Kateri Tekakwitha, a woman credited with life-saving miracles, has become the first aboriginal person who lived in what is now Canadian territory to become a saint.
Tekakwitha was among the seven saints Pope Benedict added to the roster of Catholic role models Sunday morning as he tries to rekindle the faith in places where it’s lagging.
Aboriginal Canadians and Americans in traditional dress sang songs to Tekakwitha as the sun rose over St. Peter’s Square.
They joined pilgrims from around the world at the mass and cheered when Benedict, in Latin, declared each of the seven new saints worthy of veneration by the church.
In his homily, Benedict praised each of the seven new saints as examples for the entire church.
“With heroic courage they spent their lives in total consecration to the Lord and in the generous service of their brethren,” he said.
Speaking in English and French, in honour of Tekakwitha’s Canadian ties, Benedict noted how unusual it was in Tekakwitha’s culture for her to choose to devote herself to her Catholic faith.
“May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are,” he said. “Saint Kateri, protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint, we entrust you to the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America!”
Tekakwitha joins Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican, as aboriginals from North America who have become saints.
Diego was canonized by pope John Paul in 2002.
Tekakwitha, who is also known as “Lily of the Mohawks,” was born in New York state in 1656 before fleeing to a settlement north of the border to escape opposition to her Christianity.
She died in 1680 at the age of 24. Her body is entombed in a marble shrine at the St. Francis-Xavier Church in Kahnawake, a Montreal-area Mowhawk community that was expected be well represented among the 1,500 Canadian pilgrims set to attend the celebrations.
Hundreds of people, many in traditional dress, packed a school in Kahnawake to watch a rebroadcast of the canonization.
There was a roar of applause when the Pope declared Tekakwitha a saint.
People said Tekakwitha was an inspirational figure because of the way she clung to her faith — one woman from Kamloops, B.C., said she named her child after Tekakwitha.
Events planned for the day include a procession to Tekakwitha’s tomb.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement that Tekakwitha never abandoned her faith.
“The canonization of Saint Kateri is a great honour and joyous occasion for the many North Americans and Aboriginal peoples who cherish her witness of faith and strength of character,” Harper said.
The process for her canonization began in the 1880s and Tekakwitha was eventually beatified by Pope John Paul in 1980.
According to a longtime deacon at the Kahnawake reserve, an event six years ago is widely viewed as a miracle which sealed Tekakwitha’s canonization.
The case involved six-year-old Jake Finkbonner, who belongs to the Lummi tribe in Washington, said Ron Boyer, who was appointed by the Vatican in 2007 to help make the case for the canonization.
Finkbonner was knocked over while playing basketball, striking his lip on a post. The incident led to the boy developing a high fever which landed him in intensive care where doctors determined he had a flesh-eating disease.
The deacon said Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Mohawk from the Akwesasne reserve, happened to be visiting the area and was summoned by the family. She had a bone relic of Tekakwitha which was held to Finkbonner’s chest as his family prayed.
According to Boyer, at that point the infection stopped spreading and began to heal.
Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, is among 17 bishops who were to make the trip to the Vatican, while House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer was also expected to attend Sunday’s mass.
The other new saints are: Mother Marianne Cope, a 19th century Franciscan nun who cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii; Pedro Calungsod, a Filipino teenager who helped Jesuit priests convert natives in Guam in the 17th century but was killed by spear-wielding villagers opposed to the missionaries’ efforts to baptize their children; Jacques Berthieu, a 19th century French Jesuit who was killed by rebels in Madagascar, where he worked as a missionary; Giovanni Battista Piamarta, an Italian who founded a religious order in 1900 and established a Catholic printing and publishing house in his native Brescia; Carmen Salles Y Barangueras, a Spanish nun who founded a religious order to educate children in 1892; and Anna Schaeffer, a 19th century German lay woman who became a model for the sick and suffering after she fell into a boiler and badly burned her legs. The wounds never healed, causing her constant pain.