Beverly Delormier behind the counter at the gift shop at St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, Que. (Photo by Carolyn Girard

Kahnawake embraces Kateri’s spirit

By 
  • October 20, 2012

KAHNAWAKE, QUE. - The small Catholic community of St. Francis Xavier Church, with the St. Lawrence River and sprawling Montreal as its backdrop, has en­thusiastically prepared for the can­onization of Blessed Kateri Tekak­witha. 

Located in Mohawk territory in Kahnawake, the church enshrines the remains of Blessed Kateri, a native woman who found refuge and spiritual renewal in the region where she spent her final days as a Catholic. Her remains lay beneath a marble tomb in the church, entombed primarily to ensure their safety and respect, as someone had previously attempted to steal them many years ago. 

Pilgrims can kneel and pray or light a votive candle with Blessed Kateri’s likeness on it. The image is based on an oil-on-canvas painting, housed in a room beyond the gift shop, painted by Jesuit Father Claude Chauchetiere, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Mission from 1677 to 1688, and a witness at Blessed Kateri’s death. 

In a gift shop adjacent to the church, Kahnawake native Ann-Marie Sky talks about the importance of Blessed Kateri’s example not only for herself, but for the survival of the parish. 

“For me, it’s her spirituality and her perseverance during the time and after she became Catholic. She was ostracized for that, so her faith really carried her through,” Sky said. Similarly, the parish has had to learn to persevere just to keep the church doors open. 

“The church almost had to close a year and a half ago due to finances,” Sky explained. “We were just working our way back up and we got the news that she will be canonized, so now we’re really trying to keep the church afloat.” 

For a parish that only sees about 60 regular Mass-goers on Sunday mornings, the annual $25,000 price tag for utilities to heat and use the church has been a challenge. But with great faith and ambitious fundraisers, it has managed to pay the bills. And since the announcement that Kateri would be canonized on Oct. 21, making her the first North American aboriginal saint, the parish has seen nearly three times the number of pilgrims it normally sees. The demand for Kateri merchandise has risen and Sky is trying to stock enough mer­chandise before Oct. 21, when the mission expects busloads of visitors to join parishioners for a re-broadcast of the canonization in Rome. 

The Pope’s Feb. 18 announce­ment of Kateri’s canonization came as a surprise. 

“I couldn’t believe it, because after Brother André was canonized, I didn’t think there would be anybody else from Quebec canonized for another 20 years,” Sky said. 

And not only in Quebec, but from the same area, she added. From the church in Kahnawake, the dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal — the legacy of St. Brother André — is easy to spot across the river on a clear day. 

Like Sky, Kahnawake resident Beverly Delormier has been working diligently to prepare for the big day, although Delormier will be spending it in Rome. 

“I was there in 1980 with my daughters when she was beatified and never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would go there again for the canonization,” marvelled Delormier. “The day of the beatifi­cation everybody had their native dress on, so it was really something spectacular to see.” 

For Delormier, Blessed Kateri is an important intercessor. 

“It’s all little things, but I believe in the power of prayer.” 

Deacon Ron Boyer, Canadian vice-postulator for the canoniza­tion of Kateri, says her canoniza­tion is long overdue. But more im­portantly, the canonization brings to light God’s desire to reach the aboriginal people. 

“Her first miracle happened about 15 minutes after she died,” Boyer said, referring to the his­torical accounts of Kateri’s trans­formation. Kateri had contract­ed smallpox as a child and was left partially blind and covered with facial scars. Minutes after her death, any trace of her scars vanished and her appearance was described as beautiful. 

“Why would God glorify a dead body? Why? Nobody has been able to answer that for me, but I believe He did it to show us that there is a God,” Boyer concludes. 

Boyer adds Kateri is also signif­icant for her impact on Christians and non-Christians alike. 

“Many non-Catholic aboriginal people are going to Rome to pay homage to Kateri. She was special, a lady of many qualities,” Boyer said. “She is also the empress of ecology and a symbol for the youth.” 

As the diocese of Saint-Jean- Longueuil is not immune to the shortage of priests in Canada, St. Francis Xavier has a pastor, Fr. Raymond Esprit, who is present only three days per week. Boyer hopes the canonization and increased traffic might mean a permanent priest in the future. 

In the meantime, the canoniza­tion has already served to strength­en ties within the Kahnawake community. A committee from the parish has been working with the diocese to prepare for the big day, as well as a thanksgiving Mass to be held at St. Joseph’s Oratory on Nov. 4. 
Saint-Jean-Longueuil diocese is sending 200 pilgrims to Rome. 

“For the native communities and for the larger community in North America, the canonization is extremely important because of her status as the first native woman of our continent to be recognized as a saint,” said Auxiliary Bishop Louis Dicaire. “We have been surprised by the interest from the general population of our diocese, often among young people 25 to 30 years old. Kateri is providing a source of inspiration.” 

Although children do not receive formal Catholic education through the Quebec school system, volunteers at the Shrine say visits from area schools are on the rise and children learn about the woman whose name graces the local hospital, school and nearby island. 

(Girard is a freelance writer in Ottawa.)

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