We have a ‘face that looks like us’: Native American community celebrates announcement of Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, March 11, 2012

We have a face that looks like us

Sandra Taylor and Terry Roy hold up crosses and prayer cards honoring Kateri Tekakwitha for a blessing following Mass on Feb. 26. The group gathered at the Kateri Center to celebrate the Mohawk woman's upcoming canonization. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Florence Dunham sings a hymn in Mohawk at the conclusion of Mass on Feb. 26 at the Kateri Center. Worshippers celebrated the announcement of the canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha during the Mass. "We now finally have a face that looks like us," Dunham said of Kateri's upcoming canonization Oct. 21. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Kateri Tekakwitha mixed her own Mohawk culture with the Catholic faith she first inherited from her mother and later learned from Jesuit missionaries.

That blend of culture and faith was on display Feb. 26 as the people and staff of the Kateri Center, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s American Indian Ministry, celebrated the announcement that Blessed Kateri will be canonized on Oct. 21, along with Mother Marianne Cope and five others.

She will be the first Native American saint, and is seen as a patron for all Native Americans, said Auxiliary Bishop Francis Kane, who celebrated the Mass at the Kateri Center, 3938 N. Leavitt St. Her insistence on remaining faithful, in the face of opposition — even banishment — from her family and community provides a model for every Christian, he said.

“I believe God has provided a wonderful role model for all of us,” Bishop Kane said. “She combined her Native American spirituality with a Catholic spirituality, in a way that helps us all grow closer to the Lord. We live in a multiplicity of cultures that all vie for our allegiance. Do not let the culture consume you. Work on your spiritual life and embrace the Catholic faith.”

The Mass included Native American rituals such as the burning of sage, a prayer recognizing God in each of the four directions — north, south, east and west — as well as God in the sky and the earth, and music provided by drums and a wooden flute.

After Communion, Florence Dunham, a Mohawk who was raised on the Six Nations Reservation in southwest Ontario, Canada, shared a hymn in the Mohawk language — the language Kateri would have spoken. Dunham learned the hymn on the reservation, where songs were sung in the languages of several of the tribes who lived there, she said.

But Dunham did not become aware of Blessed Kateri until she came to Chicago and came to know what was then called the Anawim Center, the archdiocesan outreach to American Indians. A friend who was a member of the Oneida tribe showed her a book about Kateri.

Someone to relate to

Having a Native American saint does make a difference, Dunham said.

“We now finally have a face that looks like us,” she said.

“We’ve prayed for a long time,” said Irene Big Eagle, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of the Odawa Indians. “When I was 4 years old, my mother talked about her. Now I’m 82. That tells you how long it’s been.”

Georgina Roy, the director of the Kateri Center and an Ojibway originally from Wisconsin, said the elders at the Kateri Center have been praying for years for the gift of sainthood for Kateri. Roy will travel to Rome for the canonization with financial help of a sponsor, Susan Pearson. “We’re going to be able to hold our heads up higher because of this gift,” Roy said. “She is going to heal our scars. We have such wounded people. She has shown us how to love God who embraces us.”

While Kateri was a Mohawk, with an Algonquin mother, devotion to her has spread far beyond the tribes of the northeast and eastern Canada, Roy said, noting that the Kateri Center has people from tribes that hail from all over North America.

“She belongs to all tribes, to all the world,” Roy said. “Our people have suffered so much. They need to see a loving God.”

Kateri’s intercession

William Buchholtz has suffered from not knowing his own heritage, and he credits Blessed Kateri with helping him find it.

Buchholtz played the flute for the Mass Feb. 26, and has played at a variety of Catholic, interfaith and community events since he first received a wooden flute some years ago. The gift came from an elder at what was then the Anawim Center. The elder welcomed him when he began to identify himself as a Native American.

Buchholtz was adopted as an infant and didn’t know he had Native American ancestry until he was in his 30s and people started asking him what nation he was from. “You could see it in my face,” he said.

