Canada’s first Indigenous saint left such an impact on Lily Hunter that she named her newborn daughter after her.
Deeply drawn to the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Hunter has found a new way to honour her own Cree roots and her Catholic faith.
“When I first introduce my daughter to people, they ask where the name came from. Just being able to say she’s an Aboriginal saint is a way to really share my faith and share my inspiration,” said Hunter, who lives on the Goodfish (Whitefish) Lake First Nation, near St. Paul in northeastern Alberta.
“It’s nice to have someone with a similar background and the same ancestors. Someone we can look up to and aspire to be like. My hope is that growing up, my Kateri will emulate the beautiful soul we honoured here today.”
Like many of her peers, Hunter learned of Kateri’s life through the annual Thanksgiving Mass for the saint held every year at St. Paul Cathedral. Over a year ago, when Hunter and her husband discovered they were going have a baby girl, the name Kateri instantly came to mind.
St. Kateri — known as the “Lily of the Mohawks” — was born in 1656 in upstate New York to a Catholic Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief. After her Baptism, amid growing hostility to her beliefs, she fled to St. Francis Xavier Mission, a Christian Mohawk village in Kahnawake, Quebec, and lived a faith-filled life until her death from tuberculosis in 1680. Miracles and answered prayers have been attributed to St. Kateri.
“A lot of people are not Catholics and they’re pretty impressed with Kateri’s story,” Hunter said.
“I just hope that a lot more people will become familiar with her.”
Over 200 people, many of them from surrounding First Nations communities, filled St. Paul Cathedral April 12 for the annual Mass celebrating the life of St. Kateri. Bishop Paul Terrio, who leads the Diocese of St. Paul, said it’s the largest turnout since the Mass began seven years ago.
“The last three years it’s been steadily growing,” Terrio said. “In this part of the country where there are native reserves and they are an important population… it’s natural to appeal to Kateri as an example, as a rallying point for the First Nations people and children.”
This week, the life of St. Kateri is also commemorated in the Archdiocese of Edmonton, including a celebration held on her feast day April 17 at the Howard Buffalo Memorial Centre in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton. Maskwacis is home to the Samson, Ermineskin, Louis Bull and Montana First Nations.
The Maskwacis celebration will include prayers with a first-class relic of St. Kateri.
The guest speaker will be Chief Wilton Littlechild, an internationally recognized lawyer born on the Ermineskin First Nation. Littlechild will address the issue of reconciliation after decades of residential schools and mistreatment of First Nations people.
Back in St. Paul, the annual Mass traced the stages of Kateri’s life, with participation from young girls of the surrounding communities and hymns were sung in Cree and Dene. At the end of the Mass, small wooden crosses ̶ crafted in the same fashion Kateri herself would make them ̶ were blessed and handed out.
Rhoda Cardinal, who grew up on the Saddle Lake First Nation, said having an Indigenous saint to identify with and pray to is something she finds particularly powerful. The saint has been an inspiration in Cardinal’s family, and her grandchildren have participated in the Kateri Masses in St. Paul.
“I had seven granddaughters the first year all lining up as Kateri girls,” she said with a smile.
For Cardinal, Kateri’s life is a generational bond that keeps her family members close to their Catholic faith.
“I like prayer, and just to be part of a prayerful family,” said Cardinal. “St. Kateri would go all by herself out in the woods to pray. Like her, I love making the crosses, especially with my granddaughters, and we will pray at the same time.”
Bishop Terrio said he’s encouraged that the celebration of Kateri’s life will continue at the St. Paul Cathedral for many years to come.
“The children here tonight will remember this for the rest of their lives,” he said. “They keep making their own little willow crosses in remembrance of Kateri’s experience. They make the white lilies to put on them. That’s how traditions start and continue across the generations and faith community.”
At the end of this year’s Kateri Mass, Cardinal said she’s already focused on plans for the next one.
“It’s growing every year, it’s getting different every year. It’s already given me thoughts for next year. There’s a rosary for St. Kateri, I think that’d be really nice to say.”
Video of St. Kateri celebration in Maskwacis this year, a location in Alberta shared by four First Nations communities.