For more than 300 years, generations of faithful Catholics have prayed for the sainthood of Kateri Tekakwitha. On Oct. 21, they’ll celebrate her canonization.
“People have been praying for this since the moment of her death,” said Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine museum director Beth Lynch.
The shrine sprawls out over the hilltop where Kateri was born in 1656. In those days it was a Mohawk village call Ossernenon.
Kateri was the daughter of a captive Catholic-Algonquin mother and Mohawk chief in a time when the Catholicism was first working its way through the country.
At the age of 4, smallpox swept through the village, killing her parents, scarring her face and nearly taking her sight.
Isolated because of her scars, Lynch said Kateri lived a life of quiet suffering, prayer and intense devotion to the Eucharist.
“She sanctified the ordinary,” Lynch said. “She wasn’t walking on water or casting out demons — nothing dramatic. She just showed great wisdom and love in everything she did.”
Kateri’s life ended at only 24, in Canada. She died of exposure from carrying out her extensive prayer and penance outdoors in the cold northern weather.
Upon her death, witnesses say, the scars that marred her complexion from childhood were wiped from her face. It was a dramatic end to a quiet life, and started Kateri on the 332-year path to sainthood.
In 1980, she became the first Mohawk Indian to be beatified by the Roman Catholic church, but to reach sainthood, a certifiable miracle is required, and the Vatican is hard to please.
“They have to prove the miracle couldn’t have been just a medical cure,” Lynch said, “which is hard because most people seek treatment.”
Scores of divine acts have been credited to Kateri over the years, from physical healings to freedom from addiction, and conversions.
All could be reasonably explained, until 5-year-old Washington boy, Jake Finkbonner, cut his lip during a basketball game in 2006. The cut was infected by a flesh-eating bacteria that disfigured and nearly killed him.
“He was getting treatment,” Lynch said, “but the fact is, he was dying, until his family prayed to Kateri.”
Jake, now 11 and healthy, will be in Rome for the canonization.
Many of those devoted to the soon-to-be saint, but with smaller travel budgets, will celebrate at Our Lady of Martyrs.
A special Mass is scheduled for the big day, along with art and video documentary presentations. The staff is bracing for a very large turnout.
So far, 25 buses are set to arrive for the celebration in addition to all the people planning to come on their own. There are no solid attendance estimates, but the gift shop orders give some idea of the expected magnitude.
Gift shop manager Joanne Wiesner walked through the shelves pointing out all the things they’ve stocked up on: locally made Kateri statues they can’t seem to keep in stock, specially made rosaries ordered in by the thousands, even a table piled high with Kateri monogrammed sweat shirts.
“We’re hoping for a big day,” she said.
She’s especially proud of one item: a prayer card picturing Kateri. Each one is blessed by shrine director the Rev. George H. Belgarde and includes a slip of cloth that was touched to one of Kateri’s bones housed at the shrine.
She ordered 3,000 of them a few months ago and another 3,000 last week.
Some 6,000 more will arrive before the canonization celebration and are expected to sell out.
But their popularity isn’t why the relic cards are so near and dear to Wiesner’s heart.
“These are the first thing we got that says Saint Kateri, not just Blessed Kateri,” she said.
For the past 32 years, thousands of people have been devoted to bringing Kateri from “Blessed” to “Saint.” Now, Catholic schools and parishes named after her will have to get new signs.
The shrine itself will reprint nearly every piece of literature and program material in their museum, even the organization envelopes.
These are just the logistics. For many years, the shrine coliseum has held Kateri Masses every week for the purpose of praying for her sainthood.
On Oct. 21, the Mass will be one of thanksgiving. After that Kateri will be one of more than 10,000 Catholic saints.
“There will definitely be a shift.” Lynch said, “But saints are always around to pray to.”
Also joining the canon on Oct. 21 is Blessed Marianne Cope of Syracuse.
Cope (1838 to 1918) was a Franciscan nun who worked for years among the lepers of Hawaii. Though she was in constant contact with the sick, she was never infected herself, which is considered a miracle.
Cope was beatified in 2005 and will become a saint alongside Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.
“I think it’s great that two women of the Mohawk Valley are entering the canon together,” Lynch said.