The Race to Sainthood

Statues of Kateri Tekakwitha and Junipero Serra in Mission Dolores cemetery.

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Shaded in the old cemetery at Mission Dolores, two statues wait for Rome’s word.

The first: Father Junipero Serra, the missionary celebrated by many for founding 9 of California’s 21 missions – including Mission Dolores on June 29, 1776 – and shunned by some Native Americans for his treatment of their ancestors. Serra died in 1784.

The second, a representative of those ancestors: The Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman born over a century earlier, in upstate New York. For years her statue stood as the only symbol of the Native Americans who lived and died near Mission Dolores. If canonized, Kateri will become the Catholic Church’s first Native American saint.

There is no limit to the number of canonizations – declarations of a deceased person to sainthood – the Pope can authorize, and advocates of  the two candidates represented in the cemetery are both working on documenting their second miracles– the final step before canonization.

Would it be significant if Kateri were canonized before Serra, who is thought by some to have murdered her fellow Native Americans?

“If you’re an Indian opposed to Serra, if you believe Serra was a genocidal maniac, why would you feel better if she was canonized first?” asks Steven Hackel, associate professor of history at University of California Riverside who is writing a biography of Serra.

“Lots of people would think it is a powerful statement,” he continued. “But she was a Mohawk woman disconnected from her own community.”

A statement from the Vatican acknowledging that missionaries carried out violence against native cultures, he says, would be more impressive than recognizing “one of yours became one of ours.”

But even Native Americans disagree on Serra.

Like Blessed Kateri, 54-year old Andrew Galvan, the curator at Mission Dolores, is a Catholic and a Native American. Yet he has “lived and breathed” Serra for 30 years and supports his canonization.

Andrew Galvan is a descendant of a Bay Miwok man and an Ohlone woman who were baptized at Mission Dolores in 1794 and 1802. Earlier this year, Galvan added two wooden headboards in the cemetery to commemorate them and the thousands of other Native Americans buried nearby. Galvan calls Serra “a good individual but a bad institution.”

“We Indians are tied to Missions even though they signify the end of our traditional ways,” says Galvan. “These were Indian houses of worship, monuments to surviving colonialism.”

Father John Vaughn is Serra’s vice postulator, the person in charge of sainthood-related records and investigation for the missionary’s case. “If you judge Serra by today’s standards you can find a lot of things that he would do differently,” he says.

Both Kateri and Serra have had their virtues extensively prodded by the Vatican as they’ve moved through the steps toward sainthood to earn the titles Servant of God, Venerated, and currently, Blessed.

A person must be dead at least five years before steps toward sainthood process can begin, although the pope can override this rule in special cases, as happened with Mother Theresa after her death in 1997.

To be declared Venerable, or “heroic in virtue,” a biographical case is compiled, which cites historical testimonies that the person was without a character flaw.

When the case is ready to be submitted to the Vatican, a summarium book is prepared, containing all the official papers. The book is dripped with holy wax, tied with ribbons, and delivered to Rome. Then prayers are said in hopes that the Congregation of Rites will accept the unblemished character of the candidate.

Galvan delivered Serra’s summarium book to the Vatican in 1983. “We handed it to John Paul II and asked what to do next. He said, ‘You must pray and you must insist.’”

In the 1980s, both Kateri and Serra had a single miracle, beyond medical probability, confirmed by Rome’s Congregation of Rites. This earned them beatification and the title “Blessed.”

Only five Americans from the United States are currently beatified, and to become a saint, an honor bestowed on ten Americans so far, a second miracle is required.

That can take years, but in August serious reports of possible miracles on behalf of each candidate surfaced.

A 9-year-old boy in Seattle who prayed to Blessed Kateri mysteriously recovered from flesh-eating bacteria. And a Panamanian artist, who lives without skull over a 5-by-7 inch square of her brain, says blessed Serra keeps her alive.

