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Walking in the footsteps of St. Kateri Tekakwitha at historic shrine

July 13, 2023 Catholic News Agency 0
Saint Peter’s Chapel and Native American Museum at Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York. / Photo courtesy of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine and Historic Site

Chicago, Ill., Jul 13, 2023 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

Shrines to various saints can be found in every part of the world, including every state in the U.S. Each one is dedicated to faith and prayer, but one shrine in the northeastern United States also has a distinct mission of connecting pilgrims with Native American culture and sharing the fascinating history of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first American Indian to be canonized a saint.

The Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York, honors not only the life of St. Kateri, whose feast day is July 14, but also the life and history of the local Indigenous people to whom she belonged.

“We have cultivated strong ties to both the Catholic Mohawk community and the traditional Mohawk community,” said Melissa Miscevic Bramble, director of operations at the St. Kateri Shrine, in an interview with CNA. “We see it as our mission to educate about her Mohawk culture as well as her Catholic faith.”

Who was St. Kateri?

Called the Lily of the Mohawks, Kateri Tekakwitha was the child of a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother but was orphaned at age 4 when the rest of her family died of smallpox. Her own early bout with the illness left lasting scars and poor vision.

She went to live with an anti-Christian uncle and aunt, but at age 11 she encountered Jesuit missionaries and recognized their teaching as the beliefs of her beloved mother. Desiring to become a Christian, she began to privately practice Christianity. 

Beginning at about age 13, she experienced pressure from her family to marry, but she wanted to give her life to Jesus instead. A priest who knew her recorded her words: “I have deliberated enough. For a long time, my decision on what I will do has been made. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen him for husband, and he alone will take me for wife.”

At last, she was baptized at about age 19, and her baptism made public her beliefs, which had been kept private up until then. The event was the catalyst for her ostracism from her village. Some members of her people believed that her beliefs were sorcery, and she was harassed, stoned, and threatened with torture in her home village.

Tekakwitha fled 200 miles to Kahnawake, a Jesuit mission village for Native Amerian converts to Christianity to live together in community. There, she found her mother’s close friend, Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo, who was a clan matron of a Kahnawake longhouse. Anastasia and other Mohawk women took Kateri under their wings and taught her about Christianity, and she lived there happily for several years until her death around age 23 or 24. 

Although she never took formal vows, Tekakwitha is considered a consecrated virgin, and the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins took her as its patron. She is also the patron saint of traditional ecology, Indigenous peoples, and care for creation.

A shrine with a special mission

The Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine and Historic Site has a unique mission of archaeological and historical research related to Kateri Tekakwitha and her people. Welcoming several thousand visitors per year, the shrine ministers not only to Christians but also to all American Indians.

According to its website, the shrine and historic site “promotes healing, encourages environmental stewardship, and facilitates peace for all people by offering the natural, cultural, and spiritual resources at this sacred site.” Describing itself as a sacred place of peace and healing with a Catholic identity, its ministry and site are intended to be ecumenical and welcome people of all faiths.

In keeping with this mission, the shrine’s grounds include an archaeological site, the village of Caughnawaga, which is the only fully excavated Iroquois/Haudenosaunee village in the world. St. Kateri lived in this village, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can also visit the Kateri Spring, where Kateri Tekakwitha was baptized.

“The water from the Kateri Spring is considered holy water by the Catholic Church,” Bramble said. “People are welcome to come take the waters, and we regularly get reports of healing. We’ve sent that water all over North America to folks who have requested it.”

Besides the archaeological site, the main grounds of the shrine include St. Peter’s Chapel, housed in a former Dutch barn built in 1782; museum exhibits of Native American culture and history; St. Maximilian Kolbe Pavilion; a Candle Chapel dedicated to St. Kateri; Grassmann Hall and the Shrine office; a friary; a gift shop; an outdoor sanctuary; and maintenance facilities. The 150-acre property includes hiking trails that are open to the public year-round from sunrise to sunset. 

Peace Grove at Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York. Photo courtesy of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine and Historic Site
Peace Grove at Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York. Photo courtesy of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine and Historic Site

Outside the Candle Chapel, which is always open for prayer, visitors can participate in a ministry of “Kateri crosses.”

“St. Kateri was known for going into the forest, gathering sticks, binding them into crosses, and then spending hours in prayer in front of crosses she created,” Bramble said. Sticks are gathered from the shrine grounds and visitors are invited to make their own “Kateri crosses” and take them home to use as a prayer aid. Bramble shared that the shrine sends materials for Kateri crosses to those who aren’t able to visit, including recently to a confirmation group.

