By Thandiwe Konguavi
Staff Writer

Over 100 St. Kateri devotees braved the snow and freezing cold at Lac Ste. Anne on Saturday to celebrate the first indigenous North American saint.

“It just shows that she’s a universal saint and that here in the province of Alberta, there are many people who have come to love her in many ways,” said Sister Kateri Mitchell, executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference National Centre in Louisiana, who brought a relic of the saint to the celebration. “We are here for healing, for prayer, for giving praise and thanksgiving to our God, and to thank God for giving us a model who was so young.”   

Due to the snow, festivities were moved from the outdoor St. Anne Shrine into the Lac Ste. Anne Catholic Church for the Mass, celebrated by Archbishop Richard Smith. The event was a special occasion not just for First Nations but also for the whole Archdiocese and beyond, he said.

St. Kateri taught through her dying words — “Jesus I love you” — that love heals, the Archbishop said. Shortly after she died, her severe facial scarring, the result of a bout with smallpox that killed her entire family, miraculously disappeared.

“Many of us know what it is to live with psychological or emotional scarring deep within. The scars that are left from hurts, disappointments, betrayals, addictions, abuse; all of these things that cause inner scars,” said Archbishop Smith. “What Kateri teaches us, is that the healing is given when we embrace the truth of the love of Jesus Christ.”

Cindy Zadwardnicki, an organizer of the celebration, said St. Kateri "gave herself totally" to Jesus. “That’s why it’s so good for the youth to learn about the love of God through her.”

St. Kateri holds a special place in the hearts of Aboriginal people. “She’s a beacon of faith to me as an Aboriginal person,” said Corrine Potts, an Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Councillor. “Just the fact that she’s an Aboriginal saint is something that all First Nations people should be celebrating.” 

“St. Kateri is beautiful,” added Tashia Rain, 14, who helped sing at Mass. 

Breaking down in tears, Eileen Sasakamoose of Our Lady of Mercy, the Enoch parish which organized the event, said young people especially could benefit from the example of St. Kateri.  

“We’re living in such a godless world. Lack of God makes it hard to live a life worth living,” she said. “(St. Kateri) shows us how to be in love with Jesus.”

St. Kateri, the daughter of a Mohawk chief, built bridges, said Lac Ste. Anne pastor Rev. Leszek Kwiatkowski. “Her own family didn’t accept her choice in life, that she chose faith and Christ. It’s also by this event that we could bridge together these two different cultures.”

Sister Kateri called the snow a “symbolic and significant” blessing from Mother Earth, because Kateri was known to walk in the snow barefoot and stand outside until the priest would arrive at the chapel in the morning. 

Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized in 2012. Saturday's event followed her Canadian feast day of April 17 and also coincided with Earth Day.

Who is St. Kateri?

She is a saint of the universal Church. But in life and in death, St. Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks, brings the message of God's love to Indigenous people like no one else.

“For us to be known on such a universal level is very affirming and confirming: Yes, we are the people of God, we are members of the Roman Catholic Church,” said Sister Kateri Mitchell, executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference National Centre in Louisiana. 

St. Kateri is the Patroness and Protectress of Canada, the Patroness of Ecology, and the first Indigenous North American saint. Her name graces St. Kateri Catholic School in Edmonton, St. Kateri Tekakwitha School in Calgary, and churches and centres across North America.

Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in an area called the Mohawk Valley, which is now New York State. Her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother an Algonquin Christian.
At age 4, she was the only survivor in her family when her parents and her younger brother died during a smallpox epidemic that swept through the village. The disease left her with limited vision, poor health, and pockmarks on her face and body.   

During her teenage years, she was drawn to a deeper relationship with God and intrigued by Jesuit missionaries when they came into the village to evangelize among the Mohawk people. She was baptized and received the Eucharist for the first time at age 21.   

Persecuted by her people for embracing a different spiritual path, she relocated to the Christian community of Kahnawake, in what is now Quebec. There she was able to freely practise her spirituality.

“She was in my opinion like our first Mohawk evangelizer among her people,” said Mitchell.

Her own lifestyle was one of prayer, fasting, and practising severe penance: Scourging herself, walking barefoot in the snow, spending entire winter days in the chapel, and lying on thorns and tree branches.

“This was because of her closeness to Christ, who was scourged for our sins,” said Mitchell.

She was confined to her bed, unable to continue her ministry in the week leading up to her death on the Wednesday of Holy Week, April 17, 1680. Her tomb remains in the Catholic Church on the St. Francis Xavier Mission in Quebec.

Her death marked what is said to be her first miracle: Her face became radiant with no sign of scarring. She was given the title "Venerable" in 1943, and beatified in 1980. The miracle that culminated in her sainthood was the healing of a young boy named Jake Finkbonner in 2006.

At the request of his family, Mitchell brought a relic of Kateri to the Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where she prayed for Finkbonner, who was dying of a flesh-eating disease. Kateri was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

St. Kateri Celebration from Archdiocese of Edmonton on Vimeo.