It is the morning of Sunday, April 27, 2014, at the Saint Regis Catholic Mission Church on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Reservation. Cars jam into the parking lot of the property, which abuts the Saint Lawrence River – a large, slow-moving waterway dotted with islands as far as the eye can see. The grass that stretches around the church and rectory is already green, while purple buds on leafless trees only hint at the arrival of spring.
The predominantly Mohawk crowd files into the 200-year-old stone church for an inculturated feast-day Mass that promises to blend elements of their own indigenous spiritual practices, such as smudging and prayers to the creator, into the rituals of the Catholic faith.
Some wear traditional dress: colorful shirts for the men and dresses for the women – with leggings, breechcloths, ribbon-work, beaded collars and symbolic tribal and clan-related patterns embroidered into the fabric.
The otherwise simple interior of the church is adorned with similar regalia: leather, splint and sweet-grass baskets with intricate beadwork, homemade blankets draped over railings, and braided sweet-grass and four-color medicine wheels hanging from wooden beams.
Soon, brother-and-sister altar servers Nathan and Amanda Rourke lead Father Jack Downs and Father Anthony Osuji in a procession up the center aisle as the Mohawk Choir sings them in. The celebrants and servers take their places on the altar, where Father Osuji commences the introductory rite of the Mass. An energetic Nigerian priest, he leads the congregation in joyful worship with his orotund voice and accented but well-spoken English.
After the introductory rite, Osuji steps aside as members of the community come forward to perform a smudging ceremony, wherein the sacred plants of cedar, sage, sweet-grass and tobacco are burned together in a bowl to carry prayers to the Creator.
As the smudge is prepared, Bernice Lazore, a Mohawk elder wearing traditional dress in the red, white, yellow and black of the four directions medicine wheel, stands from her seat in the choir at the front of the church, walks to the pulpit and prays:
Creator God, may the smoke of the sacred plants rise up
to you. May it spread through the universe and be a sign
of our faithfulness. Bless all of us. Let the smoke of the
sacred plants make us clean and make us worthy to walk
in your presence. We ask you Lord to hear us as we pray.
The smoke from the smudge rises past a nearby statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha and beyond a large archway that displays the words Ahonwasennaien Iesos Okaristiiakon, which means “Blessed be Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.” Lazore leads the congregation in the Four Directions prayer as all turn to the east and offer tobacco for spring, earth and new life. Then to the south to offer sweet-grass for summer, fire and adolescence. Next to the west to offer cedar for autumn, water and adulthood. Finally to the north, with sage for winter, wind and the elders.
Then Kahsenniiostha, a young Mohawk woman, carries the smudge bowl to the center aisle as the congregation files out of the pews and moves towards her. She uses an eagle feather to waft the smoke towards them and one-by-one they extend their hands to draw the smoke out of the air – some motioning over their heads a few times, others dragging it down their entire bodies as if to take a full bath.
The regular order of the Mass resumes with readings from the Book of Hosea, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospel of John. Father Osuji then segues to a topic that relates the Church at large back to this community. It is the celebration of the Canadian Feast Day of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. He notes that this Mohawk-themed Mass is being offered in her honor and adds that it is his first such celebration in the five months that he has been their pastor.
After his sermon, bread and wine are brought to the altar for the consecration, and a sweet-grass basket filled with corn, beans and squash is set in a prominent place to acknowledge the importance of these gifts to their people.
The choir leads the congregation in singing a Mohawk translation of the Our Father in what is known as Mohawk Gregorian, wherein songs from the Latin Rite are blended into the kind of soulful chanting found in the roots of their indigenous music for emotional canticles to the Creator. This centuries-old tradition of incorporating the Mohawk language into the Mass was made possible by a special allowance granted to the French Jesuit missions in the seventeenth century, far in advance of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which was aimed at making the Church more accessible to the modern world and promoted universal use of vernacular in the Mass.
