When Leona M. Gonzales recovered from thyroid cancer 10 years ago after praying to Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk woman, the Vatican did not consider her recovery a miracle.
But Gonzales and her husband, Rudy, so fervently believe that Blessed Kateri saved her life and has watched over them and their children that they donated a statue in her honor to Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Lewiston. That’s also why they will be among the throng that gathers today in Vatican Square to witness the first canonization of a Native American.
“We always have depended on Blessed Kateri, and we have prayed to her for many smaller interventions. She has helped us to find things when we have misplaced them,” Gonzales said last week at her home on the Tuscarora Reservation. “There is a true feeling of love for her.”
Blessed Kateri, as she is known in the church, was a Mohawk Indian who lived in New York State’s Mohawk River Valley in the 17th century and converted to Catholicism. Members of Holy Family Catholic Parish on the Tuscarora Reservation, most of whom are Native Americans, have been praying for a long time for sainthood for Blessed Kateri.
One of the requirements for becoming a saint is that the person must have interceded in the performance of authenticated miracles that seem to contradict known scientific laws and are regarded as supernatural or acts of God.
Among miracles authenticated by the Catholic hierarchy are Blessed Kateri’s intervention in the healing of a smallpox patient in the 18th century, the restoration of a deaf priest’s hearing and the curing of a nun’s illness in Montreal. A more recent miracle attributed to her intervention is the healing of a boy in 2006 whose face had been disfigured by a flesh-eating bacterium. A priest gave the boy the last rites of the church before the reported miracle saved him.
Because of their shared Native American ancestry, Leona Gonzales has been praying regularly to Blessed Kateri for intercession in her life for more than 15 years.
“I felt a great sense of pride,” Gonzales said upon learning that her patron would become a saint. “I am very proud of my heritage and being Catholic. Blessed Kateri’s canonization has a very significant meaning for me.”
Gonzales said she prayed that Kateri would intercede after her diagnosis of thyroid cancer. “She most certainly did, as I have been free of the disease since the time of my operation,” Gonzales said.
In addition to her own experience, Gonzales noted that the first Mass held on the reservation was conducted by the Vincentians on her parents’ land. Holy Family Parish, of which the Gonzales family are members, was maintained for many years by Vincentian seminarians from Niagara University. It now is a diocesan church supported by Barnabite Fathers of the nearby Our Lady of Fatima Shrine.
The Gonzaleses were so moved by their devotion to Blessed Kateri that they donated a life-size bronze statue of her in 2008 for display on the grounds of Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, 1023 Swann Road. The statue was dedicated in memory of the couple’s parents.
The Gonzales family – daughters Francesca Clause and Carmelita Gonzales and granddaughter Sarah Shontz – is attending today’s canonization while on a 10-day trip with a group from the National Tekakwitha Conference.
Also becoming a saint today is Blessed Marianne Cope, a Franciscan nun from Utica who founded hospitals there and in Syracuse before she moved to Hawaii to care for leprosy patients. She now is known as Mother Marianne Cope.
Because of the unusual circumstance of two women with roots in upstate New York being elevated to sainthood at the same time, more than 200 parishioners in the Diocese of Syracuse and about 200 others from the Diocese of Albany are attending today’s rites.
According to her official biography, Blessed Kateri was born to a Catholic Algonquin mother and a Mohawk tribal chief father in 1656 near today’s community of Auriesville, in Montgomery County. Smallpox spread through the Native American village, taking the lives of her parents and baby brother and leaving her an orphan at age 4. She was forever weakened, scarred and partially blind.
The village was abandoned, and a new settlement was built about five miles away on the north bank of the Mohawk River, now the location of Fonda. The young woman, not well accepted in her native village, later fled more than 200 miles to a Catholic mission near Montreal.
She was called Tekakwitha, which means “she who bumps into things.” At her baptism, she was given the name Kateri, which is the Mohawk translation of Catherine.
She was known for her gentleness and kindness; she taught children to pray, and she worked with the elderly and sick. She is said to have often placed Christian crosses in wooded areas, leading the Catholic Church to consider her the patroness of ecology, nature and the environment.
At her death in 1680 from a serious illness just before age 24, her scarred and disfigured face is said to have been miraculously cleared and made beautiful by God. She is known as “Lily of the Mohawks” or “Beautiful Flower Among True Men.”
Her feast is celebrated in the United States on July 14 and in Canada on April 17, the date of her death. She is buried near Montreal and is honored at shrines near Auriesville, Fonda, Washington, D.C., and other places.
According to Catholic doctrine, miracles are granted only by God, but they can be performed through the intercession of saints. The saints themselves are not worshipped as gods, but venerated – likened to members of a family praying together for one another’s needs.