What is likely to be the largest delegation of Mohawk Indians ever to assemble in Rome will take place this weekend, October 20–21, for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk woman.
Almost 2,000 people from Akwesasne and Kahnawake will flock to the Vatican for the ceremony that will grant sainthood to Kateri Tekakwitha, the first indigenous woman of Turtle Island to be canonized by the Catholic Church. The canonization will take place on Sunday.
About 150 people—three busloads—left for the airport a week ago, and others, like Alma and Orlo Ransom and three members of their family, were leaving on Thursday, October 18, for the ancient city.
“The Vatican is topping off what we feel by making her a saint,” Alma Ransom told Indian Country Today Media Network. She has played a critical role in the canonization effort over the years.
“In Indian words she’s been a saint all along to us. When we refer to Kateri [pronounced Ga-da-li in the Mohawk language] we call her a holy person, and I think saints are holy people. We’re very proud and happy,” Ransom said, then added with a laugh, “We’re proud for her because she was so humble and timid—and we’re not!”
She and her husband were in the final stages of preparation for their trip when they were reached at their Akwesasne home.
“Oh, yes, we’re ready!” she said. “Last December when the pope declared that Kateri would be canonized, that was it. And the preparations, of course. We had travel agencies that wouldn’t take us because we didn’t have an exact date, but we have an Indian-owned, Mohawk-owned travel agency that cut to the chase and said it’s going to be this much no matter what, and we’re still with him.”
A former multi-term elected chief for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, Alma Ransom served on the Executive Board of the National Congress of American Indians, had a career working for Employment Canada, and for the past 32 years has worked with the Kateri Tekakwitha Conference and spearheaded its efforts to have Tekakwitha canonized.
Ransom’s work to promote Kateri’s canonization will be further recognized: CNN is planning to broadcast a live interview with Ransom at the Vatican after the canonization takes place, according to David Staddon, communications director at St. Regis.
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal government has also supported the canonization effort. “The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is please at this turn of events, the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha,” Tribal Chief Randy Hart told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We have provided financial support to this international effort and appreciate the efforts of so many other individuals and prayer groups over the years to make this a reality.”
Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 of a Christian Catholic Algonquin mother and a traditional Mohawk Chief in a village called Ossernenon (modern day Auriesville) along the Mohawk River, according to the Tekakwitha Conference website. Her parents and brother died in a smallpox epidemic that swept through the Mohawk village. She survived the disease but was left with impaired eyesight, a scarred face and body and physical weakness. Orphaned at age four, she was adopted by her aunt and uncle and converted to Christianity in 1676. She took a vow of perpetual virginity and devoted the rest of her short life to teaching prayers to children and caring for the sick and elderly.
Kateri died in April 1680 at the age of 20. Those at her deathbed believed they witnessed a miracle with the sudden disappearance of the smallpox scars on her face minutes after she died. Kateri was declared Venerable by Pope Pius XII in 1932 and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. Last December, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree recognizing a miracle performed by Kateri, and announced her forthcoming canonization.
The miracle occurred in 2011, when young Jake Finkbonner of Ferndale, Washington, became afflicted with a flesh-eating strep bacterium. It was consuming his face, and he was expected to die—in fact, a Catholic priest had administered last rites. Meanwhile, a grassroots prayer campaign had started, and children across the country were praying for Kateri to save Jake, who is of Lummi descent. Kateri was chosen because, as the story goes, her facial disfigurements healed upon her death. After Jake defied all doctors’ predictions and survived, the Catholic Church initiated the process of certifying his recovery as a miracle caused by Kateri’s closeness to God.
Ransom expects the scene at the Vatican to be chaotic. Seven people will be canonized on the same day as Kateri. “I went there in 1980 with a group from here for the beatification of three people, and it was chaos,” she said.
The ceremony will take place either inside St. Peter’s Basilica or in the square. The Mohawk Indian Choir, including Alma Ransom, will sing two special hymns in the Mohawk language that were specially written for Kateri. There will be a vigil the day before the canonization at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Catholic church of the Diocese of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome—the Pope—and a special mass of Thanksgiving on the following day.
At some time during the visit, the Pope will be presented with gifts: an exquisite basket woven by Mohawk basket maker Sheila Ransom, and a bouquet of splint flowers—lilies, because Kateri is known as the “Lily of the Mohawks”—made by Abe Greg and arranged by Irene Cook. The basket was chosen by Archibishop Lopez Quintano., the Apostolic Nuncio to Canada, Ransom said.
The celebrations will continue when the delegation returns to Akwesasne and Kahnewake, Ransom said. On November 4 there will be a big mass attended by several bishops at St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal in Montreal at which the Kahnawake Indian Choir will sing. In Rochester, N.Y., the church is combining five parishes and renaming them the Kateri Tekakwitha. Parish Alma and the Mohawk Indian choir will sing there on November 10 and 11. Another special service will take place near Akwesasne on November 18.