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First Nations Woman To Become Catholic Saint

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Fleeing persecution, Kateri Tekakwitha settled in Quebec, where she devoted her life to God. Date: 1656 - 1680 (CP, Source: Prayer card)
Fleeing persecution, Kateri Tekakwitha settled in Quebec, where she devoted her life to God. Date: 1656 - 1680 (CP, Source: Prayer card)

A Mohawk woman is set to ascend to sainthood in a ceremony at the Vatican's St-Peter Basilica next Sunday, 300 years after her death.

Kateri Tekakwitha will become the first ever First Nations person from North America to be canonized, and it's an occasion being celebrated by the survivors of church-run residential schools — an unusual group given the terrible legacy of residential schools in Canada, where physical and emotional abuse was common.

The former students say it was Tekakwitha's spirit that gave them the strength to live through their childhood traumas.

In all, about 150,000 children were removed from their homes and forced to attend the government-run schools since the late 19th century.

Just south of Montreal this week, Kahnawake was preparing for next Sunday's celebration with several members of the Mohawk First Nations community flying to Rome to attend Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha's canonization.

"If you look at her tomb, blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, on top is a word [that reads] Kaiatanoron … to the traditional people, that means 'a lady of quality,' she's special, a rose, it's spotless," said Ron Boier, the Deacon at St-Francis Xavier Mission in the Mohawk territory.

Who is Kateri Tekakwitha?

Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in Ossernon, now known as Auriesville, NY. But she died while serving the Catholic church in Kahnawake, Que., and has for centuries since been a symbol of hope for aboriginals in Canada.

According to reports, she suffered from smallpox at the age of four and was left scarred and partially blind.

Tekakwitha was ostracized for wanting to devote her life to God. She left her village and made her way to the Catholic Mission of St. Francis-Xavier in Sault-Saint-Louis, Que., where she eventually received her First Holy Communion in 1677.

The devout woman made a vow of virginity and decided to remain devoted to Jesus Christ for her entire life.

She died at the age of 24 after years of self-flagellation and deteriorating health.

People who witnessed her death nearly 300 years ago said her scars disappeared shortly after her passing and her face was left beautiful and intact. She was then occasionally named "Lily of the Mohawks."

She was declared "venerable" by the Catholic Church in 1943 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

Pope Benedict XVI allowed Tekakwitha's canonization in December 2011.

To this day, Tekakwitha is the first Native American to be blessed by the church.

What does one require to become a saint?

The Catholic Church has four important steps to follow before allowing someone to become a saint.

According to the church, the subject must have been a worthy follower of God and been washed away of all sins. Once a Bishop has reviewed the person's life, the subject becomes a "Servant of God."

In order to become a "Venerable," one must have lived their life in virtue of the church and testimonies documenting the person's life are presented to officials at the Vatican to review.

Tekakwitha was "blessed" by Pope John Paul II, which means substantial evidence proves that a miracle was performed by the candidate. In her case, Tekakwhita is credited with curing a boy of flesh-eating disease.

Finally, a person can become a saint once a second miracle is attributed to them after being "blessed." However, a Pope has the right to waive this requirement if he sees fit.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that Tekakwitha had received her First Holy Communion in 1977. Also, the story incorrectly stated that she was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2011. Pope Benedict XVI announced earlier this year that Tekakwitha would be formally canonized on Oct. 21. This version has been updated.

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