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Yakama Elder Talks About Kateri’s Canonization and What it Means to Native Catholics

Kateri’s blessings followed Lydia Johnson from Wapato, Washington to Rome.

Johnson, Yakama/Cayuse, and 29 others from the Yakima Diocese–including Bishop Joseph J. Tyson–arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport October 18 for their flight to Rome to witness the canonization of the first Native American Catholic saint, but their flight was cancelled when, according to Johnson, the plane wouldn’t start. The group had to spend the night in Seattle for a flight the next day.

The blessing? “It was better than being on the plane in the air when it doesn’t start,” she laughed.

Then, in Rome, the travel agent insisted that the active 92-year-old use a wheelchair. Amid an estimated 80,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, the wheelchair kept her from being jostled by the crowd.

And, on that fall day, “the weather was beautiful,” Johnson said. “Clear skies, there were no yellow leaves at all, everything was green.” It was a day befitting Kateri, the young Mohawk woman who loved to commune with God in the woods and is today, according to the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center, the “patron of people who love nature, work in ecology, and preserve the natural and human environments.”

Johnson is believed to be the only Native American from the Yakima Diocese to witness the canonization of Kateri, who was credited with healing a Lummi Indian boy from a deadly flesh-eating disease in 2006. The boy, Jake Finkbonner, now 12, and his family attended the canonization and received communion from Pope Benedict XVI.

Johnson didn’t get to meet Jake in Rome, but she hopes to someday meet the boy who lives because of a miracle. “We are blessed to have a miracle in the Northwest,” she said.

After the canonization, the Yakima group traveled in Italy, visiting churches in other cities, including Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis (1181-1226), who founded the Franciscan religious order there in 1208; St. Clare (1194-1253), the founder of the Order of Poor Clares; and St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (1838-1862).

Johnson returned to Yakama energized by the canonization. She has been devoted to Kateri since 1944, when she learned of Kateri while working as a nurse in Providence Hospital in Seattle. Pope Pius XII had declared Kateri to be venerable, a step toward sainthood, the previous year, piquing public interest in this Native American woman who suffered for her faith.

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Johnson attends St. Peter Claver Church in Wapato, on the Yakama Nation Reservation, and is active in the Kateri Circle, a group of Native Catholics that meets monthly. She has attended the national Kateri Tekakwitha Conference annually since 1981; the conference serves Catholic Indigenous people and church personnel who minister in North America and other countries.

Johnson is president of the board of directors of the Northwest Kateri Tekakwitha Spiritual Center, which plans to build to a special place for Catholics and others to gather in Wapato for special Masses, retreats, healing services, and workshops. The center will have a chapel, fellowship hall, classrooms, kitchen, office, and laundry room.

Johnson donated five acres for the center; as of this writing, $166,000 of the $3 million needed has been raised. She is writing grant applications and hopes construction will begin in spring.

“We’re going to concentrate on bringing the fallen away, especially Indians, back,” she said. There will be Masses of thanksgiving for Kateri’s canonization. “We’ll be praying to her for healing and evangelization,” she said.

In an earlier interview, Johnson said this 17th century Mohawk woman of faith is an example of how God has always had a relationship with the First Peoples of this continent, has always recognized their spirituality and faith despite post-contact pronouncements from his European-American followers that indigenous people were heathens.

She wants Native Americans today to know this: “We have a saint, someone to follow the example of–the example of her faith and her persistence in keeping her faith.”

Related article:

Blessed Kateri Canonization Provides Hope for Yakama Elder

Lummi Boy Whose Recovery Was Decreed a Miracle Attributed to the Help of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Travels to Rome to Meet the Pope