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 reasons.
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 was used.”
“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 stripes—indigenous or no—who 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.”