ROME — The Roman Catholic Church, whose missions to convert the natives of North America to Christianity go back nearly four centuries, opens a new chapter in its relations with the indigenous peoples of the continent Sunday when it canonizes a 17th century Mohawk Indian as the first Native American saint.
The ceremony honoring Kateri Tekakwitha, born in what is now upstate New York, is set to take place in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican along with that of six others whom Pope Benedict XVI named in December, including Blessed Marianne Cope, a German-born nun who ministered to lepers in Hawaii. Thousands of Native American pilgrims are expected, many in full tribal regalia, and Hawaii is sending dancers.
Native Americans have venerated Kateri from the time of her death in 1680 at age 24 near what is now Montreal, and many cures have been attributed to divine intercession following prayers to her. But it took 332 years for her to reach the pantheon of saints, following what the church deemed a miraculous recovery of a young boy of Lummi Indian descent in Washington state from a dread bacterial infection.
She was first proposed for inquiry in the late 19th century and given “venerable” status in 1942, the first step to sainthood. She was beatified in 1980, the second step in the process.
“We have an expression in the Catholic Church: the church thinks in centuries,” said the Rev. Wayne Paysse, the executive director of the church’s main liaison with Native Americans, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. “Nothing moves quickly.”
Making Kateri a saint is “is embracing Native peoples,” said Emil Her Many Horses, a senior curator in the History and Culture Research Unit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Historically, the missionaries were “coming in and considering Native people as pagans and savages and in a childlike role: We need to educate them,” he said. “Today, Native people who have embraced Christianity have the freedom to be part of the church.”
For individual Native Americans, Her Many Horses said the naming of St. Kateri means “having someone whom you can look to and pray to for whatever your petitions are.”
The Jesuit priest who promoted Kateri’s cause for more than half a century said the canonization should be seen in the context of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to respect the languages and customs and acknowledge the identity and richness of indigenous peoples, who have suffered for those very attributes.
“That’s why it’s important that the church presents one of them precisely as an example to all the peoples of the world,” the Rev. Paolo Molinari told McClatchy. Kateri Tekakwith “belongs to those Native Indians who have been suppressed, deprived of many rights, both in Canada and in the States.”
The wounds lie just below the surface for many Native Americans, including some of the more than 700 pilgrims who’ve traveled here under church auspices to attend the ceremony.
“I went to a Jesuit boarding school in Montana,” recalled Larry Hogan, 56, a Crow Indian from Montana, who was attending a reception for the pilgrims thrown by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See at the Vatican museum Friday evening. “They would punish anyone speaking Crow. They’d slap your hands with a ruler.” An avid follower of Catholic television, he recalled only one archbishop ever apologizing for the mistreatment.
Kathryn Guimaraes, 75, who was also a guest at the reception, was born an Anishinaabe Indian, a tribe that she said was renamed Chippewa at government behest. When her brother was born in 1934, she recalled, the Lutheran church in the small town where they lived refused to baptize him, telling her mother, “Indians don’t have souls.” When he died of an infection at 18 months, he could not be buried in a Christian cemetery because he had not been baptized. He was buried alongside the railroad tracks, she said.
Guimaraes also had bitter memories of what she said her father had gone through, forced to give up his native language or face severe punishment.
She says Native Americans are owed an apology for the abuses they have suffered. She noted that the late Pope John Paul II urged everyone to apologize. “But I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church has. I don’t think the other churches have.”
According to the Smithsonian’s Her Many Horses, after Indians were forced onto reservations, the different Christian denominations were given permission to set up mission schools, usually one denomination per reservation.
“As in any boarding school, there was harsh treatment, physical abuses but also some benefits,” he said. “It depends on whom you talk to.” In hindsight, “it seems absolutely appalling that it was the standard at the time to Christianize what were believed to be pagan Indians, to force one’s belief onto another race.”
Paysse said that some individual bishops had made statements acknowledging past abuses, but “nothing has been done officially” by the conference of bishops.
By contrast, in Canada, all the major Christian denominations have issued a joint apology. The Canadian government set up a royal commission to investigate abuses, and the government formally apologized in Parliament to leaders of the First Nations, as Canada calls its Native Americans. It set up a compensation fund and created a truth and reconciliation commission, which held several sessions this past week.
“In terms of coming clear on history, we did,” said Anne Leahy, the Canadian ambassador to the Holy See. “It’s been a long process, and painful.”
Molinari, one of the church’s specialists on Native American issues, said it’s “certainly true” that Canada has come to terms with the past more forthrightly than the United States. But he said the American bishops had done “a lot over the years,” starting with the setting up an office of mission to the American Indians in 1874.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, one of the highest-ranking Native Americans in the Church hierarchy – he’s one quarter Potawatomi from Kansas – said he thought that U.S. bishops had expressed regret to Native Americans in 1991 on the 500th anniversary of the European discovery of America. Their statement apologized for at times “reflecting the racism of the dominant culture of which we have been a part” and for forcing Native Americans “to become European at the same time they became Christian.”
Chaput, who arrived Friday in Rome for the canonization, cautioned against repeatedly revisiting past wrongs. “One of the techniques of a minority people to get attention is to play the victim and insist on apology upon apology upon apology, just to keep the other side off balance a bit,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s mature and useful either.”
Kateri’s relationship with the Jesuits was a lot more positive, at least according to the accounts the Jesuits themselves passed down. Born to a Christian Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father in what is now Auriesville, N.Y., she’s been called both the Lily of the Mohawks and the Iroquois Virgin.
A smallpox epidemic orphaned her at age 4, severely weakened her eyes and left pockmarks on her face. She was raised by an uncle, in tribal tradition.
After an encounter with Jesuit priests who had called on her uncle, she followed her mother’s example and adopted Christianity at age 20. She was ostracized by her family and tribe, however, so she traveled by canoe up the Hudson River, across lakes and rivers, and ended up at a Jesuit settlement in Kahnawake, near Montreal.
She told the priests that she wanted to start a new order of nuns, but they discouraged her. Paysse said his guess is in that era, “it just would not be favored.”
Instead, she took a private vow of chastity and inflicted penances on herself, among them pressing hot coals against her skin, putting thorns under her skin and standing outdoors in the snow, praying.
Paysse said chastity, as Kateri observed it, is “an example we want everyone to observe.”
The penances are something different.
Paysse said the church would not be advising Jake Finkbonner, now 12, the Bellingham, Wash., boy whose recovery from a flesh-eating disease was the final miracle that won Kateri her sainthood, to inflict such punishments. “Everything in moderation,” he said. “Certainly not the church, nor do I, endorse that sort of penance.”