Father Downs, an elderly priest and former interim pastor, stands at the altar to concelebrate with Osuji, and at the close of Mass he blesses the congregation with a sacred relic from Kateri Tekakwitha, a name pronounced in Mohawk as Gah-deh-lee De-gah-quee-tah, a sound that flows easily off the lips of all within this congregation.
Afterwards, everyone drives a mile and a half down the road to the Kateri Hall, which is located on the New York State side of the border with Canada but still on the reservation. A smorgasbord is set out along with a punchbowl filled with a concoction made of strawberries and maple syrup – two sacred gifts of the Creator.
People gather in groups at large tables to share personal stories about the day their beloved saint was canonized two years ago in Rome. Matt Rourke, the father of altar servers Nathan and Amanda Rourke, is an imposing Mohawk man – about six feet tall, with a wide, strong build. He recalls his astonishment when he learned that Pope Benedict was going to canonize Kateri, a woman of Algonquin and Mohawk descent, raised in the Mohawk tribe and part of the community that, after her death in 1680, moved to Akwesasne from a nearby settlement in Kahnawake.
Though it took the Catholic Church over 200 years to recognize her sainthood, Kateri Tekakwitha has been venerated by the Mohawk people ever since her passing in 1680 at the young age of twenty-four. Having survived a smallpox epidemic that devastated the village of her birth in central New York State, Kateri was left with scars that witnesses say vanished immediately upon her death. She has been credited with miracles and intercessions ever since.
Rourke says, “It felt unreal. But when we found out it was true, my wife said, ‘We gotta go.’ Her grandmother had a strong faith and was one of those elders who passed it down, and we felt she would have wanted us to go.”
Later that day, strolling about his parents’ property, where the Rourke family gathers after Mass on Sundays, Matt Rourke expounds on his faith and tells the story of how he came to lead a pilgrimage of nearly 700 Mohawk people to Rome for Kateri’s canonization.
“They have a Kateri Prayer Circle here,” he says. “The prayer circles are all over the country. I never went to them or got too involved, but I knew the prayer. They had a meeting one day and I went and said, ‘We have to go to Italy. What’s the plan?’ And they said, ‘We want to go, we just don’t know how to get there yet.’ So with me having a big mouth, I said, ‘Let me help out. What can I do to help?’”
A detective sergeant with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police, Rourke wears his jet-black hair close-cropped. His son, Nathan, lingers nearby and regularly interjects his own take on events. “And suddenly you’re arranging a 700-person trip,” Nathan says with a laugh. He’s a precocious nine-year-old kid with shaggy black hair, a style his father comments on: “He’s trying to grow his hair out. It’s his decision. He’s learning about his culture. They go through it and they make their choices.”
There is a profound respect within this Mohawk Catholic community for traditionalism and for the choice that many have made to return to the Longhouse religion of their ancestors. Yet, for Rourke and others who remain in the faith adopted by a large number of their people over the past few hundred years, Catholicism can coexist with and even accentuate a deep respect for tradition.
Standing on a bluff at the edge of his parent’s property and looking out into the waters of the Saint Lawrence, Rourke says: “My grandfather, my ma’s father, he was one of the best fishermen around. He could take you on this river and one of his favorite holes was right over here,” he points. “It was his own little secret spot. He never had a depth finder. He just knew the way of the river and where everything was, and he could mark it out by looking at this house here or this tree there and line it up and that’s his spot.”
He remarks that the fisherman’s way of life his grandfather led has been jeopardized in recent years due to pollution from nearby factories. Yet he still marvels at the beauty of the landscape, saying “When all the leaves are on the trees and the sun sets on the other side of the island, it’s amazing just to be here, and it takes you way back.”
Then he adds, “These same waters connect us to Kateri as well – ‘The pure and tender lily on the banks of the Mohawk and the Saint Lawrence.’” He takes this quote from the intercessory prayer to Kateri, a line that gained particular significance for the Rourke family after an extraordinary thing happened on his parents’ property in the months leading up to their trip to Rome.
