BELLINGHAM, Wash. _ Pope Benedict XVI has decreed that a Washington state boy's recovery from the flesh-eating bacteria that nearly killed him in 2006 is a miracle that can be attributed to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha's help, making possible the canonization of the first American Indian saint in the Catholic Church.
Monsignor Paul A. Lenz, the vice postulator for the cause of Blessed Kateri, confirmed on Monday, Dec. 19, the link to Jake Finkbonner.
Doctors who treated Jake, as well as a committee of doctors at the Vatican, came to the same conclusion, Lenz said.
"They didn't think any of their medical expertise was the cure," he explained. "They thought every night he was going to die."
As Jake lay near death, the Rev. Tim Sauer, a longtime family friend, advised his mom and dad, Elsa and Donny Finkbonner, to pray to Blessed Kateri, who is the patroness for American Indians, for her intercession.
That is akin to asking Blessed Kateri to pray to God to perform a miracle on Jake's behalf. The boy is of Lummi descent.
The Vatican decided Jake's recovery was a miracle that is beyond the explanation of medicine and that could be attributed to the intercession on his behalf by Blessed Kateri, who was born in 1656.
To his family members, who are devout Catholics, there's no question that a miracle occurred.
"In my heart, in all of us, we've always found that Jake's recovery, his healing and his survival truly was a miracle. As far as Blessed Kateri becoming a saint, it's honorable to be a part of that process," Elsa Finkbonner said.
She said Jake, now a sixth-grader at Assumption Catholic School in Bellingham, was excited by the news and also the opportunity to attend a ceremony for the canonization.
"He's excited to meet the pope. I think that's going to be the icing on the cake for him," Elsa Finkbonner said.
For American Indian Catholics, Blessed Kateri's canonization was a cause for celebration.
"It's been a long time coming for the Indians across the country. A lot of people are happy today. ... It's something that we've all been waiting for," said Henry Cagey, a former Lummi tribal chairman who is active at St. Joachim Catholic Church on the Lummi Reservation.
Sauer echoed those views on Monday.
"I'm happy today for the Finkbonners. I'm happy today for Native American Catholics, especially. It's a celebration of faith. God continues to work in our lives and the world today. God continues to work miracles," said Sauer, who is now the pastor at St. Bridget Church in Seattle.
Jake's fight for his life began after he fell and bumped his mouth in the closing moments of a basketball game on Feb. 11, 2006.
Necrotizing fasciitis, or Strep A, invaded his body and bloodstream through that small cut, and the aggressive bacteria raced across his cheeks, eyelids, scalp and chest as doctors worked desperately to stop its spread.
To save him, they surgically removed his damaged flesh each day. And every day for two weeks, they put the boy, who was then in kindergarten, in a hyperbaric chamber at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle to deliver oxygen to his body to help quell the infection's progression.
Jake spent nine weeks at Seattle Children's hospital, where doctors prepared the family several times for what they believed to be the boy's impending death.
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
Sauer was at that time pastor of three Catholic churches in Whatcom County, Wash.: St. Joseph in Ferndale, where he baptized Jake and where the deeply faithful Finkbonners attend, St. Anne in Blaine and St. Joachim on the Lummi Reservation.
As Jake fought, parishioners also were urged to ask Blessed Kateri for her help.
Some months after Jake recovered in 2006, Sauer sent a letter to the Archbishop in Seattle about a possible miraculous occurrence.
After Sauer wrote the letter, investigators from the Catholic Church interviewed people including the priest, Jake's family and others who testified that they prayed for her intercession.
Elsa Finkbonner submitted information in 2006 about what happened to her son; the Catholic Church also was given his medical records. Elsa kept Jake's doctors aware of the process.
"It's quite an extensive legal process that deals with both the theological nature of the cause for sainthood and also with the scientific, medical nature of the miracle," said Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle.
Magnoni said the process is akin to a civil trial, with one side arguing for the cause of Blessed Kateri and another side arguing against it.
"It's a very rigorous process. It receives very serious scrutiny," he said.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
Nearly six years after that fateful fall on a basketball court, Jake bears still the scars from that fight for his survival.
They are on his face and neck, across his scalp from ear to ear, and across his chest from shoulder to shoulder.
He has undergone 29 surgeries, but the 11-year-old boy is otherwise healthy.
"He's very normal. He still likes to play video games like any 11-year-old boy," Elsa Finkbonner said, adding that her son still plays basketball "with passion and drive."
But there's been a change.
"He has a sense of wisdom about him that your typical 11 year old most likely wouldn't have because he has been robbed of that sense of invincibility," she said.
As for Blessed Kateri, she was born to an Algonquin mother and Mohawk father in 1656 near what is today Auriesville, N.Y. When she was 4, smallpox killed her parents and her brother, scarred her face and damaged her eyesight.
She was baptized into the faith in 1676, a conversion that led to persecution by tribal members, according to reports. In 1679, she took a vow of chastity. She died on April 17, 1680, near what is today Montreal, Canada, and eyewitnesses claimed that her scars disappeared soon after.
Known as the Lily of the Mohawks, she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, becoming the first American Indian to be so honored.