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Kateri Tekakwitha named first Native American saint in Vatican ceremony

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

A statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Auriesville, New York, seen on Friday.

VATICAN CITY - She was known as Lily of the Mohawks, or the Pocahontas of the Catholic Church. But on  Sunday, Kateri Tekakwitha went down in history as the first Native American saint.

Born more than 300 years ago in the Mohawks village of Ossernion - today Ausierville, forty miles from Albany NY - she was one of seven people canonized by Pope Benedict XVI Sunday in an open-air ceremony held in Saint Peter’s Square. 

One of the remaining six was also American: Mother Marianne Cope, a 19th century Franciscan nun who cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii.

Kateri had a short life – she died at 24 – and yet, as for most saints, her devotion to Christianity, sacrifices and “heroic virtue” were so inspirational that her legacy survived for generations.

Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Pope Benedict XVI kisses the altar as he celebrates a canonization ceremony, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday.

Her mother was a Christian Algonquin woman who was captured during a raid and given as wife to a Mohawks tribal member. She was born in the middle of the 17th century, a time of infighting between rival American tribes, deadly diseases and colonization. And a time when French Jesuit priests preached in the area, trying to convert locals to Christianity.

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Kateri was only four years old when a smallpox epidemic spread among the Mohawks tribe. Her parents and younger brother were killed and although she survived she was left with permanent scars on her face and an impaired vision. The Jesuit priests were held accountable for having brought the disease, and three of them were slaughtered.

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A faithful wearing Indian headress attends a special mass to name seven new saints in St Peter's square at Vatican on Sunday.

And yet, at the age of 20, Kateri swapped the Totem for the Crucifix.

She converted to Catholicism after living close to French Jesuit priests, something her family and village saw as a betrayal for siding up with colonizers. She soon became a pariah in her own tribe after refusing to marry a Mohawk man, and was forced to leave the village to practice freely her new faith. She walked hundreds of miles to Quebec, Canada, to join a community of Christian women, and took a vow of lifetime chastity.

Soon her devotion led to self-inflicted painful penances. She is believed to have walked barefoot in show, for whipping herself bloody with reeds, praying hours in an unheated chapel on her bare knees on a cold stone floor or for sleeping on a bed of thorns.

In the end, the punishing penances are believed to have contributed to the weakening of her health, until her premature death at 24 years old. And it was immediately after her death, the legend goes, that it became clear she would be on her way to sainthood. Her smallpox scars, witnesses claimed, miraculously disappeared minutes after her death.

Although the petition for her canonization was filed in 1884, she was only blessed – the first step to become a saint – by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

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The miracle that sealed her sainthood came in 2006, when Jake Finkbonner, then a 5-year old boy from Ferndale, WA, miraculously recovered from a flash-eating bacteria, allegedly through Kateri’s intercession. Jake contracted Necrotizing fasciitis, a potentially deadly infection, after cutting his lip on a baseball field. In a matter of days, his condition became so critical his parents gave him his last rites and discussed donating his organs.

When medical help seemed hopeless, his father Donny, a Catholic member of the native American Lummi tribe, turned to Kateri, already an icon in the local catholic community and the subject of many stories he heard as a child. His congregation prayed Kateri and his mother even placed a small relic, a small piece of Tekakwitha’s wrist bone, on his body.  Soon after, Jake recovered.

On his website, Jake also remembers the role played by doctors: “Please don't confuse the issue which is that my survival is a miracle”, he writes.  “We thank the doctors at Children's Hospital for all that they did to save my life.  I wouldn't be here without them”.

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The canonization of Kateri has been welcomed with mixed feelings in the 2.5 million-strong Native American community. While most of the 680,000 catholic Native Americans are thrilled to finally have their own saint and icon, others still resent the role of Catholicism during the colonial era and the way it affected the indigenous traditions, culture and customs. 

Some traveled to Rome to see the ceremony. Dressed in a traditional Indian Squaw brown dress and braided hair, Valery Moran had come from Saskatchewan, Canada, to support her hero. “I am honored to witness the canonization of our first aboriginal saint”, she told NBC News.

"She is my role model, I named my baby after her. My baby is called Kateri."

Bill Volker, a falconer and sole representative of the Comanche Nation, had mixed feelings about the canonization. "It’s bittersweet, but I am delighted. It’s the right direction after all these years,” he told NBC News in St. Peter’s Square. “Our relationship with the all churches have not always been the best in the Americas, but I think this heralds a new day for us”. 

The Vatican's complicated saint-making procedure requires that the Vatican certify a "miracle" was performed through the intercession of the candidate — a medically inexplicable cure that can be directly linked to the prayers offered by the faithful. One miracle is needed for beatification, a second for canonization. 

The five other new saints are: Jacques Berthieu, a 19th century French Jesuit who was killed by rebels in Madagascar, where he had worked as a missionary; Giovanni Battista Piamarta, an Italian who founded a religious order in 1900 and established a Catholic printing and publishing house in his native Brescia; Carmen Salles Y Barangueras, a Spanish nun who founded a religious order to educate children in 1892; and Anna Schaeffer, a 19th century German lay woman who became a model for the sick and suffering after she fell into a boiler and badly burned her legs. The wounds never healed, causing her constant pain.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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