At the time, he was experiencing much personal turmoil. He had recently been diagnosed with Retinal Dystrophy, a condition associated with reduced or deteriorating vision in both eyes. Now on medical leave from the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police, he notes that Saint Kateri experienced vision problems as well – an affliction she developed after surviving the smallpox epidemic.
Rourke remains undaunted and connects his struggles to a lifetime of triumph in the face of adversity for his entire family. He tells of how his father’s job as an ironworker often took him away from the family, leaving his mother to raise him and his sister for long periods of time on her own. He speaks of a time several years ago when his father took a bad fall while on the job and had to go on permanent disability, and of his own struggles working as a police officer for the past eighteen years.
“The job can take its toll,” he says. “You go to a lot of crime scenes, unattended deaths, and suicides. But the faith can bring you back. You say the prayers, go to Mass on Sundays. It can bring you peace. My grandfather – my father’s father – always had a strong faith and that influenced me. But for a while I was one of those special-occasion Catholics. Then, when I got married, my wife had always gone to church, so I started going with her. It’s not that I’m kneeling by my bedside saying prayers all the time. I kind of save it for Sundays. But my faith has gotten more important to me.”
“Yeah, me too,” Nathan chimes in.
Rourke tells of how, in the spring of 2012, with the canonization set to take place in the fall and a number of people already committed to the trip, including nine of his immediate and extended family members, he still doubted whether he could bring it all together. Then one day, his mother went out to her vegetable garden and found nine pure white lilies blossoming on their property on the south bank of the Saint Lawrence River.
He summons his mother from the house to show the exact place where this happened and she leads the way over to her garden, which abuts an outbuilding near one of the few unkempt corners of the compound. “Why would anyone plant lilies over here?” she questions. “That’s a bulb flower and someone has to plant it. They’re really in the way of my garden. But they’ve come up two years in a row now. This will be the third year.”
Nathan tiptoes into the garden with his grandmother and finds a bud from one of the flowers pushing its way up. “What do you have there?” she asks. “It’s one of the lilies,” he says. “Oh, yeah,” she exclaims. “There’s one. It’s coming up already.”
Rourke says, “When those lilies came up, it was like Kateri was pulling us to get there…I was going through so many struggles, and I just thought, something’s got to go right.”
He recalls the hard time he had convincing certain people, even some within his own family, to take the trip: “My Aunt Joyce is a very strong Mohawk. She’s a judge and she stands up for her rights. The thing was that she wanted to travel on her own passport. She had a visa from the Mohawk Nation. It’s recognized in Canada and she wanted to travel on that. I said, ‘You can’t hold up the whole group. One of our requirements is that you have to have a passport.’
“It’s hard for us to identify ourselves as U.S. or Canadian citizens,” Rouke continues. “But we did it. And she went. And she made it over there. But she gave me a hard time right up to the very end about using [her visa from the Mohawk Nation]. And on the way back they [customs officials] hauled her in for using it. But she had her other passport. I know she did. So she didn’t hold us up.”
His aunt wasn’t the only one with issues about declaring citizenship in order to gain a passport, and many were reticent about taking the trip. “I just kept reminding people that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Rourke.
“You’ll never get to Pisa again,” Nathan recalls a convincing refrain spoken during those days and adds with a tone of great satisfaction, “I had ten days off school.”
“Yeah, but now he thinks he can go back to Italy every year,” Rourke laughs.
Rourke says that right before their trip he and Nathan ventured to the National Shrine to Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, New York, 200 miles south of Akwesasne, to recruit more participants. “That was the first time I had ever been to the place where Kateri was baptized. It was amazing to walk through there and walk up the trail and take that water from the spring. I kind of took a bath in the water. And ever since then, I haven’t gotten any worse according to my doctor. I’ll come in and it’s been leveled out. I just think whatever I’m dealt, Kateri could deal with her problems and I’m going to go on with what I have. Now I like to take trips down there every year and get some of that water and bring it back.”