“Every time I go into surgery there is no hope for me,” exclaims Sheila Lichacz over the phone from Panama, where the 66-year-old artist and devout Catholic lives part-time. Serra revealed himself to Lichacz over the course of numerous trips to California for brain surgeries, she says.

Lichacz prays to Serra and so far it seems someone’s been listening – she’s survived 14 surgeries to remove brain tumors over the past 45 years and still has the energy to travel to Jerusalem and between her homes in Florida and Panama.

Why pray to a saint instead of the Big Guy?

“Saints are closer to you-know-who to ask for favors,” says Galvan. “If a miracle happens, you sure are indebted to Nancy Pelosi for whispering in Obama’s ear.”

Both Serra and Kateri camps see the recent possibilities as distinct and very hopeful. But finding a miracle large enough for Rome is difficult.

“Standards for miracles fluctuate as science widens,” says Vaughn. “We feel you can have a lot of miracles, but we need the kind that will endure past scrutiny, something that can be explained only by God’s special intervention.”

Miracles with a capital “M” are attested by witnesses and dissected by canon lawyers and medical doctors.

It’s a world that moves ever so slowly, but canonizing saints is by no means an antiquity. Pope John Paul II, the pope before the current pope Benedict XVI, simplified the canonization process, and beatified and canonized more than all the previous popes put together.

“Historical cases are harder to do and take longer,” says Galvan. “There are no living witnesses. So postulators think: is it possible to find living descendants of people who interacted with Serra?”

Another source of information are writings by and about the potential saint. More than 80,000 pages of Serra’s writings are held in Mission Santa Barbara, all of which were examined to assess his character.

Sister Kateri Mitchell directs the Tekakwitha Conference, which is devoted to Blessed Kateri and the only Catholic Native American organization in North America. Mitchell says she hears dozens of reports of “little miracles in people’s lives” resulting from prayers to Blessed Kateri.

To her, 9-year-old Jake Finkbonner seems something more than an everyday miracle.

Finkbonner was hospitalized in 2006 with a devastating Strep A infection after injuring his mouth in a basketball game. “Father Tim came down to the hospital and he said, ‘Okay, pray for Blessed Kateri’s intercession,’” remembers Elsa Finkbonner, Jake’s mother, who lives with her family in Sandy Point, Washington.

The family anticipated death, but Jake mysteriously recovered, though he bears scars of 27 surgeries on his face.

Ms. Finkbonner draws parallels between her son and Blessed Kateri. Both were scarred on the face – Kateri from smallpox, Jake from flesh-eating bacteria – and both are Catholics of Native American descent – Jake’s father is from the Lummi tribe.

“Jake thinks it’s pretty neat a miracle is being attributed on his behalf,” says Ms. Finkbonner. “But the greatest miracle in our eyes is that he was able to come home alive.”

After nearly two and a half years of preparation, the case for Finkbonner’s experience with Kateri was submitted to Rome in July. “There seems to be a lot of hope around it,” says Mitchell. “I think we’ve just waited so long. We’re just hoping this potential miracle will become a reality very soon.”

Sister Mitchell says Kateri is intriguing in part because, although she died at 24, she understood the complexities of spirituality and religion. Kateri held onto her traditional Mohawk spirituality while having the “desire to know a God that was truly unknown.”

The 2002 U.S. Census counted just under half a million Catholic Native Americans, about one eighth of the total Native American population.

“If we have a saint that has been recognized and given this title by the Catholic Church, this would be very affirming for us,” says Mitchell.

In the meantime, all either party can do is wait.

“I know I am a miracle. There is no question about it,” says Lichacz, who says she will continue to pray to Serra several times a day, asking him to stop the growth of her remaining brain tumors. The vice postulator’s office at Mission Santa Barbara continues to review her case. It’s still unclear whether it will be submitted to Rome.

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One Comment

  1. Mark

    I wish you would have used the hook to report more about the history of native americans in the mission rather than saints and miracles and catholic rituals etc.

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