By Thomas J. Craughwell - Our Sunday Visitor, 1/8/2012
On Dec. 19, Pope Benedict XVI granted his personal approval for the canonization of seven blesseds. Two of the soon-to-be-saints have special significance for the United States: Blessed Marianne Cope was a nursing sister who joined St. Damien de Veuster at his mission to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was a Mohawk Indian who converted to Catholicism. Blessed Kateri will be the first Native American to be proclaimed a saint.
The miracle that cleared the way for Blessed Kateri to become St. Kateri occurred in 2005. A 6-year-old boy, Jake Finkbonner, of Ferndale, Wash., was playing basketball when he cut his lip. The wound became infected with flesh-eating bacteria. No treatment could stop the infection, and Jake’s doctors told the boy’s parents that their son was going to die. The Finkbonners called in a priest to give Jake last rites, but they also gathered family and friends and urged them to call upon the intercession of Blessed Kateri. Their prayers were answered; the infection stopped, and Jake is now a healthy 11-year-old.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Father Tim Sauer, who anointed Jake, said that he was not surprised that Jake had been healed through the prayers of Blessed Kateri, since the saint and the boy had two qualities in common. Kateri was a Mohawk, Jake is descended from the Lummi tribe of the Pacific Northwest, and Jake’s face was disfigured by the bacteria, while Kateri’s face was disfigured by a bout of smallpox.
As for the miracle that advanced the cause of Blessed Marianne Cope, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, the congregation to which she belonged, have announced that the final miracle involved the inexplicable healing of a woman who was dying. The sisters have decided to withhold the details of the healing until after Blessed Marianne’s canonization.
Drivers speeding along I-90 through New York’s Mohawk Valley probably don’t know they are cruising past holy ground. On a hill above the highway is the site of Ossernenon, a Mohawk village where three Jesuits were martyred — Sts. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil and John de LaLande — and where Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was born.
Tekakwitha’s mother was an Algonquin Christian who had been captured in a Mohawk raid. Her father was a Mohawk who followed the traditional religion of his tribe. The little girl was 4 when an epidemic of smallpox swept through Ossernenon, taking the lives of Tekakwitha’s parents and her baby brother. An uncle and two aunts, relatives of Kateri’s father, took her into their lodge. Outbreaks of smallpox returned to the village throughout Tekakwitha’s childhood until the elders of the tribe decided to move to a new site called Caughnawaga, near modern-day Fonda, N.Y.
In 1675, a Jesuit missionary, Father Jacques de Lamberville, arrived in the village. While the Jesuits had enjoyed tremendous success converting the Hurons, the Mohawks did not welcome the priests. Father de Lamberville made only one convert — Tekakwitha, whom he baptized on Easter 1676. At the font, Tekakwitha took the Christian name Kateri, Mohawk for Catherine.
Kateri’s conversion infuriated her family and her tribe. Her aunts seized on any excuse to beat her. If she stepped outside her lodge children chased her, throwing stones. One day a warrior ran at her with his hatchet drawn. Kateri was certain she was about to die, but at the last moment her attacker stopped and walked away.
Fearing that eventually someone would kill his spiritual daughter, Father de Lamberville urged her to go to the Algonquin Christian village at the mission of St. Francis Xavier, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec. Kateri set out alone July 14, 1677. It was a 200-mile journey, and she walked the entire way, arriving at the mission in October.
By a wonderful coincidence, she met an Algonquin Christian, Anastasia Tegonhatsihonga, who had known Kateri’s mother. Anastasia invited Kateri to live with her. Safe at last in an environment where other Indians understood her, Kateri practiced her new faith without fear. She attended two Masses every morning and went back to the mission chapel at the end of the day for vespers. When she knelt at the altar rail to receive Communion, she looked so saintly that the other Indians in the congregation elbowed each other aside to try to kneel next to her. She had an unquenchable desire to learn more and more about Christianity.
Then, only days before Easter 1680, Kateri fell ill and died. Two French settlers and one of the mission’s priests, Father Pierre Cholenec, had stayed with Kateri as she lay dying. As they prayed beside the deathbed, a remarkable change came over Kateri’s body: Her smallpox scars vanished. Father Cholenec testified “Within a moment [her face became] so fair and beautiful that I cried out in surprise.”
St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s feast day will be celebrated July 14 in the United States and April 17 in Canada.
Barbara Cope (Marianne was the name she took upon entering the convent) was a year old when her family emigrated from Germany to Utica, N.Y. She completed eighth grade, then took a job in a factory to help support her family. At age 24, she entered the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse. She studied medicine and worked as the nurse-administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse.
In 1883, when Mother Marianne was superior general of her order, she received a letter from the bishop of the Sandwich Islands (as Hawaii was known at that time) asking for nursing sisters who were willing to care for leprosy patients. Thirty-five sisters volunteered; Mother Marianne chose six and appointed herself their leader, saying, “I am not afraid of any disease.”
The nuns arrived in Honolulu on Nov. 8, 1883. They opened a hospital on Maui, reorganized a substandard hospital on Oahu and opened a home for orphaned girls whose parents had died of leprosy. In 1884 Mother Marianne met Father Damien de Veuster; two years later she was treating him for leprosy. In 1888 Mother Marianne and two sisters volunteered to operate the leprosy hospital on Molokai, where victims of the disease were exiled. After Father Damien’s death, Mother Marianne took over the care of the leprosy patients, remaining with them the rest of her life.
Mother Marianne Cope was buried in the cemetery of St. Francis Church in Kalaupapa, Hawaii. In 2009 her remains were transferred to a wooden reliquary chest located in the Chapel of Sisters of St. Francis Motherhouse in Syracuse, although a reliquary of bone fragments is enshrined in Honolulu’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. St. Marianne Cope’s feast day will be Jan. 23.
Thomas J. Craughwell is author of “Patron Saints” (Our Sunday Visitor, $9.95) and “Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics” (Image Books, $16).
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