The Rourkes’ pilgrimage to Italy began with a flight into Venice, where they spent a couple of days taking in the marvels of the City of Water, then led an entourage on a ten-day sightseeing tour from Venice to Rome, stopping at Assisi, Pisa and other attractions.
Finally, on October 21, 2012, nearly 700 Mohawk people came together and donned traditional dress to enter Vatican City. They moved as a group amid 80,000 other people. Seven saints were being canonized in the same ceremony, with contingents from all over the world crowding into Saint Peter’s Square.
Rourke recalls the reactions they got from the Italian people. “When we told them we were Native Americans, they were shocked and said, ‘You mean real Indians?’ It was a culture shock to them.”
To thank him for the number of people Rourke brought to the canonization, Pope Benedict sent him a rare apostolic blessing – a large, beautifully-crafted document with calligraphy and the Pope’s official seal and signature.
Rourke has it framed and hanging in his house, but says, “I feel this belongs to all of us.”
Two and a half months later, a contingent of Kateri’s people from New York and Canada venture to Fargo, North Dakota for the 75th Annual Tekakwitha Conference, where Native American Catholics from across the continent come together under the banner of their beloved saint.
On Wednesday, July 23, the opening day of the gathering, Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Mohawk elder and the Executive Director of the conference, works with a group of dedicated volunteers to greet arriving attendees at the Ramada Plaza & Suites Conference Center.
The cousin of Bernice Lazore of Akwesasne, Sister Kateri Mitchell’s reputation precedes her wherever she travels in the world as an important mediator in the third and final miracle attributed to Saint Kateri in her cause for canonization. In 2006, Sister Kateri brought a relic to the bedside of a boy on the brink of death with a flesh eating disease. She prayed over him in the name of Kateri and he went on to have what doctors deemed to be an “inexplicable recovery.”
On the opening evening, at the official welcoming ceremony, Sister Kateri invites Capuchin priest Father John Hascall, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, to start the smudge. He steps forward on the dais, where fifteen bishops are seated, including Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi and the Episcopal Moderator of the conference.
Father Hascall walks with a cane and his vision is impaired so that his eyes always look like he’s squinting into the sun. His hair is long and grey and pulled back in a ponytail, and he wears black pants and a black shirt with colorful ribbons and a bird pattern over the shoulders and around the cuffs to honor the Crane Clan that he comes from.
Despite his age and various physical maladies, he has a commanding presence as he stands before the people, his deep, sometimes gravely voice washing over the room in peaceful tones as he first speaks in Ojibwe, then chants in Lakota, and then says in English, “When we smudge, as a lot of you do in your ceremonies, what that means is we take our heart, our mind, our spirit – and empty them of all negativity, any bad feelings, any hurts, so that there will be peace in our group, and peaceful understanding.”
Sister Kateri helps him start the smudge, then he looks to the audience and says, “We need a young person.” He points to Matthew Gonzales, a tall sixteen-year-old with ties to the Tuscarora Reservation outside of Syracuse. He moves into the aisle and approaches Hascall, who hands him the smudge bowl with an eagle feather, and Gonzales makes his way along the aisles, past the hundreds of people who reach out to draw the smoke in for purification.
Afterwards, Hascall concludes the ceremony by leading the congregation in what he calls “our song,” and everyone joins in singing “This is Holy Ground,” which has been known to accompany their gatherings for many years. It’s a simple tune but reverberates with great meaning as it touches on the recurring Native American theme of the transcendent sacredness in all creation.
The next day, Archbishop Chaput and all the bishops, priests and deacons present at the conference make a grand procession into the Crystal Ballroom for Mass. Two men stand at either side of the double doors to smudge the priests as they enter the room, and the Red River drum group hammers out a loud tribal beat while chanting a fast-paced version of “Amazing Grace.” They crescendo to a dramatic finish as the bishops file onto the dais and the other clergy take seats at the side.
