KAHNAWAKE, Que. – Kateri Tekakwitha Muriella Caputo is a little young to realize she carries the name of North America’s newest aboriginal saint.
The 13-month-old from Kamloops, B.C., peered at the fabled aboriginal woman’s marble tomb for a few minutes on Sunday before being distracted by the hubbub preceding a celebratory mass at the shrine housed in a church on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve near Montreal.
But years from now, her parents will be able to tell her she was in her namesake’s presence on the day the woman was elevated by Pope Benedict to the highest pantheon of Roman Catholic role models.
Kateri Tekakwitha has been credited with life-saving miracles and was singled out for her life of devotion in the face of staunch opposition from her peers.
In naming her a saint, the Pope noted in a Vatican City ceremony how unusual it was in Tekakwitha’s culture for her to dedicate herself to her Catholic faith.
“May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are,” said Benedict, who spoke in English and French in a nod to Tekakwitha’s Canadian heritage.
“Saint Kateri, protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint, we entrust you to the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America!”
In Kahnawake, Odette Caputo, the mother who named her child after the new saint, said Tekakwitha’s devotion struck a chord with her and her husband.
“She has a real devotion to God,” said Caputo. “We wanted our daughter to have the same thing.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement that Tekakwitha never abandoned her faith.
“The canonization of Saint Kateri is a great honour and joyous occasion for the many North Americans and Aboriginal peoples who cherish her witness of faith and strength of character,” Harper said.
Tekakwitha joins Juan Diego, an indigenous man who lived in what is now Mexico, as aboriginals from North America who have become saints. Diego was canonized by Pope John Paul in 2002.
Tekakwitha, who is also known as “Lily of the Mohawks,” was born in New York state in 1656 before fleeing to a settlement north of the border to escape opposition to her Christianity.
She died in 1680 at the age of 24. The process for her canonization began in the 1880s and Tekakwitha was eventually beatified by Pope John Paul in 1980. A steady stream of people have visited her shrine.
Her canonization was sealed by an event six years ago when prayers to her are credited with stopping the spread of a flesh-eating infection in a youngster belonging to the Lummi tribe in Washington.
On Sunday, aboriginal Canadians and Americans in traditional dress sang songs to Tekakwitha as the sun rose over St. Peter’s Square.
They joined pilgrims from around the world at the mass and cheered when the Pope, in Latin, declared each of the seven new saints worthy of veneration by the church.
Applause also thundered through a school gym in Kahnawake when Tekakwitha’s name was invoked as the ceremony was rebroadcast a few hours later.
In the hours before the celebratory mass, which ended with a procession to her tomb, people milled around in the shrine’s museum and gift shops. Tekakwitha looked down at them from statues and portraits. In the church, a stained glass window with her picture lit up as the sun broke through overcast skies.
Even though she died more than 300 years ago, the faithful spoke of her warmly, using her first name.
“She was one of the first Catholic natives and she was really brave for being Catholic,” said Michelle Phillips, 12, pointing out that Tekakwitha followed her faith despite the objections of a stern uncle who took her in after her parents died of small pox.
“When I found out she was becoming a saint I was really happy.”
Joe Delaronde, one of the organizers of the Kahnawake events to mark the canonization said there has been a lot of excitement in the community, which also held a prayer vigil for Tekakwitha on Saturday.
“We have a mass every Sunday but this mass is special because we’re having a mass with one of our own as a saint for the first time ever,” he said as people pulled up on buses and in cars for the service.
Delaronde said he’s a little awed by the fact that decades-long efforts to get Tekakwitha promoted to sainthood have finally borne fruit.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” he said. “Certainly the Catholic people are beside themselves.”
But he added there is a joy even among non-Catholics for a piece of good news coming out of the community.
“This is validation for the Mohawk people and native people in general that one of ours is now counted among the saints.”
He said he grew up hearing about Tekakwitha because his grandmother and mother were devoted to her.
“For us, she’s always been kind of a patron saint anyway,” he said. “When you had trouble, you were always encouraged to pray to Kateri and that is something that has gone on throughout my entire life.”
Jonathan Kalisch, a chaplain with the Dominican Order at Dartmouth College, came all the way from Hanover, N.H., to be part of the Kahnawake celebrations.
Kalisch, who said he first heard of Tekakwitha about a decade ago, was struck by her character and how she carried on even though she was mocked and her reputation and beliefs were attacked.
“She never gave up on the cross,” he said. “We’re told she would go out into the woods and carve crosses into the trees.”
He said her life was one of “prayer and humility and love and forgiveness.”
“For me, even as a priest, that’s a great example.”
In his homily, Benedict praised each of the seven new saints as examples for the entire church.
“With heroic courage they spent their lives in total consecration to the Lord and in the generous service of their brethren,” he said.
The other new saints are: Mother Marianne Cope, a 19th century Franciscan nun who cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii; Pedro Calungsod, a Filipino teenager who helped Jesuit priests convert natives in Guam in the 17th century but was killed by spear-wielding villagers opposed to the missionaries’ efforts to baptize their children; Jacques Berthieu, a 19th century French Jesuit who was killed by rebels in Madagascar, where he worked as a missionary; Giovanni Battista Piamarta, an Italian who founded a religious order in 1900 and established a Catholic printing and publishing house in his native Brescia; Carmen Salles Y Barangueras, a Spanish nun who founded a religious order to educate children in 1892; and Anna Schaeffer, a 19th century German lay woman who became a model for the sick and suffering after she fell into a boiler and badly burned her legs. The wounds never healed, causing her constant pain.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Tekakwitha was the first North American aboriginal to become a saint