On Saturday, December 19, 2011, the Holy See announced His
Holiness Pope Benedict XVI had approved the Congregation for the Causes of
Saints’ findings that miracles attributed to seven blesseds were authentic.
This clears the path for their canonization and thus the recognition of these
men and women as saints of the universal Church.
Of course, while the creation of new saints is important
and exciting, it is nonetheless true that reviewing and, where appropriate,
approving the Congregation’s findings is a normal part of the Pope’s duties. It
happens several times each year.
This time was especially noteworthy, however, because of several
For starters, it was the first time the list had more
Americans on it than those from other nations.
Second, it marked the first time the list had more than one
American (two people and both New Yorkers, no less).
And, finally, it marked the first time the Church had
marked a Native American for canonization.
The Americans in question are Bl. Marianne Cope and Bl.
Kateri Tekakwitha, the better known of the two. As just one example of the
fervor with which the news out of Rome was met, “The bells have been ringing
here all morning,” said Rev. Mr. Ron Boyer, deacon at the parish in Kahnawake,
Quebec, Canada, the village where Bl. Kateri died.
Just who were these remarkable women?
Blessed Marianne Cope
Born in 1838, Marianne Cope was a naturalized American
citizen. She came with her family from Germany to the United States in 1839 and
settled in Utica, NY. “Barbara,” as she her family called her, was a bright
student. However, following an accident that rendered her father an invalid,
she had to leave school around age fourteen to work in a factory and thus
support her family. After her siblings had aged enough to care for themselves,
she entered the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Syracuse, NY, in 1862,
at age 24.
At first Sr. Marianne taught and later served as principal
in some of New York State’s first schools. Later, she founded two hospitals in
Syracuse, and her running of these institutions ruffled many feathers because her
insistence that the facilities accept everyone, no matter their religious
belief or color. Additionally, she worked with alcoholics at a time when all
other area hospitals refused them admittance.
Sr. Marianne also helped bring a teaching hospital called
Geneva Medical College to the city, and her experience with establishing and
administering both the schools and the hospitals gave her invaluable experience
for her future apostolate. They also impressed her fellow sisters enough that
they elected her as Mother Superior General.
In 1883, numerous orders of women religious on the mainland
received letters from Hawaii begging them to send sisters to help Fr. Damian de
Veuster (aka, St. Damian of Molokai) with his work amongst the lepers on the island
of Molokai. Depending on the source, the correspondent was either St. Damien
himself, the American governor of Hawaii, or King Kalakauau. Regardless, few
responded at all, and all but one of those who did said, “No.”
It’s not hard to understand why. The need for laborers in
the mainland vineyards was already overwhelming. Then consider that the request
was for a very specific type of help nursing. Add the dread fear that leprosy
invoked, and one readily understands why the solicitations prompted so few
responses, only one of which was positive.
Something about the request, however, struck Mother
Marianne, and she resolved that her order would help. Additionally, she not
only committed her sisters to going, but she resigned her post as superior to
lead the Hawaii-bound group.
As she put it in her letter announcing her acceptance of
the proposal, “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one
of the chosen Ones whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the
salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders... I am not afraid of any disease,
hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”
The sisters arrived in 1883 and they first were put to work
at Branch Hospital at Kakaako, near Honolulu. Within two years, Mother had done
such a phenomenal job serving the lepers that King Kalakaua invested her in the
Royal Order of Kapiolani. When Robert Louis Stevenson visited Hawaii in 1885,
his opinion of Mother’s work was such that he wrote a poem about it. She had
also impressed Hawaii’s leaders a great deal, for when she attempted to return
home to Syracuse, the government prevailed upon Mother to stay. No one else,
they told her, could lead this important task.
Then in 1887, a change in government led to a change in
policy towards lepers. Thus in 1888, when it demanded they move to Molokai, Bl.
Marianne moved there with them. In the same year, she tended to the dying Fr.
Damian, and at his passing became his successor and worked among the island’s lepers
the last 30 years of her life. As she had promised, not a single one of the
sisters who had accompanied her ever contracted the disease.
Interestingly, Mother Marianne had never planned to stay in
Hawaii. She thought she would get things established and return to Syracuse,
her home, her family, and friends. Each time she thought her return was imminent,
however, something invariably kept here there. Upon moving to Molokai, she
resigned herself to the likelihood she would never again see home. “We will
cheerfully accept the work,” was her verdict.
