Residents of Lake Tekakwitha, the small lake community south of Pacific in Jefferson County, are accustomed to being asked, “Where did that name come from?”
“A few of us still know,” said Frankie Browne, a resident there since 1968. “But some of the members of the association may not focus on that much anymore.”
The name will gain international attention this October when the Vatican names Kateri Tekakwitha the first ever American Indian saint, on the opening day of Pope Benedict XVI’s “Year of Faith.”
Efforts to canonize a little-known American Indian maiden has been in the works for more than 300 years.
When two local land owners, Ed Buscher and John Wall, who happened to be Catholic, decided to build a lake resort in Jefferson County, they turned to Brother Roch of nearby St. Joseph Hill Infirmary to name their lake. The story of how Brother Roch knew of the Kateri Tekakwitha has not survived.
“I don’t know that part of the story,” Browne said. “I just knew that it was a priest from St. Joseph Infirmary who named the lake.”
Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 and orphaned at age 4 when a smallpox epidemic swept across the Mohawk River Valley, claiming the lives of her Algonquin Christian mother and Mohawk warrior father, leaving her badly scarred and with eye damage.
An aunt and uncle adopted the disfigured girl and later arranged a marriage for her but she ran away and sought refuge with a Catholic Indian community. She was baptized a Catholic at age 20 and moved to a Catholic Indian settlement in Canada. There she worked with the ill, took a vow of perpetual virginity and began practicing self-mortification. She was known to pray for hours outdoors, on her knees, during the winter. She became ill, and died at age 24.
It was what happened at the time of death that would lead to her eventual sainthood. Jesuits told the story that her scars disappeared after death leaving a beautiful and perfect corpse that people came to kneel in front of and pray. A legend grew of miraculous healings after praying to the Catholic Indian girl who treated the ill and was transformed into a figure of beauty upon her death.
By 1880 Catholics began petitioning the church to declare Kateri a saint. It would take 100 years for the Vatican to certify a miracle credited to her intercession but it takes two miracles for canonization. American Indians and Mohawk Valley Catholics continued to pray to Kateri and in 2011, the Vatican acknowledged a second miracle, certifying Kateri’s intercession in the healing of a flesh-eating infection in an American Indian boy in Washington state.
Although some Indians expressed doubts about the stories the church told about Kateri, Mohawk tribes that gathered for the Annual Kateri Festival and powwow at her shrine in Fonda, N.Y., last week celebrated the upcoming canonization.
“It will bring interest not only in her, but in her Mohawk Valley community,” the parish priest said.
Formal canonization will take place on Sunday, Oct. 21, on the opening day of “Year of Faith,” a year of prayer declared by Pope Benedict XVI. Opening day is on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, according to the Vatican Insider.
The Vatican alternately refers to the Blessed Indian maiden as Kateri Tekakwitha and Catherine Tekakwitha.
“Not everyone knows about her,” Pat Whyland, a Mohawk from Syracuse told a New York Times Reporter at the Kateri Festival, “but once you become familiar with her, you become very attached to her and to her story.”
The name of her Jefferson County lake community will probably be easier to explain now, according to Browne.
“It does seem pretty important that she will be the first ever American Indian saint,” Browne said. “People should remember that.”