PLYMOUTH — Parishioners of St. Kateri Tekakwitha will gather Sunday to celebrate the recent canonization of their Native American patroness and to welcome back 17 church members who traveled to Rome to witness the historic event.
“It’s something we’ve prayed for every Sunday and at every Mass for many, many years,” said Deacon Edward Creutz, who anticipates “a full house” for the 10 a.m. Mass, the culmination of a month of special events for the 1,200 families of the parish.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization coincides with the 30th anniversary of the church, which branched off from St. Peter’s in 1982 at a time of rapid population growth in Plymouth.
Bishop Robert Hennessey, a young priest at St. Peter’s at the time, is credited with suggesting Kateri Tekakwitha as patroness for the fledgling parish. The 17th-century convert had been named “Blessed” by the Catholic Church a few years earlier, and the choice seemed a natural fit for a town whose history is steeped in Native American culture, Hennessey said recently.
Hennessey, now based in Boston where he serves as the archdiocese’s central regional bishop, said he looked forward to returning to Plymouth to celebrate Mass. “I was there at the beginning, and now I’m seeing this all come to a wonderful conclusion,” he said.
Kateri Tekakwitha is the first indigenous North American to be canonized by the Catholic Church. She was born in 1656 in upstate New York; her parents, a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin Catholic, died of small pox when she was 4. She survived the disease but was left disfigured and nearly blind.
At 20 years old, Tekakwitha converted to Catholicism, which made her an outcast in her village. She spent her final years in prayer and penance at a mission in what is now Canada. She died at 24.
The first miracle attributed to the young Mohawk occurred shortly after her death, when her smallpox scars were said by witnesses to have vanished, an event the Catholic Church later deemed a miracle. The Church raised Kateri Tekakwitha to the status of “Venerable” in 1943 and “Blessed” in 1980, steps on the path to sainthood.
The Rev. John Schatzel, the West Plymouth church’s first pastor, said he had believed her sainthood was imminent, when the parish selected her as its patroness in 1982.
“When we were putting up the sign for our new church, I said, ‘Don’t make it gold leaf, because we’ll soon be changing ‘Blessed’ to ‘Saint’ Kateri Tekakwitha,’” Schatzel said. “I thought it would be two or three years, but it took 30.”
Schatzel, now retired and living in Pembroke, said he believes his former parish was “the first in the world” to be named for the Native American.
The Rev. George Evans, one of the Boston Archdiocese’s experts on sainthood, said Schatzel’s claim could well be true. “Not many parishes have been named after ‘blesseds,’ and that parish was named shortly after she became ‘blessed,’” he said.
The online US Directory of the Catholic Church lists 16 parishes bearing Kateri Tekakwitha’s name. Evans said he expects that number will rise now that she is a saint.
In a report late last year, the Catholic News Service said Pope Benedict XVI officially recognized in December a miracle that paved the way for Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization. The event had occurred in 2006, when a 5-year-old Native American boy in Washington was believed to have been saved from a deadly flesh-eating disease by her intercession. The Plymouth parish learned of the pontiff’s decision to canonize its patroness in January. Parish member Mary Madden and 16 others decided to make the trip to the Vatican for the Oct. 21 ceremony.
“We had been waiting so long, and I never thought it would happen in our lifetime,” Madden said. “Being at the Vatican for the canonization was just overwhelming — seeing the Pope right there in front of us.” Kateri Tekakwitha was among seven canonized by Pope Benedict XVI that day.
Parishioners back home also celebrated. “The church was packed” on Oct. 21, said Donna Souza, parish business manager. “Bishop John Dooher said Mass, and Cardinal [Sean] O’Malley called from Rome and talked to the parishioners.”
Souza said her parish has endured some difficult times. In 2004, it was set to be closed by the Boston Archdiocese as part a merger plan. “We had everything boxed up,” Souza recalled. The archdiocese reversed its decision following an appeal from the parish.
“We found out we could stay open just a few days before our scheduled last Mass,” Souza said. “It was right before Christmas, and the news was like a present.”
More recently, the parish lost its spiritual leader. The Rev. James Braley, who was pastor for more than 10 years, was placed on administrative leave by the archdiocese in February following a sex abuse allegation dating back to the 1980s. A spokesman for the archdiocese said last week Braley’s status remains unchanged.
Parishioners remain supportive of their pastor. “We really miss him and wish he could be here with us for this,” Madden said.