Two women are America's newest saints

On Oct. 21, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize seven new saints for the Church in St. Peter’s Square. Among the new saints will be two extraordinary women: Kateri Tekakwitha and Mother Marianne Cope. 

Kateri Tekakwitha

Saint Kateri book

Kateri is honored as the first Native American saint (joining St. Juan Diego as the first indigenous saints of North America) and a patron saint of ecology and those who have lost their parents. 

The future saint was born at Ossernenon, N.Y., near modern Auriesville and Albany, into the proud traditions of the Mohawk Indians, members of the famed Iroquois League. It is believed that she was born in 1656, a date of significance as it was exactly 10 years after the martyrdoms of St. Isaac Jogues and others in that very village. 

Her name was originally Tekakwitha, or Tegarouite (translated by some scholars as meaning “she who puts things in order”), or Tegahkouita (translated as “one who advances or cuts the way before her”). Her father was a Mohawk chief of some prominence, and her mother was probably an Algonquin Christian woman named Kahenta who had been captured during a Mohawk raid, but who had been taken as a wife. 

In 1660, Tekakwitha’s village was stricken by smallpox, and the epidemic claimed her parents and siblings. She was left with damaged eyesight, and her face was severely pockmarked. Now an orphan, Tekakwitha was taken into the care of her uncle, and the village was soon moved to Auries’ Creek, where the clan established the new village of Gandawague. 

Despite pressure from the members of the village, Tekakwitha refused to marry, as was the custom of her people. 

In 1668, meanwhile, the Mohawk made peace with the French, and for the first time in many years, Jesuit missionaries, the Blackrobes, were allowed to proclaim the Gospel to the Native American peoples. The Jesuits labored among Tekakwitha’s tribe and made some converts, and in 1675, a new head of the mission in the village was named, the famed Jesuit priest, Jacques de Lambertville. He first met Tekakwitha in her cabin where she was nursing an injured foot and talked with her about the Catholic faith. To his shock, she asked immediately to become a Christian. The next year, on April 5, Tekakwitha was baptized and given the name Kateri, after St. Catherine of Siena. 

The conversion of Kateri created considerable hostility toward her in the village, so in October 1677, Kateri left her village and settled at St. Francis Xavier of Sault St. Louis, a haven for Native American Catholics near Montreal. On the morning of Christmas Day that same year, she made her first holy Communion. 

From the very start of her life as a Christian until her death, Kateri astounded the Jesuit priests of the mission with her faith. She died on April 17, 1680, at the age of 24. 

By the time of her death, Kateri was already known for her holiness, and word of her passing was expressed across Canada and New York with one simple sentence: “The saint is dead.” Her reputation for saintliness continued to spread in the years after her passing, and miracles and healings were soon reported across New France. Accounts of Kateri’s life were written by several of the Jesuit priests who had known her. 

The fall of New France to the armies of England in 1759 delayed the cause of Kateri. At last, in 1932, Kateri’s cause for canonization was officially approved by authorities in Rome, and Kateri was beatified in Rome on June 22, 1980, by Pope Blessed John Paul II. On Dec. 19, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI approved a miracle achieved through her intercession; it involved a young Native American boy in Washington state.

Mother Marianne Cope

The story of Marianne Cope begins in Heppenheim in the Grand Duchy of Hesse (in modern-day Germany) where she was born Maria Anna Barbara Koob (later changed to Cope) on Jan. 23, 1838. Her family migrated to Utica, N.Y., when she was 2, and she was raised in the United States, the oldest of 10 children. 

Blessed Marianne Cope of Molokai with people she ministered to in this religious icon by Margaret Girdwood. CNS photo

Called to the religious life, she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse at the age of 24 and received the religious name of Marianne. She served as a teacher and was then crucial in the foundation of the first two Catholic hospitals in Central New York, including St. Joseph’s in Syracuse where she served as superior from 1870 to 1877. 

In 1883 a letter arrived from King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. The monarch was asking for someone to assume direction over “our hospitals and even our schools, if it were possible … Have pity … on our poor sick, help us.”  

Mother Marianne did not hesitate. She wrote to the king and took up his request, declaring, “I am hungry for the work … I am not afraid of any disease.” 

Mother Marianne went to work at once, and soon King Kalakaua expressed his gratitude for the immense change for the better that Mother Marianne had brought by awarding her the medal of the Royal Order of Kapiolani in 1885. 

Mother Marianne, of course, came to know Father Damien de Veuster, and the two future saints were in full agreement from the start that the lepers needed the love of Christ in their lives. In fact, after Father Damien was diagnosed with leprosy, Mother Marianne gave him welcome in Honolulu at a time when the leaders of Hawaii refused to see him because he was a “leper.” 

As Father Damien grew sicker, Mother Marianne was seen as the logical successor to him on Molokai. In 1887 she was asked by the Hawaiian government to establish a new Home for women and girls at Kalaupapa, Molokai.  

Father Damien himself supported the decision. 

She and her sisters cared for Father Damien in his last days, and with his death on April 15, 1889, Mother Marianne assumed direction over the leper settlement. She continued her labors until her death on Aug. 9, 1918 on Molokai. She was buried at Kalaupapa. 

Mother Marianne’s cause for canonization was opened in 1983, and she was beatified in Rome on May 14, 2005. In 2011, the congregation for saints approved a second miracle, the cure of a 59-year-old woman in Chittenango, N.Y., from infections and pancreatitis. The miracle paved the way for her canonization. 

Matthew Bunson is author of “Saint Kateri: Lily of the Mohawks” (OSV, 2012) and editor of The Catholic Almanac.