One miracle short of sainthood Blessed: A 17th-century Mohawk woman, revered for her healing powers, may be named the first Native American saint.


AURIESVILLE, N.Y. -- Kateri Oakes has turned 18, and she makes the trip from Schenectady alone now. She walks through the ravine, goes to Mass at the Coliseum, mulls over college choices at the chapel.

There's not a bit of Indian blood in her, but Oakes comes to feel the presence here of the dead Mohawk woman for whom her mother named her.

"This place is holy, for Kateri and my whole family," says Christine Oakes, a registered nurse. "The name for my daughter came to me in a dream after I visited here. God revealed it through this place."

Kateri Tekakwitha, born on this spot in 1656, may be known to only a small percentage of Americans. But the hillside that overlooks the Mohawk River here -- among the most scenic spots in upstate New York -- has become one of the most visited shrines in America.

In recent years, Auriesville also has emerged as the headquarters of an intensive, growing effort to promote and study Tekakwitha, a seemingly insignificant 17th-century lay woman who was scarred by smallpox and died at age 24. Now Blessed Kateri, revered for her supposed healing powers, is one church-authenticated miracle short of becoming the first Native American saint.

"This is a very special place -- very saintly, I think," says the Rev. John Paret, a priest at the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs here. He researches all reports of Kateri-related miracles, and he has sent four examples of what he believed to be miracles to the Vatican. All four were rejected.

"But there are so many others coming in," says the priest, who is vice postulator of Kateri's case for canonization. "The most exciting thing is to open the mail in the morning. I get at least six letters a week from people who asked her for help and experienced something you cannot explain by the laws of science."

Suggestions of Kateri's holiness date to her death in April 1680, when a French priest claimed that her pockmarked complexion turned clear and beautiful in her final hours.

The daughter of an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief, Kateri was named Tekakwitha ("She who bumps into things") because of her bad eyesight, the result of childhood smallpox. French Jesuits helped convert her to Christianity, and she was baptized at age 19 on Easter Sunday 1676. The baptism led her family to ostracize her and her fellow Mohawks to persecute her. She fled to Canada, where she died.

Kateri had been all but forgotten by 1884, when a group of priests won permission from the Plenary Council of Bishops in Baltimore to build a shrine devoted to her and a number of 17th-century French Jesuits. The shrine now covers 600 acres.

Across the river in Fonda, the Conventual Franciscan Friars established their own shrine to Kateri in 1938.

Together, the Franciscans and Jesuits here have worked tirelessly for Kateri's glory, comparing her to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. In 1942, she was declared "venerable" by the Roman Catholic Church, the first step toward sainthood, according to Margaret Bunson's book on Kateri, "Mystic of the Wilderness." In 1980, on the 300th anniversary of her death, Pope John Paul II beatified Kateri, making her "blessed" in the language of the church.

"And right now, we have one miracle that looks like it might make it for sainthood," says Paret. A little boy, he explains, was poked in the eye with a screwdriver and was told he would lose his sight. The family prayed to Kateri, and he has his vision back.

"I'm told the pope would like to canonize a lay person," says Paret, "and she is a very hot topic."

In the past year, Kateri has been the subject of a four-day religious conference in Wisconsin, of various events at the Tekakwitha Center in Montana, and of an Indian powwow in Auriesville attended by representatives of the Mohawk, Blackfeet, Onondaga, Seneca, Sioux, Cherokee and Eastern Delaware tribes.

Publishers of a monthly Kateri newsletter say they have never before received so many missives from those who claim to have been healed by Kateri. An Idaho man wrote to say that the Mohawk woman spared him eye surgery. A woman in Minnesota believes Kateri helped finalize an adoption.

"I want to thank Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha for helping my granddaughter get good grades and retain her scholarship," wrote a mother from Philadelphia.

The priests here are inundated with requests from people who want to be blessed with the relics of Kateri.

"A man with cancer called up recently from Tucson, Arizona," recalls Paret. "He said, 'I wonder if I can send my sister up from Binghamton and you can bless her for me.' And I did."

Most pilgrims prefer to come between May and October, when the outdoor shrine is open. Last summer, the priests here handed out more than 36,000 wafers during Holy Communion here. Estimates put the annual attendance at greater than 50,000.

Special events can swell attendance inside the Kateri chapel, which offers spectacular views of the river through a stained-glass portrait of Tekakwitha. In September, a Mass is said in the Mohawk tongue. Local Irish groups have taken to Kateri, adopting the shrine as the site for their commemorations of the potato famine. Once a year, hundreds of people walk six miles from Fonda to here. This fall, a group is planning a pilgrimage from Lake George -- a three-day trip on foot.

"What I liked was the simplicity and beauty of the place," says Sister Catherina Cirimelli, a Baltimore nun who made a pilgrimage to the shrine last fall. "I asked Blessed Kateri to protect me. I'm about to leave Baltimore and be assigned to southern Sudan."

On a recent weekend, the grounds of the shrine were full of picnickers. A Boy Scout troop listened to a talk from a Roman Catholic scholar on the side of the hill. Joanne Walsh, who believes she survived hepatitis C as a child because of Kateri's intervention, walked the ravine with her parents, Jack and Josephine.

In the parking lot, a group of anti-abortion protesters ate lunch and celebrated the fact that the doctor who performs abortions at Schenectady Planned Parenthood had quit his job.

"We draw strength from Kateri to keep fighting the abortionists," says Sheila Neugebauer.

About 4 p.m., hundreds of the visitors file into the shrine's circular Coliseum, which seats about 6,000. At the beginning of Mass, the Rev. John Doolan prays "that the canonization of Blessed Kateri may take place soon" and sings her praises. Only then does he offer best wishes for the pope.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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