10/19/2012 01:59 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST

Kateri Tekakwitha set to become North America's first aboriginal saint

MONTREAL - A North American native woman who is credited with life-saving miracles and whose body is entombed in a marble shrine in a Montreal-area Mohawk community is set to make history.

Kateri Tekakwitha, who is also known as "Lily of the Mohawks," will become the continent's first native saint during a canonization mass at the Vatican on Sunday.

Tekakwitha was born in New York state in 1656 before fleeing to a settlement north of the border to escape opposition to her Christianity.

She died in 1680 at the age of 24.

Her body is located at the St. Francis-Xavier Church in Kahnawake, a community that will be well represented among the approximately 1,500 Canadian pilgrims who are expected to attend the celebrations.

"She was special," said Ron Boyer, a longtime deacon at the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal. "People would come to visit her while she was still alive, just to pray with her."

The process for her canonization began in the 1880s and Tekakwitha was eventually beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

Boyer, who was appointed by the Vatican in 2007 to help make the case for the canonization, says an event from six years ago that was viewed as a miracle sealed Tekakwitha's canonization.

The case involved six-year-old Jake Finkbonner, who belongs to the Lummi tribe in Washington.

"While playing basketball, he got knocked over and struck his lip on the post that holds the baskets up," Boyer said.

Finkbonner apparently started developing a high fever and was eventually rushed to the intensive care unit of a hospital in Seattle.

"He had developed the flesh-eating disease," Boyer said. "It started from his lip (and) it almost took his eye and brain at the same time."

The deacon said Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Mohawk from the Akwesasne reserve, happened to be visiting the area and was summoned by the family.

"She had a bone relic of Kateri (Tekakwitha) and the family held that on their son's chest and they started to pray and the infection stopped spreading (and) then from that point it started to heal."

Finkbonner is expected to be in Rome on Sunday along with other members of First Nations communities.

Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, will be among 17 bishops who will also make the trip, while House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer will also attend.

Boyer says Tekakwitha was born a healthy child but that a smallpox epidemic devastated her native community in Albany, N.Y., when she was four years old.

The disease killed her father, mother and baby brother and left her nearly blind.

Boyer said the canonization is "the fruits of labour of all Christians, both native and non-native, because we have many, many people devoted to her."

Joe Delaronde, a spokesman for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said his community and the Mohawks of the Akwesasne reserve on the Ontario-Quebec border have been following the canonization process for a long time.

"It really started to happen since the late '30s and '40s," he said.

Delaronde said elevating Tekakwitha to sainthood sends an important message.

"What that does is show that somebody from among our people can be held in that high regard," he said.

And Delaronde believes her anointing will have another important benefit — bringing natives and non-natives closer together.

"This coming Sunday, everybody will sit up and take notice," he said. "It's something unique and it's something I think is going to help in overall relations."