Canada’s First Aboriginal Saint

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks,” will likely become Canada’s first aboriginal saint. The stage was set for her canonization on Monday when Pope Benedict XVI recognized a second miracle attributed to her – a prerequisite to sainthood. The final step is a consistory, where cardinals gather to declare their endorsement of those proposed for sainthood.

Kateri, or Catherine, Tekakwitha, was born in 1656 near Auriesville, New York. Her mother was a Roman Catholic Algonquin from Trois-Rivières and her father a Mohawk chief. At the age of four a smallpox outbreak ravaged her reserve, claiming her parents and brother and leaving her with impaired eyesight and severe scarring on her face.

On Easter Day, 1676, she was baptized and took the name Kateri. From then on, despite persecution from those in her community, Tekakwitha devoted herself to Christianity. Along with a vow of chastity, Tekakwitha voluntarily participated in mortification rituals such as sleeping on thorns and walking across hot coals. Tekakwitha died near Montreal at age 24, at which point it’s said her face instantly became beautiful again, that she appeared as a vision multiple times, and that a number of the sick in her community were healed.

Aside from religious texts and biographies, Kateri Tekakwitha made an appearance as a character in Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s 1966 experimental novel Beautiful Losers. The narrator, a chronicler of a nearly extinct native tribe, declares his controversial longing for Tekakwitha and focuses on her life throughout the story. It is near the conclusion of the book, in a section that “has been rented to the Jesuits” that Cohen makes a “demand” for “the official beatification of Catherine Tekakwitha”: “For the success of this is essential that the miracles sparkle again-.and thus extend the cult of the saint-.that one may invoke her with confidence everywhere-.that she becomes again by her mere her the dust of her grave-.the sower of miracles that she was in former times.”

Years later, in an interview with Winfried Siemerling, Cohen discussed a statue of Tekakwitha that he keeps in his Montreal home.

“She is one of my household spirits. I think she embodied in her own life, in her own choices, many of the complex things that face us always,” Cohen said. “She spoke to me. She still speaks to me. There’s a very beautiful bronze statue of her in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. I used to put some flowers there.”

On Monday, along with Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Pope Benedict XVI recognized miracles attributed to Blessed Marianne Cope of Molokai, projecting likely sainthood for the revered Franciscan nun. Eighteen others were also put on course for sainthood and 64 victims were formally recognized for their martyrdom during the Spanish Civil War.

– Mike Crisolago