A woman looks at a banner of St. Kateri Tekakwitha displayed outside St. Francis Xavier Church, where she is buried, in Kahnawake, Quebec, Oct. 21. Pope Benedict XVI created seven new saints that day, including St. Kateri, a 16th-century Mohawk-Algonquin woman known as the "Lily of the Mohawks." CNS photo/Christinne Musch, Reuters

Canadians see St. Kateri's canonization as help for reconciliation

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • October 22, 2012

VATICAN CITY - After decades of resentment and horror over the abuse of indigenous children, the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha marked a further step toward the reconciliation of the indigenous communities and the Catholic Church.

Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, told Canadian church and government officials the canonization "makes it possible, very much possible, to bring our community -- the First Nations -- very much closer with the Catholic Church. There was a rupture for too long."

Fontaine headed a 2009 Canadian aboriginal delegation to the Vatican, which received a formal apology from the church for the treatment of native children in Canadian residential schools.

An estimated 100,000 aboriginal children passed through the schools, which were abolished in the 1990s. They were established and paid for by the Canadian government, but were administered by various church organizations, including Roman Catholic dioceses and religious orders. The schools became known for widespread physical and sexual abuse of children and have been blamed for contributing to the disappearance of native languages and cultures.

Fontaine spoke at a reception after the canonization and Mass Oct. 21, addressing Canadian bishops, other First Nations leaders and a government delegation led by Andrew Scheer, speaker of the House of Commons.

Anne Leahy, Canadian ambassador to the Holy See, said the government delegation was a sign of just how much importance the government gave the canonization of St. Kateri, the first aboriginal saint from North America.

When Fontaine led the native delegation to the Vatican in 2009, he said, "we were blessed with a private audience with His Holiness (Pope Benedict XVI)," who gave the First Nations "great comfort. And now, here we are, three years later and we have another blessing: being witness to another very significant event," the official recognition of St. Kateri.

Her canonization, he said, "makes it possible to share our daughter with the universal church."

"If you link the two events" -- the 2009 meeting and the canonization -- "it is all about imparting reconciliation," Fontaine said.

The canonization, he said, "is an opportunity for us to say, 'We accept your apology, we forgive, and so now let us begin taking the important steps of healing and reconciliation."

Sylvain Chicoine, a member of the Canadian Parliament representing Chateauguay-Saint-Constant, Quebec, which includes the mission where Kateri died in 1680, told Catholic News Service the canonization is especially important in his region.

"They used to tell stories of Kateri in our schools, until about 30 years ago," he said. "Now the young will know her, too."

"Kateri made a bridge between the Europeans and the First Nations, and she can be an example today to rebuild bridges between our communities," which are still experiencing lingering tensions over land-use disputes from the 1990s, Chicoine said. "There is still work to do in repairing the relationship."

Elaine Johnson, a nurse and member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in northeastern Saskatchewan, said she came to Rome for the celebration because St. Kateri "is our first First Nations saint. We need to empower ourselves and she's our role model for being prayerful, humble and giving. As a First Nations person, I just wanted to be present."

"We as First Nations people would not look at her as having adopted European culture. Christianity does not take away our identity," she said. "I was born and raised a First Nations person and a Catholic, which empowers you because your ultimate goal is heaven. The church strengthens you."

Tobasonakwut Kinew, an Ojibway elder and university lecturer, came from Winnipeg for the canonization. A survivor of abuse at a residential school, he was part of the First Nations delegation that met the pope in 2009.

He told CNS, "I was sitting in a hotel in Thunder Bay (Ontario) in 1970 and was asking, praying, begging to be freed from alcohol and that's the last time I took a drink. I grew up praying to Kateri, and I used to think prayers were never answered, but here I am today."

Asked to write out his name for a reporter, Kinew did so, saying, "That's one thing I did learn at the residential school."

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