12/19/2011 05:26 EST | Updated 02/18/2012 05:12 EST

Woman buried in Quebec poised to become 'first' aboriginal saint

MONTREAL - The bells of a small church dedicated to Kateri Tekakwitha rang in celebration with news Monday that hundreds of years of efforts to have her canonized are poised to bear fruit.

The Vatican announced that the Mohawk woman who died in 1680 is among those who have passed the last test for sainthood, which could make her the first aboriginal to receive the honour.

No date has been officially announced for the canonization of the first aboriginal saint by Pope Benedict; there have been reports it could be as soon as February.

"It's absolutely wonderful," said George Ryder, who volunteers at the St. Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake, Que., where Tekakwitha is entombed in a marble shrine.

"It's astounding and it's about time."

It's been 331 years since she died, and 127 years since the process for her canonization began in 1884. She was declared venerable in 1943. Pope John Paul II beatified her in 1980, a step the Catholic News Service reported made her "the first Native American to be beatified."

On Monday, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints credited her with a second miracle performed after death, which opens the door to her being declared a saint.

Known as the "Lily of the Mohawks," Tekakwitha was born in New York in 1656. Her mother, father and brother died of small pox when she was four years old and she was scarred by the disease.

The young woman, who was taken in by her uncle and aunt, got her first knowledge of Christianity from missionaries and embraced it with zeal after being baptized when she was 18.

Tekakwitha practiced her faith despite some severe opposition and she finally fled to Kahnawake where her spirituality, virtue and charity impressed not only her own people but missionaries and the French.

It has been claimed that her scars disappeared upon her death at age 24, revealing great beauty, and that many sick people who attended her funeral were healed. It was also said that Tekakwitha, who was described by one priest as "the protectress of Canada," appeared to two people in the weeks after she died.

Ryder said that he has seen a steady stream of pilgrims to the shrine at the church near Montreal in the five years he's been there.

Many people have left items such as pictures, flowers or trinkets in tribute at the square tomb, which sits in front of a statue of Tekakwitha.

Joe Delaronde, a spokesman for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said, "This is really big news."

"I think it caught a lot of people in Kahnawake by surprise. The work to have her canonized has been going on for a long, long time but it always seemed like it was on the back burner. The announcement this morning was just overwhelming."

Delaronde, who is 53, said he's been hearing about possible sainthood for Tekakwitha all his life.

"After a while, you start to think, 'Well, I guess not in my lifetime,' so it's really just sinking in. I think a lot of the older, especially more devout people, are probably just celebrating like crazy right now."

He said there was a real buzz in the town and the church had marked the occasion in a way no one could miss.

"They've been ringing the bells all morning," he said. "The news is really spreading around here pretty fast."

He described Tekakwitha as someone whose "devotion was almost without equal" in a time when Catholicism was regarded by some with suspicion.

There are several shrines to her in Canada and the United States, in addition to the church in Kahnawake.

The subject of dozens of biographies, Tekakwitha also has a place in popular culture as the symbol of salvation in Leonard Cohen's second novel, "Beautiful Losers."

"She was such a humble person, who sought no glory for herself, only to work for the Lord," said Ryder. "She had this great calling from God and felt that she had to respond."

He predicted that Tekakwitha's sainthood could bring people back to the church who had lapsed.

"It'll reignite the people who still have some faith in them."