ROME â€” The Roman Catholic Church began final preparations Wednesday for what will be a watershed event in the church's relationship with Native American cultures, the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian who lived in the 17th century, who on Sunday will become the church's first Native American saint.
More than 700 Native Americans, many in full regalia, are expected to take part in the ceremony in St. Peter's Square honoring the woman who is known as the Lily of the Mohawks. A choir singing an Indian hymn will be among the participants. At a Mass on Monday inside St. Peter's Basilica, Native Americans will conduct a "smudge" ceremony by burning sage, according to an American church official.
Among the first to arrive Wednesday was a delegation of more than 50 from the Archdiocese of Seattle that included Jake Finkbonner, a 12-year-old boy whose recovery six years ago from necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh-eating disease, was accorded the status of a miracle by the church.
His survival was anything but certain when his parish and Native Americans around the U.S. and Canada began praying to Tekakwitha, and his recovery was the key in the decision to canonize her, said the Rev. Wayne Paysse, executive director of the bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.
In another sign of the historic event, the U.S. mission to the Holy See, the American embassy to the church, has invited all the American pilgrims to a special reception Friday at the Vatican Museum.
Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father near what today is Auriesville, N.Y. She was baptized at age 20. After being rejected by her family, she moved to a Jesuit mission near Montreal, where she taught children until her death four years later.
American Indians have been appealing for Tekakwitha to be canonized for more than a century. She was given the special status of venerable in 1942, the first step to sainthood, and was beatified in 1980.
Tekakwitha is one of three beatified women and four beatified men who will be canonized Sunday. One other is a North American, Blessed Marianne Cope, a German-born nun who ministered to lepers in Hawaii. Hundreds of Hawaiians are also expected to attend Sunday's ceremony. An even larger number of Filipinos is expected to attend the canonization of Pedro Calungsod, who was killed in 1672 while doing missionary work.
Others to be sainted are Maria del Carmen, the Spanish founder of the Conceptionist Missionary Sisters of Teaching; Anna Schaffer, a German lay woman; Jacques Berthieu, a French Jesuit; and Giovanni Battista Piamarta, an Italian priest.
Jake Finkbonner, several schoolmates who came along from Seattle, a group of Native Americans from Washington state, and others started their Rome visit Wednesday night with Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul, said to be the burial site of the apostle, and they were planning a day trip to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis.