Before traveling to Rome for the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in October, Fond du Lac native, Sister of St. Agnes Josephine Goebel gathered prayer petitions from parishioners from the Houck, Arizona Navajo Reservation she has served for 25 years, as well as from family, friends and members of the Sisters of St. Agnes.
The celebrations began with Native Americans in beaded and feathered headdresses and leather-fringed tunics singing songs to St. Kateri to the beat of drums as the sun bathed ribbons of pink over St. Peter’s Square. Arriving well before the canonization’s commencement, Sr. Josephine found a seat in the 18th row. She went through the petitions and prayed for each person by name as she awaited the ceremony to begin.
“This was my way of bringing them along with me to Rome and to the canonization as I knew that they all wished they could be there,” said Sr. Josephine, who traveled to Rome with the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. “We arrived as daylight was just beginning and I was in the middle of a mob of people who were all trying to get in. The gate opened in front of us and I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be sitting in the 18th row from the front of Pope Benedict’s chair – it was astounding. I had such a great view of him.”
Introduced to St. Kateri in 1988
The nine-day canonization pilgrimage was a celebration for the nun who learned about St. Kateri Tekakwitha in 1988 when she took a three-week workshop offered by the Tekakwitha Conference. She has long admired St. Kateri for her faith and ability to bridge Native American spirituality with Catholic traditions.
“(Through the conferences) Native Americans throughout the U.S., including Alaska, Canada and Mexico have learned more about Kateri’s virtues, her devotion to God, her being baptized a Catholic despite opposition from her family and tribe, her prayer and teachings about Jesus,” she explained. “Her canonization will only increase their devotion to her, and be expressed by imitating her life of prayer and devotion.”
In his homily, Pope Benedict called St. Kateri an inspiration to indigenous faithful across North America.
Sr. Josephine said the Native Americans swelled with pride as one of their own was declared a saint of the Catholic Church.
Each day of the pilgrimage, she attended Mass at one of the major churches: St. Peter Basilica and St. John Lateran in Rome; St. Francis in Assisi, St. Catherine and Dominic in Siena, The Duomo in Florence, St. Anthony in Padua and St. Mark in Venice.
“I felt that I was touching and walking in the footsteps of these early giants of faith, while being conscious that in the past century we’ve had numerous martyrs and giants of faith show us the way to God,” she explained. “Being in Rome and other holy places gave me a sense of connection to the foundations of my Catholic faith, especially in this Year of Faith. Each day the sense of joy permeated the congregation of all the pilgrims.”
Daughter’s namesake becomes saint
Traveling to Rome was especially meaningful to Liz and Al Kuhn, members of the Congregation of the Great Spirit, Milwaukee, who have such affection for St. Kateri Tekakwitha that they named their eldest daughter after her.
“Our whole family went — my husband, our 16-year-old daughter Kateri and 12-year-old daughter Maria, my dad and my aunt,” said Liz. “It was wonderful and so special to be there together as a family, celebrate Mass and receive holy Communion. We saw a lot of Native Americans there in full dress; it was very crowded – more than 80,000 people were in the square.”
A white Methodist family adopted Al, part Menomonie Nation and part Ojibwa Nation in the White Earth Band, when he was a child. He grew up Methodist and converted to Catholicism after meeting Liz. The couple was married 17 years ago at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish, Milwaukee.
“After we got involved at Great Spirit, Al got in touch with his Native roots and practiced Native ceremonies and the Catholic faith,” said Liz. “He has his heart with the Native ceremonies and still practices the Catholic faith. When we had our daughters, we wanted them to have names to reflect their heritage, so Kateri was named after St. Kateri and Maria is Maria Rosa after Our Lady of Guadalupe. When Mary appeared, she appeared as Mestiza, half European and half Native indigenous, and we thought her name was fitting as well.”
Some not pleased with canonization
While some Native Americans view St. Kateri’s canonization as distasteful to Native American culture, others view it as joyful. Some Native Americans are comfortable merging their roots with Catholic culture and others feel that Catholic Native Americans have renounced their native traditions and find the canonization disturbing.
Liz said that she appreciates St. Kateri’s spirit that was alive and present before her conversion to Catholicism.
“She learned her Catholicism from the French Jesuits, but was not indoctrinated or coerced into the folds,” said Liz. “She already had that spirit alive within her. I think one of the beautiful things about St. Kateri is that we can see that God works in people, no matter where they live, where they come from or their background.”