The feast day weekend

The Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine has a schedule of special events planned for St. Kateri’s feast day on July 14. Bramble said they anticipate several hundred visitors for the feast day events this year, which include Masses, a healing prayer service, and talks. (A listing of the full schedule can be found here.)

The weekend Masses, which include special blessings and the music of the Akwesasne Mohawk Choir, “incorporate American Indian spiritual practices in keeping with the Catholic Church,” Bramble said. “The Akwesasne Mohawk Choir is made up of descendants of St. Kateri’s community who lived in the area historically.”

Bramble described numerous events each year that partner with the local American Indian community, such as the fun-filled “Three Sisters Festival” in May (celebrating corn, beans, and squash — the “three sisters” that were staples of Native cuisine), healing Masses during Indigenous Peoples’ Week in October, and a recent interfaith prayer service with Mohawk elders.

“There is a reestablished traditional Mohawk community a few miles west of the shrine, and we feel very blessed that we’ve been able to cultivate a very cooperative and mutually respectful relationship with the folks there,” Bramble said.

The Saint Kateri Shrine is also a great place for families. Events often include activities and crafts for children, there is an all-ages scavenger hunt available at the site, and the shrine’s museum is “a phenomenal educational opportunity.”

Bringing together American Indian archaeology and history with the story of St. Kateri, the shrine and its programs shed light on the saint’s story and keep alive the traditions and history of her people.


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News Briefs

New York Encounter kicks off this weekend: Here’s what you need to know

February 16, 2023 Catholic News Agency 2
The them of this year’s New York Encounter — “Who Am I That You Care for Me?” — is drawn from Psalm 8 and is meant to speak to the widespread longing for belonging that cannot be met by models of “diversity, equity and inclusion” nor technological solutions like social-media influencers or the metaverse. / New York Encounter

New York City, N.Y., Feb 16, 2023 / 12:45 pm (CNA).

Manhattan hosts many large events that draw massive crowds. But when the New York Encounter comes to the borough’s bohemian Chelsea district each year, even the custodians who clean the venue before and after can feel that something’s different — often telling volunteers how distinctively positive the “Encounter” seems.

Organized by members of the Catholic ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation (CL), the New York Encounter is an annual cultural event that focuses on the elements of truth, beauty, and goodness in human thought and culture. Free and open to the public, it draws thousands of attendees each year for three days of stimulating discussions, interactive exhibits, and even cultural events, such as poetry recitals and live musical performances. Sunday Mass alone, which will be celebrated by Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston this year, typically brings over 1,500 participants.

Among the many interesting panel discussions this year will be a conversation on the current situation in Ukraine with Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the archeparch of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. There will also be a panel discussion with scientists from the James Webb Space Telescope about its discoveries. A panel on forgiveness also features Diane Foley, mother of journalist Jim Foley, publicly beheaded by ISIS.

This year’s installment of the Encounter will take place Feb. 17-19. As it is every year, the Encounter is organized around a central theme, chosen for its relevance to the current cultural moment. For instance, during the coronavirus pandemic, the theme had to do with loneliness and isolation. 

This year’s theme — “Who Am I That You Care for Me?” — is drawn from Psalm 8 and is meant to speak to the widespread longing for belonging that cannot be met by models of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” nor technological solutions like social-media influencers or the metaverse.

“I yearn for someone who is not uncomfortable with my brokenness, put off by my failures, or embarrassed by my sadness,” reads the Encounter’s description of this year’s theme

“Someone who values my deeper questions, who is certain of the meaning of life and walks with me to meet it. Someone who knows me and, inexplicably, really cares for me.”

 ‘This way of being together’

Some discussions and events from the New York Encounter will be livestreamed, a holdover from the height of the pandemic. But past participants and organizers say that virtual participation misses out on one of the most distinguishing features of the Encounter: community and a sense of belonging.

“The first time I went to the Encounter was when my sister asked me to come and volunteer,” said Patrick Tomassi, a teacher from Portland, Oregon, who recalls that it was “an incredible experience.”

“There was this way of being together that was so striking and new to me. The people I volunteered with had come from all over the U.S., many of whom I am still friends with today.”

Communion and Liberation was founded in Italy by Servant of God Father Luigi Giussani in the 1950s. CL members, who live in 90 countries, strive to find the presence of Christ in all things. 

