REYNOLDS, N.D. – He was just a child of about 9 when John Cavanaugh first learned of a woman named Kateri Tekakwitha.
One had placed at the back of the classroom some prayer cards depicting a young woman with long, black braids and a buckskin dress – the “Lily of the Mohawks,” as some called her.
He’d seen prayer cards before, bearing pictures of holy people of the church, but this one was different, more relatable.
“She was only ‘venerable’ at the time, and on her way to becoming ‘blessed,’ ” he says, referring to the journey toward canonization of the woman who has become a beloved role model.
When the day finally came that a pope would declare her an official saint, in October 2012, Cavanaugh – now a priest for the parishes of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Reynolds and St. Jude in Thompson – joyfully witnessed that event in Rome.
Kateri has been a driving force throughout his ministry, taking him not only to Italy but various corners of the United States each year to pray for the holy woman he says exemplifies so well the Christian ideal of living for others.
In 1989 in Fargo, at the 50th annual national Tekakwitha conference – an event devoted to Kateri and in part to support and unify Native Christians and others – Cavanaugh was ordained a transitional deacon, bringing him one step closer to the priesthood.
“Up to that time, I wasn’t active with the conference because I’d been on active duty in the military,” he explains.
But ever since, Kateri has been a permanent fixture in his life.
Return to Dakota roots
Next month, the conference, which began in Fargo in 1939 as a gathering for missionary priests of the Dakotas, returns again to the area, led by Cavanaugh and other Christians from throughout the region and beyond.
Along with presentations like “The Way of Our People” and “Praying for Our Adult Sons and Daughters,” the conference will host celebrations centering on communal prayer and conclude with a powwow.
Not long ago, an archivist from Marquette University, who will present at the conference, found a letter revealing that one of the first Catholic bishops of the Dakota Territory was part Mohawk.
“That’s how far back it goes, and they think this is maybe how (the conference) got a foothold in this diocese,” Cavanaugh says.
Originally intended for missionary priests to gather, pray and “be a sounding board for one another,” the conference has become more lay-focused over time, and though organized under the Catholic Church, is led by a lay board guided by episcopal moderator Archbishop Charles Chaput, the first Native American archbishop.
Gail Williams moved frequently with her family as the daughter of an Army serviceman, and attended mostly non-denomination churches growing up. But eventually, the Sisseton, S.D., woman returned to the Catholic Church.
She credits Kateri for keeping her tethered to her faith during her adult years and through the ups and downs of raising her children and grandchildren.
“She’s just a person like everyone else,” Williams says, “but there’s something about her that makes you love her. You just really want to get to know her more.”
Kateri, “Catherine” in English, was born in 1656 in Auriesville, N.Y., the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin, Christian mother. Most of her family died of small pox, which Kateri also contracted but overcame.
Chet Cordell, a Catholic deacon from Marvin, S.D., says Kateri’s humility and prayerful ways have led to his admiration of her.
“She had such an acceptance of everyone and everything, and with that comes thankfulness,” he says. “If you’re humble, you know you’re graced every morning when the sun comes up, and when the showers come down, and even in the snows that fall.”
Williams agrees that humility was one of Kateri’s most marked qualities.
“In our family, if you get to the point where you’re getting too big for your britches, you get corrected,” she says. “I guess that’s what I like about her – the simplicity. She just did what was necessary, and mostly that was to pray. Everybody wants and needs that but in this day and age we don’t know how to get it back.”
Kateri, always near
Wally Ann Warren of White Earth Reservation stumbled onto Kateri when her brother invited her to the annual conference in Phoenix in the 1980s. Warren had left the faith of her childhood and was exploring charismatic Christianity at the time.
The trip changed her life, she says.
“It was a stepping stone for me coming back to the church, and it was St. Kateri who led me there,” she says, noting that she was attracted by Kateri’s steadfast love for Jesus.
As she talks of Kateri, tears form in Warren’s eyes, showing she’s more to her than a person on a prayer card.
“She’s with me all the time. She’s right here with me today,” Warren says, noting that she carries a relic a Kateri – a piece of cloth from a garment Kateri once wore – permanently pinned inside her shirt.
Warren says she wishes more young people would learn about and draw near to Kateri.
“We’ve got to put it across to our young people that we’re only here temporarily,” she says. “Our trial is right here, right now, but if we live right, we will live happily ever after for eternity. If we don’t, who knows, we might just go the other way.”
She emphasizes that St. Kateri is for everyone. “She’s not just for the Native people. Everyone needs hope.”
If You Go
WHAT: 75th Annual Kateri Tekakwitha Conference
WHEN: July 23-27
WHERE: Ramada Conference Center, 1635 42nd St. S., Fargo
INFO: Register at www.kateritekakwitha2014.com.