To Lydia Johnson, the upcoming canonization of a Kanienkehaka, or Mohawk, woman who lived in the 1600s is affirmation that God has always had a relationship with the First Peoples of this continent, has always recognized their spirituality and faith despite declarations from his European-American followers that so-called Indians were heathens.
“She’s been an inspiration, somebody to look up to,” Johnson said of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. “Because she’s American Indian, she’s somebody we can relate to. I’m sure she’s been praying for us all this time.”
Johnson, Yakama/Cayuse, will be at the Vatican on October 21 when Pope Benedict XVI canonizes Kateri Tekakwitha as a saint. Kateri will be the first American Indian canonized as a Catholic saint. Johnson is believed to be the only Native person from the Catholic Diocese of Yakima who is making the nine-day trip.
Johnson of Wapato, Washington, a fit and active 92, has been devoted to Kateri since 1944, when she learned of Kateri while working as a nurse in Providence Hospital in Seattle. Pope Pius XII had declared Kateri to be venerable, a step toward sainthood, the previous year, piquing public interest in this Native woman who suffered for her faith.
According to church biographies, Kateri was born in 1656 in what is now Auriesville, New York, the daughter of a Kanienkehaka leader and an Algonquin Christian mother. Smallpox killed her family and left her scarred and weakened when she was 4. Raised by her aunt and uncle, she met some missionaries and became a Christian in 1667.
Kateri committed herself wholly to her faith, choosing to remain a virgin. She resisted later efforts to get her to marry, and for reasons related to her faith was ostracized by her community. In 1677, she moved to the mission at Kahnawake, where she lived in the cabin of a Christian Indian woman who had been a friend of Kateri’s mother. There, Kateri devoted herself to mortification of the flesh and prayer for the salvation of others – following Jesus’ example of suffering and prayer while on the cross. When she died in 1680, her scarred face cleared “and was made beautiful by God,” a miracle witnessed by two Jesuits and others who visited her bedside, according to the church. The first petitions for her canonization were made in the 1880s.
Pope John Paul II declared Kateri blessed in 1980. In 2006, a 5-year-old Lummi boy was healed from a deadly flesh-eating bacteria after his family prayed for Blessed Kateri’s intervention; the healing was determined to be miraculous and, on December 19, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI signed the decree necessary for Blessed Kateri’s canonization.
The boy, Jake Finkbonner, now 12, and his family will also attend the canonization. Johnson looks forward to meeting, for the first time, the boy who lives because of a miracle. Her message to him is simple: “I am so glad you are blessed,” she said.
Johnson said Blessed Kateri’s canonization will bring attention to the importance of faith and a relationship with God. In that regard, the canonization is timely: Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year of Faith to begin October 11, 2012, a commitment to “renewed energy to the mission of the whole church to lead men and women out of the desert they often are in and toward the place of life: friendship with Christ who gives us fullness of life.”
Johnson said, “Having an Indian saint, who was so good and so holy, can be an inspiration to people to have faith in God and follow his commandments. A lot of people today are fallen away Catholics, not fallen away because of the rules, but because they no longer feel they are part of the church. A lot of Indian people need help spiritually. That’s true of a lot of people.”
Johnson attends St. Peter Claver Church in Wapato, on the Yakama Nation reservation, and is active in the Kateri Circle, a group of Native Catholics that meets monthly. She has attended the national Kateri Tekakwitha Conference annually since 1981; the conference serves Catholic Indigenous people and church personnel who minister in North America and other countries.
Johnson is president of the board of directors of the Northwest Kateri Tekakwitha Spiritual Center, which plans to build in Wapato a special place for Catholics and others to gather for special Masses, retreats, healing services, and workshops. The center will have a chapel, fellowship hall, classrooms, kitchen, office, laundry room, and 2.5 bathrooms.
Johnson donated five acres for the center; as of this writing, $166,000 of the $3 million needed has been raised. She is writing grant applications and hopes construction will begin in spring.
Never one to miss a detail, she’s carefully planned her trip to Rome, her second visit since 1990. She can only take two bags. “But I’ve been planning my trip for at least a month,” she said.