In his sermon, Chaput invites the entire community to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families in September of 2015. He says, “The Holy Father, Pope Francis, has told me that he’s coming to be with us for that gathering and it would be wonderful if you could come in great numbers to Philadelphia.”
Towards the end of Mass, the people of Fargo present Chaput with a hand-carved, wooden Kateri-themed staff. Later, after dinner, everyone dons traditional dress for the Gathering of Nations Grand Entry and Pow Wow, where members of 135 different tribes march in groups led by banner-carriers representing their own Kateri Prayer Circles.
After the Gathering of Nations, the Red River drum group raises the octave of their beat for an intertribal Pow Wow, and Wankiya Rios, an Oglala Sioux boy who wears a bright yellow outfit with colorful designs representing family, tribe and nation, steps out to perform a grass dance. He sways forward, tapping one foot on one side and then the other in the same way to create symmetry as he swings his arms to maintain balance. This causes the white fringe that dangles off his shoulders, legs and waist to mimic tall grass waving in the breeze.
Midway through his dance, Rios is joined on the floor by a little girl with a colorful skirt, leggings and a purple dance shawl that she holds out to catch the air as she twists and turns about. Soon, others emerge and a circle forms around Rios, until it becomes so crowded that he has to join them in tapping feet and moving slowly around the room. They maintain this unity for a long while into the evening, with all the tribes and nations coming together as one people over shared traditions and a common faith.
On Friday evening, a healing service is held. Lines form before a number of Native American healers who listen to people’s troubles and pray over them. Priests sit to hear confessions at the edges of the room, and the Black Bird band from nearby Turtle Mountain performs soulful folk songs that provide privacy of sound for those in the midst of deep spiritual encounters. As people return to their seats, they sit and pray, sometimes dabbing their eyes, overwhelmed with emotion by the experience of interfacing with someone trying to mediate their troubles directly to God.
On Saturday afternoon, the Red River Drum group chants the Dakota travel song while Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud, Minnesota, leads the procession of bishops onto the dais. In his sermon, Kettler offers an apology to Native American people for wrongs done to them by the Church. He says, “There are people today in our families and in our communities who have been emotionally, spiritually or physically abused and harmed. Cultures have been dismissed, ridiculed or suppressed. Some of this has been done, even by the leaders or members of our Church. And for Church leaders, I need to apologize for this and promise to do all that I am able to see that none of this continues.”
Before the final blessing, a traveling Kateri statue is presented to the people of Louisiana, where the next conference will be held.
Later, after dinner, Cole Phillips, a physically imposing yet soft-spoken eighteen-year-old from Akwesasne with a Mohawk hair-cut, takes center stage at a talent show. Midway through, he lumbers to the microphone with a flute in his hand. He won it earlier in the day at a workshop lead by a master of this predominant instrument in Native culture.
Before starting, Phillips says, “Bear with me. I just started this today.”
This prompts a few good-natured chuckles from the audience. But Phillips has an uncanny knack for learning musical instruments and is known at Akwesasne for having taught himself how to play the piano in his spare time at school. He starts in with a few true notes, then makes his way through a piece that demonstrates his attunement to the mysterious sound of the northern plains flute. He draws his notes out, then makes quick changes in pitch to pique his listeners’ interest before calming them with a sustained and ethereal warble, fading to near silence at times before building again with confidence, until finally settling on a soft conclusion, at which point the audience bursts into applause.
A little while later, Phillips joins with Matthew Gonzales and a group of teens who gather around a giant drum that they also just learned to play. They call out the lyrics to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in a loud yet melodious fashion and intersperse a chant of “hey-a, hey-a” that blends well with the tribal beat of their drum.
