FONDA, N.Y. – Just hours after the woman who has been called "Lily of the Mohawks" was canonized in Rome on Oct. 21, some 500 pilgrims swarmed onto the grounds of the shrine near the spot where she lived and was baptized more than three centuries ago.
Under threatening skies and an occasional sprinkle, Franciscan Friar Patrick Gallagher of St. Cecilia Parish in Fonda led a procession of priests, brothers and servers, bearing a first-class relic of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native North American recommended for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. She is now the first Native North American saint.
Shrine director Friar Mark Steed, a member of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (Conventual Franciscans), was the celebrant of a Mass that took place outdoors. An overflow crowd of people from many parts of the country spilled onto the adjoining grounds and under a temporary tent.
"Thank God, it’s happened!" Friar Steed said in his homily, and the congregation applauded. He said many Native Americans who frequently come to the shrine were invited to the canonization in Rome, and one of them told Friar Steed, "I feel like I’m betraying you." He told her, "No, go to Rome; you need to be with the Holy Father as he does his work."
"Deep within each of us is a living spirit, a still point, a reality where God dwells with us," he said. "It is from this still point where all unique possibilities for holiness in our world will begin, where the grace of God takes us to the greatest heights of personal possibilities for good, and that energizes us to operate out of this truth as holy people."
He said that we honor Saint Kateri not because she is being canonized, but because she responded to that still point within herself.
"And in that quiet space, [she] found herself being filled with joy. That joy led her to reach out all around her so [others] too could feel the happiness and peace," he said.
"We are challenged to unlock the still point within us," he said.
As the congregation prayed for mercy during the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God"), the raindrops ceased, clouds lifted, and the sun shone down on the grounds where the saint once lived and walked.
"It’s probably the biggest miracle that I’ve ever seen," Friar Steed told the Transcript later. "I’ve had experiences like that before. I was saying Mass on a mountaintop with a group of people, and as I raised the host, the sun rose."
Saint Kateri was born in 1656 in nearby Ossernenon (now Auriesville, N.Y.), a daughter of a Mohawk warrior and a Catholic Algonquin woman. Her brother and parents died in a smallpox outbreak when she was four years old. She survived, scarred and nearly blinded, and went to live with her father’s brother, Iowerano, the new chief of the Turtle clan.
The clan moved across what is now called the Mohawk River after Ossernenon was ravaged in 1666 by a Canadian regiment sent to subdue the Iroquois. Here, at age 20, in the village of Caughnawaga ("By the Rapids" – now Fonda), Kateri was baptized a Catholic. The Kateri Shrine was erected in 1938 near the site of the now-excavated village where she was baptized. Persecuted for her new faith, in 1677 she joined a Christian community in Canada, where she cared for the sick and the aged. She took a vow of chastity in 1679.
When she died in 1680 just before she turned 24, witnesses claimed that her scars vanished, revealing great beauty. Other accounts say she appeared to two individuals weeks after her death. She was declared Venerable by Pope Pius XII on Jan. 3, 1943. She was declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II on June 22, 1980.
In December 2011, Pope Benedict XVI signed the decree recognizing the miracle needed for her to become a saint. On Feb. 18, the pope announced she would be canonized at the Vatican Oct. 21.
Six others were canonized the same day, including Marianne Cope, also of New York state. Saint Marianne worked as a teacher and hospital administrator in New York and spent the last 30 years of her life ministering on the Hawaiian island of Molokai to those with leprosy.
The Kateri shrine is located on Route 5, which runs east and west along the north bank of the Mohawk River, where 370 years ago Jesuit missionaries were brought as prisoners of the Iroquois to the village of Ossernenon on the opposite bank.
Kateri was born there a few years after the missionaries were killed by Native American warriors. The missionaries – Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, Anthony Daniel, Nöel Chabanel and Charles Garnier – were later canonized, becoming the first sainted North American martyrs.
Kateri’s shrine – less than five miles from her birthplace – is near the now-excavated village where she lived for half her life.
Before the Mass at the shrine, a man from Schenectady who did not want to be identified said he stops in at the shrine from time to time. Asked why he wanted to be a part of this Mass, he said, "How often do you see a saint canonized?"
Technically, of course, the canonization took place in Rome – but don’t tell that to the pilgrims who attended the Mass and reception in Fonda.
Jim Grace of Blessed Kateri Parish in Providence, R.I., said he went because he wanted to see "history being made." He and a friend drove nearly five hours that morning with several gallon containers that he filled with water from the spring where Saint Kateri was baptized.
"We believe in miracles," he said. "There were four other people up there, and they helped us carry the water down."
Melissa Solares, who drove up from Bowie, Md., said her confirmation name is Kateri and her daughter’s name is Kateri. Another daughter was born on Saint Kateri’s feast day, July 14.
"I just feel really blessed to be able to be here today," said Lisa Stanyon of nearby Gloversville, N.Y., who said she had never visited the shrine before.
"This was a powerful enough thing to draw me here. It is absolutely beautiful, peaceful, and you can feel the Spirit here," she said.
In an epilogue titled "Saints without the St." in his 1975 book Saints for Our Time, then-Rev. (now Msgr.) David Q. Liptak, executive editor of The Catholic Transcript, writes that Kateri’s final days were filled with pain, except when she prostrated herself before the Blessed Sacrament.
"As death neared she remained alone on a pallet, with only the addition of Indian corn in some water at her side," he writes. "On Wednesday of Holy Week in the year 1680, the Lily of the Mohawks passed from this world to the next, hand-in-hand, no doubt, with the Queen of Virgins – to a land where the light no longer pained her eyes but healed them forever.
"Real vision is spiritual sight."