Kateri pilgrimage timely
By Kiply Lukan Yaworski
SASKATOON — Filled with joy at the news that Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha will be canonized in October, a group of pilgrims from the Diocese of Saskatoon travelled thousands of kilometres this summer to walk and to pray where the beloved “Lily of the Mohawks” lived and died.
Sixteen members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish — which serves First Nations, Métis, and non-Aboriginal people in the heart of Saskatoon — travelled to New York state and Quebec July 8-15 to walk in the footsteps of the young woman who will be the first North American First Nations woman named a saint.
In a recent interview, several of the pilgrims described the profound spiritual impact of visiting the land of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, hearing her stories, praying at various shrines, collecting water from her well, and touching her tomb.
“I was really happy to be where she had been born, and where she had walked. It just felt so holy,” said Elder Gayle Weenie. “I thought: if I went to Rome, I wouldn’t see this.”
After years of praying for the canonization of Blessed Kateri, and learning late last year that she would be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI, the idea of travelling to the Oct. 21 celebration in Rome did come immediately to mind, admitted Weenie.
But almost as quickly, parishioners began to discuss the idea of visiting the sacred places on this continent associated with Kateri Tekakwitha. Working with Ministry of Tourism director Rev. Ralph Kleiter, the group came up with an itinerary and a travel plan, and began fundraising to offset some of the costs, said parish life director Mary Jacobi.
The Saskatoon pilgrims visited Blessed Kateri’s birthplace at Auriesville, New York, and the shrine established at Fonda, New York, where she was living when she was baptized, as well as the Jesuit mission in Kahnawake Mohawk territory, near Montreal, where she fled in order to escape persecution and to nurture her Christian faith.
Emile Schroell is one of the many Canadians who first heard about Blessed Kateri on the news, with the announcement of her upcoming canonization. He decided to join the pilgrimage to learn more for himself about the first Native person to be named a saint for Canada.
Irene Sharpe first heard about Blessed Kateri when she attended the diocesan Lay Formation program. She and other members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish also learned more about her life and the cause for her canonization at Tekakwitha Conferences, held annually in North America to reinforce Catholic identity and affirm indigenous cultures and spiritual traditions.
“But even now, most of our Native people have not heard about Kateri,” said Sharpe. “We need to share more information.”
Two members of the Sisters of Loretto first told Weenie about Kateri Tekakwitha when she began teaching in the Catholic school system in the 1970s. “We also had a local Kateri Circle to pray for her canonization, started by the late Grace Adams,” Weenie added. Adams was one of the Saskatchewan Aboriginal representatives who attended the beatification of Kateri in Rome in 1980.
Weenie attended her first Tekakwitha Conference in Bozeman, Montana, in the 1980s, amazed to experience traditional First Nations practices such as smudging as part of Catholic prayer, to meet Aboriginal priests and religious sisters, and to see them dance at the powwow in their regalia. One of the priests she met, Rev. Charles Chaput, of the Prairie Band Potawatomi nation of Kansas, is now archbishop of Philadelphia.
Such experiences transformed how she viewed her Catholic faith, and demonstrated the importance of integrating First Nations spirituality into the life of the church.
Years of prayer and devotion to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha led parishioner Mary Bighetty to join the pilgrim group and “head down to the south” for the first time in her life. The trip involved challenges, including a lot of walking, Bighetty said, but she was determined to take part, relying on the friendship and help of the group. “We were praying lots: praying for people and for families, praying for those who are sick.”
The pilgrims said they were struck by the peacefulness of the Kateri shrine sites as well as by the warm welcome and hospitality they received from the First Nations people gathered to celebrate the July 14 feast day of Blessed Kateri at Fonda, New York. The church in the United States marks her feast on her birthday in July, while the Canadian church marks her liturgical memorial on the day she died, April 17.
The summer trip was timely, said the parish life director of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. “The fact that we chose to go to Blessed Kateri’s burial site and birthplace this summer is a blessing, because after she is canonized, it will change. It will never be as pure and simple as we saw it,” said Jacobi.
As St. Kateri Tekakwitha becomes better known, it will not be as easy to walk up to such artifacts as the earliest image of the saint painted by her Jesuit spiritual director Rev. Claude Chauchetière, SJ, or to travel the path to Kateri’s Well, predicted Jacobi.
Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) is recognized for her holiness, and her commitment to her Catholic faith in the face of scorn and rejection, and is a patron of ecology, the environment, those in exile and those who have lost their parents. More information about the new saint is available on the website of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (cccb.ca).
Plans are also underway for a diocesan celebration in Saskatoon to mark the canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Oct. 21, 2012.