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Canada’s first Aboriginal Saint

2011/12/20

Jake Finkbonner is terribly scarred, the effect of a vicious flesh-eating bacterium that was consuming his face. His doctors were sure the Washington state 5-year old would die. He is alive — now 11 — his parents believe, because of their prayers to Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk woman who, like Jake, had a facial disfigurement. The Vatican announced Monday that Pope Benedict XVI has approved a second miracle attributed to Tekakwitha, leading the way to canonization next year. She will become Canada’s first aboriginal saint. Jake was the miracle. He was playing basketball in 2006 when he was pushed into the base of a portable stand, his lip swelled, then his face, and he developed a fever. In the hospital, the infection, called Streptococcus A, outpaced doctors’ efforts to halt it by removing pieces of his skin.

“The usual treatment is amputation, but it was his face,” says his mother Elsa Finkbonner, from their home in Ferndale, in northwest Washington. “Every single day they took more and more away from his face. Pretty well the only thing left was his nose.”

But they started praying to Tekakwitha, who had been beatified — the step before canonization — by Pope John Paul II in 1980. Hundreds of undocumented miracles were attributed to the young woman, known as Lily of the Mohawks, who died in 1680 and is buried at St. Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake, Que., south of Montreal. John Paul, an enthusiastic promoter of saints of different ethnic backgrounds, allowed her to be beatified on the strength of many cures, rather than one fully researched and verified miracle as is usually required for beatification. Jake’s disease had raged for three weeks — he’s had 29 surgeries — and then it stopped.

“The doctors have admitted, sure, there was medical science,” Finkbonner says. “Was it that in itself? They can’t explain it. For two weeks they were trying to get ahead of it and couldn’t.”

In her mind, however, it’s clear: “I know it was a miracle.” Tekakwitha’s journey to sainthood began with her death at 24 and for more than a century Catholics have been working toward her canonization. More is known about her life than any other native person at the time of European contact, says Allan Greer, a McGill University history professor and author of Mohawk Saint — Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Her first biographer, the French Jesuit Claude Chauchetière, who was mystically inclined himself, was present at her deathbed. It was reported that the smallpox scars that had disfigured her face appeared to vanish. The homely woman was suddenly a beauty. A convert and a celibate, who refused to marry, she had practiced self flagellation and other mortifications of the flesh, walking barefoot in the snow, putting coals between her toes and sleeping on a bed of thorns. These practices, which she shared with a group of women, could lead to a feeling of mystical ecstasy.

“ … they sought to invest their suffering with meaning but also to cross the threshold of the divine,” Greer writes.

Chauchetière interviewed people who had known Tekakwitha. She appeared in visions to her friends, and eventually to Chauchetière, who was despairing of his own efforts as a missionary. He had an open mind. He acknowledged that Tekakwitha, a native and a woman, could be his spiritual superior and a potential saint.

“Elevating her above himself and everybody else, it was a reversal of the colonial hierarchy,” says Greer.

The Jesuit goes on to test the miracle hypothesis, experimenting with the sick and dying to see if she can bring about healing, by giving them her rosary beads or a potion made from dust from her tomb. Tekakwitha, born in New York state, is embraced by both Americans and Canadians for her saintliness. She has become an unofficial patron of the environmental movement — she was portrayed, Greer notes, as a “child of nature,” living near rushing streams and dark forests.

“She represents physical and spiritual holiness,” says Rev. Thomas Rosica of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, which is making a film of Tekakwitha’s life. “She is a very clear hero for native people and a saint for North America.”

As for Jake Finkbonner, his mother says he loves dogs, playing sports and video games. “A typical 11-yar-old boy.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 2011/12/23 11:29 am

    We always welcome more saints right. I have a related post (Chances of A Saint and A Nation), about Filipino sainthood. Its in my blog, only if you have free time to visit. Cheers!

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