He later had his DNA tested and learned that his ancestry was at least 25 percent Native American, but he doesn’t know what tribe or nation. He started to look for his birth parents and found information about his mother, but his father was harder to trace.

He prayed to Blessed Kateri every day, asking for help, and in November, a new law allowing children adopted in Illinois to have access to their original birth certificates was his saving grace. He found his father’s family, and discovered that they are in the process of trying to trace his ancestry themselves.

“If you don’t have roots, you don’t know who you are,” he said. “That’s your connection.”

Joy for many

The news of Kateri’s canonization was welcomed around the country.

Father Wayne Paysse, executive director of the Washington-based Black and Indian Mission Office, noted in a Feb 21 statement that her canonization will be “one of the first actions of the church during the Year of Faith, which begins next Oct. 11.”

“Surely this is a signal to us that soon-to-be St. Kateri Tekakwitha is for all of the church both a model of faith and of the new evangelization,” he said. “For now, let us continue to pray to God for all we need, firm in the knowledge that Blessed Kateri is interceding for us from her place in heaven.”

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Blessed Kateri’s canonization “will be a great day for Canadian Catholics and a deep honor for our country.” She is entombed at St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake (Caughnawaga) in Quebec.

Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton Alberta, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Canadians “rejoice together with our American brothers and sisters in this joyful news.”

He noted that Blessed John Paul II described Blessed Kateri as “an example of fidelity ... a model of purity and love.”

Catholic News Service contributed to this story.

What is the Kateri Center?

The Kateri Center is the American Indian ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago, offering native people a place to share fellowship, pray, worship and learn about their faith and their cultures.

It was dedicated at its current site, 3938 N. Leavitt St. on the campus of St. Benedict Parish, on Jan. 7, 2011. It started in a storefront in Uptown in 1982 as a center for Native American spirituality, facilitated by two Sinsinawa Dominican sisters.

The center’s leaders decided to “refocus, reanimate, and reimagine a ministry for American Indian Catholics” in the fall of 2010, according to its website. It now offers education in faith formation through catechesis and worship under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Chicago; provides scholarship opportunities for quality education, both primary and secondary, in Catholic schools; continues American Indian culture and heritage studies; and works to build a foundation on members’ ancestors’ wisdom and oral history.

The center incorporates Native Amer ican traditional prayers and practices into its Catholic worship, said director Georgina Roy, by, for example starting Masses and other prayers with “smudging,” or wafting smoke from a blend of sage and other herbs towards each worshipper with an eagle feather.

Including the traditional rituals in Catholic worship has not been too difficult, Roy said. Sometimes the bigger challenge is blending the rituals and traditions of the many tribal backgrounds claimed by members of the center.

The Kateri Center generally serves about 250 families each year, Roy said.

For more information, visit or call (773) 509-2344.

Who was Kateri Tekakwitha?

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

Feast day: July 14

Patron of the environment and ecology

1656 - April 17, 1680

To be canonized Oct. 21 Kateri was born near the town of Auriesville, N.Y., in the year 1656, the daughter of a Mohawk clan chief and a captured Christian Algonquin woman. When she was four, her parents and brother were killed by an outbreak of smallpox that disfigured her face, damaged her eyesight and left her physically week. She was adopted by an uncle.

After meeting Jesuit priests responsible for a mission in the area, she was baptized at the age of 20. She incurred the hostility of her family and tribe and had to leave her home the following year, travelling to a mission near Montreal. She remained firm in her faith and received her first Holy Communion on Christmas Day in 1667.

On March 25, 1679, Kateri pronounced her vow of perpetual virginity. She dedicated her life to teaching prayers to children and helping the sick and the aged until she was stricken with an illness that was to claim her life. On April 17, 1680, she died at 3 p.m. at the age of 24. Her last words were "lesos konoronkwa," "Jesus, I love you." A few minutes after her death those around her bedside witnessed the ugly facial scars suddenly disappear.