She’s been waiting nearly all her life for this.
So when Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian, is named the first Native American Catholic saint later this month in Rome, Lydia Johnson from Wapato, Wash., will be there.
“I pray to Kateri every day,” said Johnson, an enrolled Umatilla on her mother’s side and a Yakama on her father’s.
Johnson, who is 92, will be one of 29 people traveling to the Vatican, led by Bishop Joseph Tyson of the Catholic Diocese of Yakima. They leave Thursday and will take part in the canonization Mass at the Vatican on Oct. 21.
Last February, when Pope Benedict XVI announced that Kateri’s formal canonization, or sainthood, would be this fall, Johnson and other Native American Catholics – and some non-Natives and non-Catholics, too – rejoiced.
A group of Lower Valley Catholics, including Johnson, is planning to build a spiritual center dedicated to Kateri in Wapato. But first there’s the canonization to attend.
Born in 1656 in New York, Kateri became an orphan at age 4 when smallpox spread through her village, killing her parents and brother. She survived, but her face was scarred from the disease and her eyesight damaged. She converted to Catholicism when she was 20, then moved to a Jesuit mission near Montreal, where she taught children and ministered to the elderly and sick. She herself became sick and died at age 24.
“She died young but not of smallpox; we think it was TB (tuberculosis),” Johnson explained. “But when she died, her pocks all disappeared.”
Johnson, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in adult education, is a retired registered nurse.
Long revered by Native Americans and other Catholics, Kateri was designated as “blessed,” one step before sainthood, by Pope John Paul II, 32 years ago.
Then last December, Pope Benedict XVI declared that a medical intervention attributed to Kateri was a “miracle,” which meant sainthood could be imminent.
The miracle ascribed to Kateri occurred in Seattle seven years ago. A 5-year-old boy from Ferndale, Wash., had been diagnosed at Children’s Hospital with a flesh-eating bacterium known as Strep A. As the boy’s condition deteriorated, he was given last rites of the Catholic Church, but his family, members of the Lummi Nation, prayed to Kateri to save him.
A small pendant with her likeness was placed on his pillow. After the boy began to improve, his family and many Catholics attributed it to Kateri’s intercession.
Now 12, the boy has fully recovered and, according to Johnson, will be traveling to Rome for the canonization.
“We are so blessed the miracle happened in the Northwest,” Johnson noted. “God was looking out for us.”
Bishop Tyson served on the committee that looked into the boy’s cure to determine if it was a miracle.
Kateri has long inspired a number of Catholics in the area, which is one reason a group of parishioners from St. Peter Claver Church in Wapato is creating a center in her honor. Last year, the group organized into a nonprofit, formed a six-person board and began planning the Northwest Kateri Tekakwitha Spiritual Center. Johnson donated five acres of land surrounding her home near Wapato Lions Community Park with the idea that the center will serve as a beacon to Native American Catholics around the Pacific Northwest.
“To the Indian people, she’s an Indian who performed a miracle, and that’s a big thing,” Johnson said. “She was just an ordinary woman who had great faith.”
Anyone interested in helping the Northwest Kateri Tekakwitha Spiritual Center may send a donation to P.O. Box 394, Wapato, WA 98951.