ANCHORAGE - The life of a Mohawk woman who died in 1680 is serving as an inspiration to American Indian Catholics in America, including in Alaska.
About 50 Alaskans, including many Alaska Natives, made a pilgrimage to the Vatican last month for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha (ka-tarry tek-a-wee-tha), who is now the first American Indian saint.
She was called “the lily of the Mohawks.”
Born in what is now New York State in 1656, at age four Kateri Tekakwitha lost her mother to smallpox, and the disease disfigured her face.
After contact with Jesuit missionaries, Kateri converted to Christianity as a teenager, and when she was baptized on Easter Sunday at age 20, her tribe disowned her.
She ended up at a Catholic mission in Canada, near Montreal, where she practiced mortification of the flesh, such as lying on thorns while praying.
Francine Bolewicz, an Alaska Native, said, "My mother used to speak of her when i was small, very well. She’d call her that poor little scarred-up girl."
Upon her death at age 24, legend has it she accomplished her first miracle.
"From the smallpox, her face was scarred, and when she died, it all vanished,” said Evangeline Dessert.
Kateri has been an inspiration to American Indian women seeking to reconcile their heritage with their Catholic faith.
The Kateri Circle at St. Anthony Church meets weekly, and several of its Alaska Native members, including Bolewicz and Dessert, attended the canonization ceremony at the Vatican on October 21, presided over by the pope.
Irma Hagan, who also made the trip, said, "We've been praying for it for years and years."
"What really got me was, in that leaflet they were talking about, when she died, her last words were, 'Jesus, I love you,'“ Dessert said. “It was awesome to hear that."
Because these women had seen St. Peter’s Square many times on television, they said it was a powerful experience to actually be there, and Bolewicz said the ceremony has inspired her to strengthen her spiritual life.
"And for me, it opened my eyes about people, that there are a lot of, especially the saints that were canonized, that they suffered so much to help other people. And people like me and other ordinary people, sometimes we go the wrong way and we look at people and judge them and not be friendly with them, especially the homeless."
At this week's meeting of the Kateri Circle, the group shared photos from their pilgrimage.
And they remain in awe.
Hagan called it a "once in a lifetime experience."