Catholics celebrate first Native American saint
NEW YORK - Joe Fondano believes in miracles. For 33 years he has been coming to the National Kateri Shrine in Fonda, New York where he bottles some of the water from the natural spring on the grounds.
Talking to a pilgrim at the shrine, Fondano explains that he has seen the results of Kateri Tekakwitha's work for himself.
"I've brought this water to people and it's happened. My friend who lives in Watervliet now, his sister received that water and she had this type of cancer and she was diagnosed and it completely went away. I said Larry, don't play games with me because it's a very upsetting thing when people lie to you, but it was true."
Fondano is not the only one who believes in Kateri's powers. The Vatican announced in December that Kateri, who is known to many as the Lily of the Mohawks, will be canonized this Sunday (October 21). She will become the first Native American Saint.
Kateri died more than 300 years ago, but a campaign for her official sainthood began in 1931.
Friar Mark Steed, the director of the National Kateri Shrine, said Kateri's canonization symbolizes more than people realize.
"She stands for more than just a saint in the church. She's a first nation's person, an aboriginal, a Native American. So for someone like that to be recognized places the Native Americans totally in line with everybody else. So I don't think they realize that right now, but I think in time that will catch on that they have a saint protector and that just like everybody else, they are like everybody else. So they are no longer second class citizens as far as the church is concerned."
Kateri was born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and an Algonquin-Christian mother in a Mohawk village in what is now Auriesville, N.Y, a few miles away from Fonda. When she was just four-years-old, her parents and younger brother died in a smallpox epidemic, which left her scarred and nearly blind.
In 1676 she was baptized by a Jesuit missionary. It is believed that she was persecuted for her religious beliefs, but Kateri devoted herself to Christianity and eventually fled to a village in Quebec, Canada where she died in 1680 at the age of 24.
Since then people have prayed to Kateri and it is believed that in 2006 she performed the miracle that has earned her official recognition by the Church.
According to the Vatican, prayers to Tekakwitha were responsible for the cure of then 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner, a half Native American boy, who developed a flesh-eating virus called necrotising fasciitis after an injury.
Since the announcement last December, busloads of pilgrims like Janet Butts and Genevieve Karpowicz have come to visit the shrine.
Butts, a Michigan resident said the the soon-to-be saint's selflessness inspired her to make the journey.
"Purity, in her the way she was and just what she gave up and everything she gave up. What's a little pilgrimage from where we came from as much as she did,"
Genevieve Karpowicz, also from Michigan said "I think to do what she did for such a young girl and to go through what she did and to come out like this, she deserves to be canonized."
Locals agree with the pilgrims. At the nearby Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs church, devotees said they were excited to partake in festivities this Sunday to celebrate Kateri's honor.
Maryellen Chonski, from nearby Verona, New York, says she is excited about the canonization .
"She was a sweet little innocent Mohawk Indian that just loved God and loved her entire life. Devoted to helping others even though she had many physical ailments herself."
Katherine Nakayama, also from upstate New York, feels honored that Kateri is a local. "It is a wonderful feeling knowing that not one but two nuns are being canonized very soon," she said.
Following a morning mass, Father David White explained that the Catholic Church conducted extensive research with doctors and witnesses to verify that Kateri did indeed perform a miracle - the kind "that doesn't happen medically."
A special mass will be held at the church on Sunday (October 21) following Kateri's canonization and Father White says Native American representatives from across the U.S. will be there in honor of the occasion.
For many like Fondano who have believed in Kateri's abilities, the declaration of sainthood is a long awaited occasion. The upstate New York resident said the church's confirmation provides him incentive to continue his visits to the spring at the National Kateri Shrine, where he will carry on spreading the word he believes God is sending him.