The New York Encounter, the movement’s premiere event in the United States, has been taking place for 13 years. CL members hold a similar event in Spain, called “EncuentroMadrid,” and one in England, called “London Encounter.” These events are inspired by “The Meeting,” CL’s original public cultural event that has been taking place annually in Rimini, Italy, since 1980. Over the past several years, the “Meeting” has grown to 4,000 volunteers and 800,000 people participating.

Though the New York Encounter is organized by members of CL, Catholics from many different groups — or none at all — attend.

“We have people coming from Opus Dei, Schoenstatt, the Neocatechumenal Way, the Sisters of Life, the Missionaries of Charity. When you see this, you get a sense that the Church is alive,” said Tomassi, who noted that non-Catholics also attend, drawn by the conference’s focus on thought and culture as a place where humanity’s God-given desire for goodness, truth, and beauty shines forth.

‘Unafraid of reality’

As a whole, the New York Encounter takes its bearing from a quote of Pope Benedict XVI, that “the intelligence of faith has to become the intelligence of reality.”

“This is a very enigmatic statement, which means that faith in Christ generates a new person who looks at all of reality differently,” Tomassi explained. “This new person is able to be unafraid of reality because everything that is made is loved by God. We believe that all of reality is God’s.”

Pope Benedict XVI had a long-standing relationship with CL. In fact, after his recent death, it became more widely known that consecrated CL women, known as Memores Domini, had been living in his household at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery within the Vatican walls for years. Their names are Cristina, Carmella, Loredana, and Rosella. Another, Manuela, was killed after being struck by a car in 2010. Pope Benedict XVI made a public statement about it at the time, lamenting the tragic death of a dear member of his household.

“Pope Benedict was very close to Don Giussani. One of his last major events before becoming pope was to preach at Don Giussani’s funeral,” Tomassi said.

In honor of CL’s friendship with Pope Benedict, the first panel discussion, on Feb. 17, will feature poetry, music, and discussion in memory of Pope Benedict XVI, with Cardinal O’Malley as one of the panelists.

Carlo Lancellotti, a math professor at the City University of New York and member of CL’s organizing committee, explained the mission of the Encounter as “trying to learn without preconceptions.”

For CL members, the deeper one goes in their relationship with Christ, the more one becomes open to the world.

“We develop more interest in life and what is happening in the world. Everything has meaning,” Lancellotti said. “The most natural desire is to discover new things, but also within the truth of faith. The encounter with Christ makes us open to life.”

A broad appeal

Not all of the panelists at the Encounter are Catholic.

“The idea is to find people who are experts in their field because we are open to reality. We are open to having true encounters with people whom we may not agree with,” said Fiona Holly, a librarian from Wichita, Kansas, and member of CL.

“When we invite someone to be on a panel, we want someone who helps us look at reality and see more of what’s there, more than what we normally encounter,” Tomassi added.

Another part of the New York Encounter’s mission is, according to St. Paul’s suggestion, to “test everything and retain what is good.” Conversations and exhibits at this year’s Encounter treat a myriad of topics, such as the value of work, geology, hospitality, and the implications of rising inflation.

Past speakers have included Sohrab Ahmari, previous op-ed editor for the New York Post; Christine Emba, writer for The Washington Post; Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health; and David Brooks, New York Times op-ed columnist.

In 2020, a panel discussion took place with Daryl Davies, who has convinced members of the Ku Klux Klan to leave their organization, and Christian Picciolini, a former Neo-Nazi who tries to help people leave white supremacist groups, which Tomassi recalled as particularly impactful.

A similarly powerful panel will take place this year, titled, “You Will Never Succeed in Convincing Me to Hate You.” It will feature Diane Foley, the mother of Jim Foley, a journalist who was publicly beheaded by ISIS, and Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzabolla, the Latin patriarch in the Holy Land; a Ukrainian refugee will also participate in this discussion.

Another presentation this year will focus on Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, a priest known for his heroic care for others in a POW camp in North Korea during the Korean War. A recorded testimony will be given by a survivor of the prison camp who knew Father Kapaun.

CL families from around the U.S. attend the Encounter with their children. In addition to food and exhibits, there is a “Kids’ Village” where parents can engage in art, singing, crafts, and storytelling with their children. For children over 6, there are guided tours of all the exhibits especially geared toward their age group. On the second floor is the “Infinity Lab” for children 10 and older to recreate the stone sculpture on Chartres Cathedral. Children will learn how to make a bas-relief using plaster and wood, which they can take home.

“When people come, they see that there is something for everyone,” Holly said.

To learn more about the New York Encounter and view livestreamed events, please visit the event’s website.