It is a remarkable tale and one that continues to inspire
to this day.
“Now that I’ve been here in Kalaupapa for two years,” Sr.
Rose Annette Ahuna, a member of Bl. Marianne’s order told the Maui News
after hearing the announcement, “I really appreciate all of
her sacrificial service.”
“We are very
excited,” said Sr. Grace Ann Dillenschneider, Vice Postulator for the Cause for
the Diocese of Syracuse. “The sisters have been waiting for this for a very
long time. She was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things.” She went on
to say that “Bl. Marianne had an advance understanding of health care and is a
model for women today.”
For those working on the cause for Bl. Marianne, however,
the news was bittersweet, coming as it did nearly three weeks too late for Sr.
Mary Lawrence Hanley, the woman who had promoted the beata
’s cause since the 1970s. However, among her parting words
were, “My work is done, and Mother Marianne is going to be a saint.”
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha
Born in 1656, near Auriesville, NY, and nicknamed the “Lily
of the Mohawks,” Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and
an Algonquin mother who was Catholic. After her parents and brother died of
smallpox, she became a ward of her uncle at age eight. As her mother passed,
she enjoined her daughter to always hold onto her holy Christian faith and
pressed her rosary into Kateri’s hands. The young girl also had the disease but
survived, although it left her with cratered skin and very bad eyesight. In
fact, Tekakwitha, which most normally think of as her last name, is actually an
Indian sobriquet meaning, “She who bumps into things.”
Keeping her promise to her mother was difficult as her
uncle hated his late sister-in-law’s faith. Like many Iroquois, he attributed
the disease, death, and woe that had done so much damage to his proud people on
Christianity and the missionaries who spread this strange religion.
By the time she turned eighteen, remembering her mother’s
Catholicism, she began receiving catechesis. This coincided with her uncle
betrothing her to a local boy. Given his attitude toward Christianity, however,
one can imagine how well he received Kateri’s refusal to accept the match, as
well as her declaration that she belonged to God alone and would for the rest
of her life. Though upset, her uncle respected her wishes and even reluctantly
agreed to her receiving baptism. The condition: She must stay with her people.
The problem was that her people thought her the biggest
fool and even something of a traitor for professing Christ. She became the
village pariah, and she received several death threats. For two years she
endured this abuse before finally fleeing to a village of other Indian
Catholics in neighboring Canada. It was there that she received her First
Communion on Christmas 1677. And there she became a beloved member of the
community and served her fellow Indians as a consecrated virgin.
Within a short time, though, she contracted a painful
illness, and after years of suffering, she died on April 17, 1680, uttering the
words, “Jesus, Mary, I love you.” As she expired, the severe small pox-induced
scars that had marred her face since childhood faded bit-by-bit as if they had
been part of a mirage. People were amazed at her radiant beauty, since they had
only known her as something of an ugly woman.
Believing they had a saint on their hands, her former
neighbors immediately began asking heaven for her intercession, and the priest
who had given her last rites claimed many miracles were wrought by her prayers.
Her cause for beatification began in 1884 and concluded in 1980, when she
became one of the first people Bl. John Paul II beatified.
A hint of the pride many Native Americans are taking in the
canonization announcement are the words of Anna Dyer, 84, a Mohawk living in
New York, who said, “She was always Indian. She never forgot.”
Still, not every Indian is thrilled. Tom Porter is a Mohawk
living near the Canadian-New York border whose mission is to return his people
to their ancient beliefs in the moon, the sun, and thunder. He asserts, “She
“I don’t know if she really was a Christian or not,” he
told Agence France Presse. “They were in poverty at that time. The Europeans
had destroyed everything, people were destitute and starving, and if you wanted
to get help of any kind you had to be a Christian.”
Acknowledging that some of his Catholic relatives have a
deep devotion to Bl. Kateri, he says, “It breaks my heart.”
Nonetheless, those Catholic Americans of all stripesindigenous
or nowho know of Bl. Kateri are thrilled and proud such an outstanding example
of holiness has come from their shores.
Furthermore, in more universal terms, both women are a good
example of what the Pope told a general audience in January 2010: “In every age
the saints are the true reformers of the Church’s life,” for as blogger Rocco
Palma has noted, both had the “ability to inspire and challenge others to
embrace a deepened fidelity to Christ and the Gospel, and [to imitate] the
integrity of their witness.”