Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Church celebrates namesake

City parish named for new Mohawk saint

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For the faithful, the sliver of bone recognized as a genuine relic from the remains of Canada's first aboriginal saint is a treasure beyond price.

How it came to be housed in Winnipeg at the Kateri Tekakwitha Aboriginal Catholic Parish is an extraordinary story of a pilgrimage two years ago to the Mohawk saint's tomb in Kahnawake, near Montreal.

Sunday, as the Vatican pronounced Kateri Tekakwitha a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, the Winnipeg parish held a blessing with the relic as the highlight of its mass to celebrate the canonization of the Mohawk saint.

In Rome, as commentators characterized the sainthood as atonement for centuries of mistreatment of aboriginal people, Ojibwa, Cree and Oji Cree in Winnipeg instead focused on the woman and her holiness, oblivious of Vatican politics.

An ancient belief in relics, faded in modern times but once the focus of medieval faith in miracles, brought hundreds of believers to the Winnipeg parish for the ceremony around the bone from Kateri's body. They're pleased Rome recognized what they've always known.

"I invited people to kiss or touch the tabernacle (where the bone is) and to say a prayer," parish priest Rev. Maria Sebastian Susairaj said.

The bone, no bigger than a sliver of wood, is encased behind glass in a reliquary the size of a lady's hand mirror, a gold circle with rays that radiate outward like the sun.

"It was very powerful," one participant said afterword. Others were visibly overcome with emotion by the day's events.

Two years ago, the priest brought the relic, a piece of the saint's left rib, back from near Montreal, where Kateri's remains are held in a marble tomb at Kahnawake Mohawk Nation. The relic was a gift from the church there to the only parish in Manitoba named for Kateri.

A photograph handed out Sunday shows a larger piece of the saint's rib with two crimson-red stains. Devotees believe the stains are Kateri's blood, bright despite the centuries. The sliver in Winnipeg comes from that rib.

"Today it was a great celebration for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha," Sebastian said, describing the day's events, including a sunrise ceremony, a drum song in Ojibwa and a blend of aboriginal spirituality and traditional Catholic rites, including a potluck feast for nearly 500.

Another nine Winnipeg parishioners went to Rome and to the Vatican, joining hundreds of aboriginal people from Canada and the United States who attended.

"I feel so much pride that there's an aboriginal woman who's a saint," said Margaret Mentuck, an Oji-Cree who works for the Winnipeg church.

For her, there is a sense of belonging that comes from the short, hard life the saint led: Kateri was orphaned at four and raised by an uncle in the present-day state of New York. She nursed the sick in Montreal. In 1680, when she was 24, she died of pneumonia.

On her death, it is said, her face was suddenly transfigured, smiling and rosy, giving her the honorific Lily of the Mohawks. It was the beginning of her reputation as a holy woman that led to Sunday's canonization.

Hundreds of Christians from northern First Nations who are medevaced to hospitals in Winnipeg claim the Winnipeg parish as their church in the city, which lends it a mission for the sick, following in the tradition of Kateri's missionary work 300 years ago in Montreal.

Elsie Moar, an Ojibwa parishioner, said Kateri's faith resonates across time and distance to 21st-century Winnipeg.

"It dawned on me why this church is called Kateri. It is because of this young woman who fell in love with Jesus and always helped her people. It really inspires me as an aboriginal woman," Moar said.

The church is currently raising funds to erect a life-sized statue of the saint.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2012 A4

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