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Utahns celebrate canonization of first Native American Catholic saint

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 2:41 a.m. MDT

The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mass in Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in honor of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Saint Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News) The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mass in Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in honor of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Saint Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News)

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — Just hours after thousands of Catholics from around the world gathered at the Vatican to celebrate Sunday's canonization of seven new saints, a much smaller congregation came together at a tiny church in this reservation town to honor the faith's first Native American saint.

"I think it's an acknowledgement of where real greatness lies," said The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

"It's not in money or possessions or power, but it's in a humble, well-spent life being close to Jesus that still speaks volumes to people almost 400 years later," said Wester, who presided over Sunday's Mass at the Kateri Tekakwitha Center in Fort Duchesne.

Halfway around the world, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Kateri Tekakwitha and six others Sunday in a Mass held at St. Peter's Square that was attended by an estimated 80,000 pilgrims, including three members of the Ute Indian Tribe.

The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mass in Fort Duchesne on Sunday. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News) The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mass in Fort Duchesne on Sunday. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News)

In his homily, the pope praised each of the seven saints as heroic and courageous examples for the entire church, calling Kateri an inspiration to indigenous faithful across North America.

"May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are," Benedict said. "Saint Kateri, protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint, we entrust you to the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America!"

"We've been following this for a long time," Clarice Chapoose told the Deseret News last week before departing for Italy.

"I makes us proud, proud that we are Native Americans," she said.

Chapoose, her daughter Susan, and her grandaughter Zennia were among a handful of Utahns of Native American descent to attend the canonization.

The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mass in Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in honor of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Saint Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News) The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mass in Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in honor of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Saint Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News)

"I believe (Kateri) is going to put lots and lots of faith inside Indians because they're not outcasts to the human race, they're part of it," 13-year-old Zennia Chapoose said.

"Maybe young Native Americans who are Catholics will think, 'I am a Native American and I am Catholic. Nobody's going to up me down ever,'" she added. "They can just ask Kateri to make them be more stronger."

Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mowhawks, was born in 1656 to a Christian Algonquin mother and a traditional Mowhawk chief. When she was 4 years old, a smallpox epidemic killed her parents and brother, and left her with impaired eyesight and a scarred body.

When she chose to be baptized into the Catholic Church in 1676, Kateri was ostracized by her tribe. She became a nun in 1679, but died one year later at the age of 24. Her last words were, "Jesus, I love you," and the smallpox scars on her face disappeared mintues after her death, according to witnesses. 

Zuni Guthrie offers the Four Directions Prayer before a Catholic Mass in Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in honor of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Saint Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News) Zuni Guthrie offers the Four Directions Prayer before a Catholic Mass in Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in honor of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Saint Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News)

Kateri was declared venerable in 1943 by Pope Pius XII and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. When the Vatican determined that Jake Finkbonner, a 12-year-old Washington state boy of Native American descent, was cured of a flesh-eating bacteria through Kateri's intercession after his family and community invoked her in their prayers, it paved the way for her canonization.

Susan and Zennia Chapoose encountered Finkbonner at a recent Kateri Tekakwitha conference in New York. It was an experience that still moves Susan Chapoose to tears.

"It was neat to see him, knowing that he is a miracle," she said.

"His face was disfigured, but we believe that as soon as (Kateri) is canonized, his face will clear up," Clarice Chapoose added.

Bishop Wester pointed out that while Catholics do pray to saints, they do not worship them.

"There are some people who live such an extraordinarily holy life, an exemplary life," he said. "It's like the church is saying here's somebody worthy of following, here's an example you should try to follow.

The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mass in Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in honor of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Saint Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News) The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, celebrates Mass in Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in honor of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Saint Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, is the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. (Geoff Liesik, Deseret News)

"They are seen as people like us who are in heaven now," he added. "They intercede for us, they pray for us in heaven and we believe their prayers are very powerful."

To have Kateri working on their behalf is important for the church's Native American congregants, Bishop Wester said, because "it gives them a saint that's particularly their own."

"To have one of your own be declared a saint, it makes you feel like, 'Hey, I could do this, too. I could become a saint,'" Bishop Wester said. "I think that's very special."

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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