The canonization “was a wonderful, experience and to have your child’s namesake become a saint in your lifetime is amazing. I mean, what are the odds to be able to travel to Rome with your husband, children, father and aunt and share this experience with them?” Liz said. “The best part for Al was the day we traveled to Assisi. He wore his Indian shirt there and I think he felt more of a connection to St. Francis and his spirituality rather than the pomp and circumstance of the canonization. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and that is why we went.”
‘Waiting 300 years for this!’
As pastor of Congregation of the Great Spirit, Fr. Ed Cook was delighted with the canonization and said members of his parish were equally excited to venerate the first Native American saint.
“We have been waiting 300 years for this!” he exclaimed. “We had a big celebration during the Mass on the Sunday of the canonization. We had an Oneida Iroquois woman say a prayer in Mohawk and she also sang the Te Deum in Oneida. Women danced to the drum and the last was an elderly woman carrying an icon of St. Kateri. After the homily, we did a harvest dance with the men on one side and the women on the other side. Following holy Communion we had Aztec dancers dancing and then we needed one last dance so everyone did a round dance around the church. Afterwards we had a huge feast.”
The excitement continued as parishioners traveled to the Cathedral of St. John the following Sunday for a formal celebration of the canonization.
Archivist pens book on St. Kateri
Being present for the canonization was important to Mark Thiel, leader of the Tekakwitha Special Collections University Archives at Marquette University. Since the early 1990s, he has conducted Kateri-related interviews. In addition, Raynor Memorial Libraries Department of Special Collections supplied photos for an exhibit about Native Catholics at the Vatican.
“My wife and I took an extended pilgrimage because we had not had a vacation this past summer, so we decided to stay on a little more,” he said. “It was an awesome crowd and a joyful chaotic atmosphere. The size of the crowd was a little untenable and full, but a very positive atmosphere and festive.”
Thiel’s interest in Native American culture began as a child. Fond memories of the annual Folk Fair and ethnic celebrations piqued his curiosity and seemed to set the path for his endeavors.
“I have been at Marquette University for 25 years and my work primarily focuses on Indian mission records in the U.S, some in Canada and some from Central America,” he said. “Before that, I worked on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for three years. My wife and I met in the Wisconsin Dells and worked with the Ho Chunk and public schools there. In 1976, the Ho Chunk Community adopted me into their family. I had no idea that my early work with the Native Americans would set the course for my life.”
The night before the canonization, Thiel was involved in the Marquette photo exhibit at a garden reception adjacent to the Vatican museum.
He distributed fliers on a book he co-edited with Christopher Vecsey, “Native Footsteps Along the Path of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha,” a collection of writings of Native Catholics and devotions to Kateri
Published by the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and Marquette University Press, the book will be available through www.blackandindianmission.org
Meeting seems divinely inspired
Ironically, as he and his wife sat in St. Peter’s Square awaiting the start of the canonization, a Native American man who Thiel had never met, sat next to them.
“We started talking and learned we had some friends in common,” said Thiel. “I learned that this man was named George Looks Twice and his grandfather was a famous Indian named Nicholas Black Elk. He was a Catholic catechist and medicine man and most likely the next Native Catholic sainthood candidate.”
Out of 80,000 people, this man from South Dakota sat next to the Thiels, and it was to be the only Native American from South Dakota he would encounter the entire trip.
“It seemed as if it was a Divine appointment,” said Thiel. “I have had things like this happen before and sometimes it will alter the course of my life. I am wondering now, was this one of those instances? I will probably know much later when I put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Any negativity surrounding the canonization of St. Kateri is unfortunate and demonstrates the chip on the shoulder that many people have about the Catholic Church, explained Thiel. He described the Seattle boy, who was the recipient of the last miracle attributed to St. Kateri, leading to her canonization, suffered greatly after the miracle.
“The family got all sorts of hate mail from people, and they were a Native family in the Seattle area; you just wonder why would they do that to a family – they are just regular people,” he said. “I think it relates to some of the symbolic issues that rest here. In some respects it has to do with seeing the Catholic Church historically as being involved in the colonization and oppression of Native Americans that has happened, and some see it in that light, rather than seeing the church as a liberator.”
Thiel said the Catholic Church has done much to champion the rights of the poor and to eliminate oppression, but some Native Americans look at the broader issue that Kateri fled to the Montreal area, gave up her heritage and became Catholic.
“However, I was at a Tekakwitha Conference in Albany in July and some non-Catholic Mohawk speakers were there, so this shows that there has been some healing going on and the divisions aren’t as prominent as they once were,” he said.