St. Kateri ‘belongs uniquely to the Northwest’

The image of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is carried in procession at the beginning of the first annual St. Kateri Mass at St. James Cathedral October 31. Photo: Stephen Brashear The image of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is carried in procession at the beginning of the first annual St. Kateri Mass at St. James Cathedral October 31. Photo: Stephen Brashear

SEATTLE – St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint and patroness of the environment, “belongs uniquely to the Northwest,” said Cheryl Johnson, a member of the Lummi Tribe, during a special Mass at St. James Cathedral.

St. Kateri’s connection to the Archdiocese of Seattle is through the miracle that was needed to elevate her to sainthood in 2012 — the 2006 healing of 6-year-old Jake Finkbonner of Ferndale, a Lummi descendant, from flesh-eating bacteria that doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital thought would claim his life. (Read Jake’s story.)

“We just think everybody should know about her and know that her miracle happened here,” Johnson said in an interview. Native Americans in Washington state have been devoted to Kateri, known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” since she was declared venerable in 1943, Johnson said.

Native people celebrate Kateri every year on her July 14 feast day, Johnson said. But the archdiocese’s Native American Advisory Board asked for an annual Mass to honor her, said Deacon Carl Chilo, the archdiocese’s director of multicultural ministries.

“Kateri is a saint for everyone,” Johnson said. “We just want everybody … to embrace her and say prayers to her.”

The October 31 Mass — with social distancing and COVID-19 safety measures in place — celebrated St. Kateri as well as Native Americans in Western Washington and “the great contribution of culture that they bring to enrich us as church,” Archbishop Paul D. Etienne said in his welcoming remarks.

An image of St. Kateri, along with lilies (a symbol of her purity) and a turtle shell (a symbol of her Mohawk clan), are carried in procession at the beginning of the October 31 St. Kateri Mass at St. James Cathedral. Photo: Stephen Brashear

St. Kateri was born in 1656 in present-day upstate New York to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother. She is an example of living a life in Christ and finding comfort in faith during times of trial, the archbishop said in his homily.

When Kateri was 4 years old, smallpox took the lives of her family and left her body disfigured and her vision impaired.

“I think … we can take some comfort as we are living through a pandemic today,” Archbishop Etienne said, noting that those attending or watching the livestream of the Mass may have lost family members because of the pandemic. Having a Native American saint who overcame that challenge in her own life “gives us hope,” he said.

Baptized at age 20, Kateri chose to live as an unmarried virgin, “seeking out a more Christian community where she could live this life,” the archbishop said. She experienced persecution and oppression because she chose to live as a Christian.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha is featured in a stained-glass window at St. Joachim Church on the Lummi Reservation near Ferndale. Photo: Stephen Brashear

“She knew that the cross was a part of being identified with Jesus, and that’s something all of us must be regularly ready to embrace,” Archbishop Etienne said. “To embrace those sufferings in our own lives in a way … that the faith helps us to live those challenging moments.”

At the moment of her death at age 24, Kateri’s appearance was miraculously restored.

“It speaks to that presence of Christ that she carried within her,” the archbishop said.

Near the conclusion of the Mass, Anna Cook recounted Kateri’s story, explaining that her baptismal name was Catherine, which is Kateri in Iroquois. Johnson spoke about the Jake Finkbonner miracle and noted that Kateri’s special devotions were to the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary and the cross.

Deacon Chilo encouraged everyone in the archdiocese to learn as much as they can about St. Kateri, “ask for her intercessory prayers and continue to celebrate her as we celebrate the rest of the saints.”

And this was just the beginning of the annual St. Kateri celebration, he noted.

“We’re looking forward to next year,” Johnson said, “when we can fill the cathedral with all the tribes that wanted to be there.”

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at [email protected].

Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: [email protected].