At the end of the show, Phillips takes the stage for one last performance. He opens by saying, “This is for my generation,” prompting other teens to rush down the aisles holding up smartphones to make videos as he raps:
One from the two and from the two to the three
Wanna know my name? They call me Big C
Out from the rez known as Akwesasne
Rollin from Snye
We ballin’ till we die
Spittin rhymes through a microphone
Haters call me fake like I’m made of silicone
The rhymes I’m spittin are fresh off my brain
Coming straight to ya like a heavy freight train
Spittin so hard I’m getting chest pains
From my flow, the madness
Not sayin that I’m the baddest
But when I start rapping, no need for the practice
Cuz like B.I.G.
Who I want to be
The next rising tide
And carry on the legacy
Going on endlessly
Rhymes are my destiny
If rap was class
I’d pass academically
Now for my last line this is what I’m sayin’
I’ll never stop playin’
I’ll never stop prayin’
Ima keep keep spittin’
Till the day I die
So for now I’ma say bye
After the talent show, chairs are moved to make room for a dance floor, and the Black Bird band from Turtle Mountain takes the stage, this time delivering a variety of rock n’roll, folk and country tunes that get the crowd out of their seats in pairs or groups to cut loose. At one point, a young man with a feather dangling from the back of his ball cap runs over to Sister Kateri and leads her onto the dance floor. They clap and tap their feet and put on a show of fluid moves as he grabs her hand and spins her around before they separate and dance their way past others, then return to clasp hands and continue their routine with joyful smiles.
At the end of the night, Sister Kateri calls for the band to play “When the Saints Go Marching In” to keep Louisiana on the mind, and they deliver a rousing rendition as everyone rushes onto the dance floor to form a conga line that weaves around in a haphazard manner, with many kicking up their heels in classic New Orleans bandleader fashion.
Then, as quickly as they arrived, the crowd disperses to their rooms, and departures begin in the wee hours of Sunday morning, with night trains, buses and planes making off-hour stops in Fargo before continuing on to larger destinations. They pile into shuttles to be dropped off at connecting points of transit and many linger together to chat about the experience.
Taking a moment amid the bustle of this final day to offer her thoughts on the conference, Bernice Lazore highlights a workshop called “Talking Circles,” where those in attendance separated into little groups to discuss particular concerns they have for their communities.
She says, “What we found out at the end was that every group was concerned for their youth. And most people agreed that bringing in more of our traditions into the Church will be good for them. Our traditions will help to keep them on the right path.”
Lazore adds, “Our people are the most spiritual people in the world.” She recalls a conversation she had with a priest many years ago: “He said to me, ‘Bernice, one day the whole world will look to Native American people for your spirituality.’”
Then Lazore’s old friend Theresa Steele, a slightly built yet striking Algonquin elder who walked in the footsteps of Kateri for many years through a reenactment she performed around the country, adds, “We always worshiped the same Creator. We just had different symbolism. But a lot of missionaries who came over here were always just trying to convert the Natives. Now, it’s the Natives’ turn to educate and share our traditions with the Church.
“It’s our time now.”
* * *
Author’s Notes: Mohawk scholar Darren Bonaparte’s books “A Lily Among Thorns: The Mohawk Repatriation of Kateri Tekakwitha” and “Creation and Confederation: A Living History of the Iroquois” are illuminating reads for anyone interested in learning more about Haudenosaunee culture and the world Kateri inhabited. I am grateful to Bernice Lazore, Carole Ross and Teres Sharrow for sharing their knowledge of Mohawk language, music and liturgical tradition for this piece and to Theresa Steele for all her gentle wisdom.
Post Script: In communicating with Matt Rourke since my visit to Akwesasne, I have been informed that the lilies on his family’s property came into full bloom once again in 2014, and on May 23 of that year, Rourke was called back to duty to serve as Acting Chief of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police. On March 7, 2015, he was permanently appointed to the position.