On Oct. 21, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan will travel from New Mexico to the Vatican for an event many Catholics, especially Native American Catholics, have long prayed for — the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, an Iroquois-Mohawk woman.
Traveling to the Vatican with him will be Estella Loretto, the sculptor who cast a 71/2-foot-tall bronze statue of Kateri that welcomes visitors and parishioners to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in downtown Santa Fe.
“I’m so excited,” Loretto said. “I think it is a very powerful event. This has never happened before for a Native American woman or any Native American. People have been praying for this for over 300 years.”
Kateri will be among seven new saints canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome in October. Their sainthood comes after Vatican officials are convinced by evidence of at least three miracles attributed to each.
The church declared Kateri “Venerable” in 1943 and “Blessed” in 1980, the two steps preceding canonization. The church needed to certify a third miracle before she could be confirmed for canonization last December. She is considered the patroness of the environment by some of her devotees.
Kateri was born in 1656 in what is now Auriesville, N.Y., and died in 1680 at age 23. According to accounts by Jesuit priests, she was the daughter of a Mohawk father and an Algonqin mother who was baptized Catholic. When Kateri was four, smallpox devastated her village, killing her parents and brother. The disease left the little girl scarred and half blind.
She was adopted by an uncle who blamed Christianity for bringing disease and ruin. As a teenager, she chose to study Catholicism and was eventually baptized over her family’s objections. Her uncle, according to Jesuit accounts, agreed to her conversion but required her to stay in their village. Harassed for her beliefs, Kateri finally fled and joined the Catholic Mission of St. Francis Xavier near Montreal.
There she was known for helping the sick, teaching children and her strong devotion. By some accounts she practiced severe penances, including self-flagellation, which may have in part contributed to her poor health at the end of her life.
As she died, two Jesuit priests and others at her side reported her face glowed and her scars and blindness were healed.
In the last century, devotees say their prayers to her for healing have been answered. The healing of one gravely ill Native American boy in particular has been attributed to her intervention.
Loretto, who is from Jemez Pueblo, knew little about Kateri when the archbishop called her in 2001 and commissioned her to make the statue. For example, she didn’t realize there were Kateri prayer circles for persons who believed in Kateri’s power to heal.
Driving home after accepting the year-long commission, she prayed to Kateri. “I said, ‘I don’t know you. You’re going to have to talk to me about who you are,’ ” Loretto recalls. “As I prayed, this overwhelming presence came right into my heart and just grew bigger and bigger. … I could feel her love and warmth.
“From there, I just could feel she was this woman with a huge heart and so much compassion,” Loretto said. “I wanted to do a piece that conveyed this message. I wanted her to stand there at the entrance to greet everyone who came, no matter what their journey, where they came from. That they feel her blessing.”
While other statues and paintings of Kateri show her in traditional Mohawk dress with two braids, Loretto envisioned her more in Pueblo style. In her statue, Kateri has loose flowing hair, kind eyes and is holding four feathers with a rosary. “She’s in Pueblo country,” Loretto said when the statue was unveiled in 2003. “I’m an artist. I have to do her the way she comes to me.”
The statue now is one of the most photographed in Santa Fe.
The influence of Kateri’s story is broad. A national shrine is dedicated to her in New York. Marquette University houses a Kateri Tekakwitha oral history project from the 1990s when followers from several tribes and reservations all over the United States were interviewed. In LaGrangeville, N.Y., a Roman Catholic Church bears her name.
For Loretto, next week’s journey will be her second one to Rome. She lived there two decades ago as she traveled the world developing her art. “This will be a pilgrimage centered on prayer,” Loretto said. “I feel like so many beautiful things will come out of it.”
Loretto has finished a second Kateri statue, one she hopes to raise money for and eventually deliver to the Vatican as a gift.