Case for a saint

The campaigns to canonize Catherine Tekakwitha
Darren Bonaparte

“Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you?” asks the lonely narrator in the opening of Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers. “Can I love you in my own way?” Arguably, Cohen’s muse, a 17th-century Mohawk convert whose enthusiastic self-mortifications reportedly generated a mysterious glow, has remained a pliant object of veneration—loved in many, many ways—largely because the Catholic Church has yet to canonize her, calcifying her image. That now seems about to change.

Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, Tekakwitha’s sainthood awaits only a miracle that can stand up to the Vatican’s exacting standards. But after years of stymied attempts, her supporters have a meaty contender: Jake Finkbonner was five years old in 2006 when he fell playing basketball in his hometown of Ferndale, Wash., piercing his lip. Soon, that apparently inconsequential little cut was threatening his life. Struck with necrotizing fasciitis, the same flesh-eating disease that took former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard’s leg, Jake’s head swelled to “about the size of a basketball,” says his mother Elsa. Over the ensuing days, surgeons in Seattle stripped swaths of dead flesh from Jake’s face in an attempt to arrest the bacteria’s spread. “They basically filleted Jake,” says Elsa. “Every day we had him there at the hospital, we saw less and less of him.”

Doctors concluded each surgery by placing the boy in a hyperbaric chamber, bombarding his wounds with oxygen. It was little help, and the devout Finkbonners called in a priest to deliver the last rites to their son. Then, by the next week, the miraculous: as quickly as the illness had come, it went. Jake was saved. The Finkbonners credited the recovery to Kateri, as Tekakwitha is also known, and to whom their priest, Father Tim Sauer, had advised them to pray; he had also directed the three churches of his district to ask Tekakwitha for intercession, and word of Jake’s plight and the family’s appeals reached prayer groups around the world.

Little wonder she’d intercede, given the parallels. Both she and Jake are of Aboriginal descent—Tekakwitha, who was born in what is now upstate New York and who died outside Montreal, was Algonquin and Mohawk; Jake is Lummi on his father’s side. Both suffered childhood illnesses that left them with disfiguring facial scars—Jake the necrotizing fasciitis, Tekakwitha a bout of smallpox. “You could say no one wanted to take her to the movie, she was someone not to behold for beauty,” says Ron Boyer, deacon at St. Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake, where her remains are kept. “But she fell in love with the Lord.” When she died at age 24—of fever, though her death was likely hastened by zealous penance—her scarring miraculously receded, leaving her face new and beautiful (or so the hagiography goes). A cult of healing quickly grew up around her, including modern-day healings left undocumented due to uncooperative doctors.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Jake’s recovery may lead to her long-awaited sainthood. The case is now under review (though the proceedings are meant to be secret), and Vatican investigators have twice descended on Ferndale and Seattle, where Jake’s doctors are participating in the process. Tekakwitha’s climb to sainthood has been an agonizing one—likely drawn out, some observers say, by competing efforts from both the U.S. and Canadian churches to claim her as their own. “I’d call it more of a holy rivalry—sort of this tug of war,” says Father Michael Stogre, a Jesuit in Espanola, Ont., who has written about the controversy.

Stogre notes that beatifications are typically claimed by the holy figure’s country of birth, sainthoods by country of burial. Complicating Kateri’s case is the fact she lived prior to the founding of either Canada or the U.S. “We didn’t have a say in—‘Okay, here’s the border, now it’s Canada here, the U.S. here,’ ” says Sister Kateri Mitchell, head of the Montana-based Tekakwitha Conference, a U.S. non-profit for Native American Catholics. America’s passion for the celebrated “Lily of the Mohawks” began in the 19th century, when a surge of mainly Irish migrants arrived hungry for a Catholic personification of their new land; the Church hoped Tekakwitha would become for them what Our Lady of Guadalupe was for Mexicans. U.S. enthusiasms led to anxious promotions in Quebec as well.

Today that contest finds expression in an odd arrangement: where most candidates for sainthood have one, Tekakwitha has two vice-postulators (Church detectives who gather the initial evidence in support of canonization), one in Canada—Boyer, the Kahnawake deacon—the other in the U.S. “I know of no rivalry,” says Monsignor Paul Lenz, Boyer’s U.S. counterpart. “Will she be known as a U.S. saint? No. Will she be known as a Canadian saint? No. She’ll be a North American saint.” Boyer agrees, but complains that U.S. efforts backing Tekakwitha are better financed than  his. “Working for the Church, you know, they say the money’s no hell. But, at the same time, the benefits are out of this world.”