A Moment in Time: This month, Mission Basilica will recognize the canonization of the first Native American saint

By Jan Siegel

As I have written many times, the way that current events and history come together in San Juan Capistrano make this a very unique community. Now, religion can be added to what makes our town so special.

On Sunday, October 21, Kateri Tekakwitha will be canonized by the Catholic Church. She is the first Native American to become a saint. Her saint day is July 14, and she is a patron saint of the environment and ecology.

“At the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday, October 21, there will be a special recognition of the canonization with members of the Native American Community” Rev. Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin said. The event will be celebrated at the Mission Basilica, which is one of only seven sites in North America that have a statue honoring Kateri Tekakwitha.

Tekakwitha was born in 1656 and died on April 17, 1680. She was the daughter of Kenneronkwa, a Mohawk chief and Tagaskouta, a Roman Catholic Algonquian. At the age of four, Kateri got small pox, which left her with poor eyesight and many scars on her face. The epidemic took the life of her brother and her parents. She was subsequently adopted by her uncle, a chief from another clan. As she grew up, she realized that the only reason men were interested in her were for political. She was not interested in getting married and instead became interested in the religion of her mother.

In 1666, her adopted village was burned down and she was once again uprooted to another place, Fonda, N.Y. On Easter Sunday, April 18, 1676, Tekakwitha was baptized and she took the name Kateri, which is a Mohawk pronunciation of the French name Catherine, after Catherine of Siena. Her religious fervor caused disapproval from her own clan. She was persecuted and ostracized by family and friends. Finally she could not stand the torment and she fled to an established community of Native American Christians in Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada. It was here that she lived a life of prayer and penance and cared for the sick and aged. In 1679 she took a vow of chastity. Just a year later, at the age of 24, Tekakwitha died. It was reported that after she died, all of her facial scars disappeared.

Saint-like powers began to be attributed to Tekakwitha soon after her death, but it took almost 200 years for the Vatican to take notice. The process for her canonization began in 1884. She was declared venerable by Pope Pius XII on January 3, 1943. She was beatified on June 22, 1980 by Pope John Paul II. For sainthood, a certified miracle was needed. Although there were reports of the healing powers of Tekakwitha, it was not until 2006 that a certified miracle was proclaimed by the church.

An 11-year-old Native American boy in Seattle, Wash. was fatally ill with a flesh-eating bacteria and made a full recovery after his parents said that they had been praying to Kateri. That incident was the one that Pope Benedict XVI needed to declare Kateri ready for canonization.

Besides the basilica in San Juan Capistrano, the other shrines to Tekakwitha are the National Kateri Shrine in Fonda, N.Y., the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. , a statue on the outside of the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec, a statue depicting Kateri kneeling in prayer at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, La Crosse, Wis., and a life-size statue at the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston, N.Y. Fifty years after her death, a convent was opened in Mexico, whose residents pray daily for her canonization.

We do not have to travel to the East Coast to recognize and honor this remarkable woman. You can take a moment in time and visit the basilica in historic San Juan Capistrano to show appreciation for the dedication of this American saint.

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