifting day of the sort that couldn’t have been imagined as he lay near death six years ago from a bacterial infection. The church ruled his recovery, after prayers and the placing of a relic of Kateri on his body, to be a miracle, and that opened the way for Kateri’s canonization.
Kateri was already an important figure for Catholics in the Lummi tribe, of which Jake’s father, Donny, is a member. A carved wooden statue sits in the church on the Lummi reservation near Bellingham.
The Rev. Tim Sauer was the Finkbonners’ parish priest in Ferndale, as well as the pastor on the Lummi reservation. He had performed the last-rites ritual on Jake and said he immediately urged the Finkbonners and the congregation back on the reservation to pray to Kateri, thinking their shared Native- American heritage and scarring diseases were relevant.
On Sunday, Jake, his parents and his two younger sisters all received communion from the pope.
“It was spectacular being able to walk behind my family as they were going to take communion,” his father, Donny, said.
“I can’t think of enough words,” to describe the day, said his wife, Elsa. “It’s surreal. It keeps on getting better.”
Jake and his family were the toast of the reception thrown by the Canadians. Archbishop Gerald Cyprien Lacroix, the archbishop of Quebec City and primate of Canada, was just one of the top Canadian clerics who had his photograph taken with Jake. When Canadian Ambassador Anne Leahy introduced the family, the roomful of top church officials and government dignitaries room broke into applause.
As recounted by the Vatican and many historians, Kateri’s life began in 1656 in what today is Auriesville in upstate New York on the southern bank of the Mohawk River. The daughter of an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief, she was orphaned at age 4 when smallpox killed her parents and brother.
The name Tekakwitha — she was simply Kateri before — was a result of her badly damaged eyesight that accompanied her smallpox scars. It means “she who bumps into things.”
She had been introduced to Catholicism by her mother and held fast to her faith when she and her foster family moved to the north riverbank after their village was destroyed in war.
Kateri studied her faith in secret until she was baptized at 18 near present-day Fonda, N.Y., where there is now a national Kateri Tekakwitha shrine. Employees there organized an evening Mass on Saturday and a celebratory gathering Sunday.
Over time, Kateri was ridiculed for her beliefs, and she fled to Canada.
After she died at age 23, a priest reported what is regarded as a miracle — the scars on her face vanished and her skin took on a youthful appearance. Villagers reported seeing visions of her reassuring them she was going to heaven, and for years afterward, the earth she touched was used to treat people’s ills. She had settled at the Mission of St. Francis Xavier with a group of Christian Indians in Quebec. A shrine stands in her name there, too.
Some Native Americans have said that canonizing Kateri is an implicit offense to Native-American traditions, but Eleanor Smith, 80, from Albuquerque, N.M., did not agree.
“It’s a combination of your Catholic and your native traditions blending together,” said Smith, who is from Mississippi Choctaw and Navajo heritage. “We all believe in the same creator. God, creator, Father Sky — it’s all the same.”
Others came to honor Saint Marianne Cope, a former mother superior of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis in Syracuse, N.Y., who moved to the island of Molokai in 1883 to tend to those with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. There, she worked with Father Damien De Veuster, a Belgian priest who was canonized in 2009.
Benedict called Saint Marianne, who died in 1913, “a shining and energetic example of the best of the tradition of Catholic nursing sisters and of the spirit of her beloved Saint Francis.”
Kathleen Ford, 67, came with a group from the Diocese of Syracuse.
“You can relate to her. She was a forerunner in health care,” Ford said as she stood in a group wearing white kerchiefs that read, “Sisters of Saint Francis. Beloved lover of outcasts.”
The Vatican confirmed that a woman from Syracuse was cured from complications of pancreatitis in 2005 after praying to Marianne Cope, the second miracle needed to assure the nun’s sainthood.
Yvonne Pascua, 65, said she had come to Rome from Kapaa on the island of Kauai for the canonizations of both Saint Marianne and Saint Damien.
“After Father Damien, Sister Marianne stepped up to the plate,” she said.
Includes material from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times archives