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Lily of the Mohawks set to become a saint

The extraordinary story of a 17th-century Native American girl who cared for the elderly and sick and is now being honoured by the Pope

A Mohawk woman tomorrow will become the first Native American to be canonised a Catholic saint, in a ceremony in the Vatican 300 years after her death.

Kateri Tekakwitha, known as ‘Lily of the Mohawks’, was born in 1656 in what is now Auriesville in the US state of New York, but died while serving the Church in Kahnawake in what is now Canada’s Quebec province.

For centuries she has been a symbol of hope for Native Americans, despite the grim details of her short and painful life.

Converted by Jesuits, the young woman who was left scarred and partially blind from smallpox devoted her life to God. She died aged 24, after years of self-flagell-ation and deteriorating health, but according to tradition among some believers her scars disappeared, leaving her skin smooth and her face beautiful.

Tekakwitha was declared ‘Venerable’ by Pope Pius XII in 1942 and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. Her qualifying miracle for sainthood was curing a boy of a flesh-eating disease.

For many Native Americans, especially among the Mohawk and other Iroquois tribes straddling the US-Canadian border, Kateri’s sainthood was way overdue.

The Vatican needed a certified miracle from the tribeswoman, so followers submitted reports of dozens: everything from healing the sick to levitating a man off the ground and appearing herself, hovering in deerskin clothes.

None of these passed muster. But then in 2006 doctors in Seattle confirmed an astonishing event.

Against all medical expect-ations, an 11-year-old Native American boy fatally ill with flesh-eating bacteria made a full recovery. His parents had been praying for Kateri’s grace.

After five years’ deliberation, this report convinced the Vatican, and Pope Benedict XVI cleared Kateri for canonisation.

A dozen Canadian bishops including Richard Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton, Alberta, and head of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Lionel Gendron, Bishop of Saint-Jean-Longueuil diocese in Quebec where Tekakwitha’s tomb and a shrine are located, will be on hand for her canonisation, said Church spokesman René Laprise.

At her final resting place a mass-ive screen will be erected so that locals can watch the ceremony broadcast back from Rome.

In Canada, many Native Americans see Tekakwitha’s canonis-ation as a step towards healing old divisions between North America’s original inhabitants and European settlers. It may also take some of the sting out of anger over the Catholic Church’s role in attempts to assimilate natives at residential schools.

A group of former residential school students will be among the delegation attending her long-expected canonisation.

But south of the border in the United States, Native Americans are split.

Alicia Cook from upstate New York told Syracuse’s The Post-Standard newspaper: “The Church has been telling us for years we’re heathens. The white man has hurt us.”

But former altar boy Doug George-Kanentiio said: “I had a lot of anger at the Church for the things it had done to the native people and the world and the moral compromises it made.

“It took me a while to begin to adopt a different approach to this, not one based on history, but compassion for a young woman who was determined she was going to emulate the suffering of Jesus Christ.”

Pope John Paul II declared Kateri Tekakwitha venerable in 1980.

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