10/19/2012 07:40 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST

Vatican readying for Mohawk Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI will make history by conferring the church's highest honour on an aboriginal woman from North America.

Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman who was born in what is now the U.S. but lived in Kahnawake, Que. until she died in 1680, will become a saint, the first native from North America to be canonized.

And in her honour, St. Peter's Square in Rome is being dressed up for the occasion, with rows of white and grey chairs being set out on its massive steps in preparation for the over 2,000 pilgrims expected this weekend, many of them aboriginal believers from Canada and the U.S.

Tekakwitha was converted to Catholicism by the Black Robes missionaries who first wrote of her special qualities of piety and chastity.

They also described her face as being badly pockmarked by smallpox, introduced by the Europeans. But in death, at age 24, witnesses reported her face cleared completely, a testament to her faith, which is said to have helped countless others through the intervening years.

Her canonization on Sunday will be a ceremony steeped in symbolism, and another step towards healing some painful rifts between aboriginals and the Catholic Church.

It is also something Albert Lazare has been working towards for more than 60 years.

Every day at the Kateri Centre in Kahnawake he has collected letters and email from people who say Tekakwitha interceded on their behalf with God, to make a difference in their lives.

"I didn't think I'd see it", Lazare says of this ceremony. "I thought it would take longer to prove it. To me, she was a saint a long, long time ago."


Last year, when the Vatican announced that Kateri would be canonized, Lazare's son, Arnold, almost cried, for his father and for his community.

"I think by having a native American saint, it's showing that there is an acceptance of native people and that there is a part that native people played in the Catholic Church," he says.

But she is also a symbol for many ordinary Catholics who have been actively advocating on her behalf for decades.

In fact, she was beatified in 1980 by Pope John Paul II, a first step toward sainthood. He also made her patroness for World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto in 2002, in advance of his visit there.

But to make that final step to sainthood, the Church required evidence that Tekakwitha interceded in a miracle.

That came in the form of Jake Finkbonner, a boy from Washington State who cut his lip playing basketball when he was five.

Not a serious injury at first. But by the next day, his face was so swollen he couldn't open his eyes.

A flesh-eating bacterium was consuming his skin and Jake was rushed to Seattle Children's Hospital where surgeons cut away skin at least a dozen times, trying to stop the infection from spreading.

But the surgeries weren't working.

"His face was essentially opened up like a tulip," said Dr. Richard Hopper, a plastic surgeon, who was involved in Jake's treatment. "It had to be fully opened up right to his ears and down to his jaw line for the infection to be treated properly."

Every time the surgeons operated, though, "we were preparing ourselves that Jake was going to die on us," Dr. Hopper said, and he told Jakes parents to steel themselves.

Then a local priest, Tim Sauer, urged the Finkbonners to pray. And because Jake is half Lummi Indian, he asked his parishioners to pray to Blessed Kateri.

The local church set up a prayer tree that included hundreds of communities, many of them native and a Kateri pendant was placed on Jake's chest.

After three weeks in an induced coma, the infection suddenly stopped.

Medical science

"You could always look at this and say that the surgery cured him or the intensive care doctors cured him or the medicines finally kicked in," Dr. Hopper said. "But it was really an incredible day when he did turn the corner because it wasn't something we took for granted at any time."

"I certainly believe in miracles," Dr. Hopper says, adding though that "it's a different meaning for everyone. I'm just really happy when things work out well."

Father Sauer was more convinced. He assembled evidence and testimony from the doctors and sent it to Rome.

The weight of proof lay with the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, inside the Vatican.

In Jake's case, the group consulted seven physicians who reviewed the medical evidence, the doctors' accounts and concluded, based on the medical science known today, that there was no medical explanation for Jake's recovery.

That was proof enough for the Church to proceed. Kateri Tekakwitha's name was forwarded for the final step of canonization.

Special guests

Critics, of course, say there are cases of people who survive even the most aggressive forms of necrotizing fasciitis.

Further, they argue, conferring sainthood on the basis of medical evidence today leaves the Church vulnerable to more earthly explanations in the future.

Author John Cornwell, a Catholic and a fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge University, in the U.K., argues that "Many, many Catholics would prefer an understanding of miracles which is based on their faith rather than some kind of infallible scientific proof, which could go wrong at a later stage."

Jake Finkbonner and his family, however, are not consumed by any saintly debate.

Now 12, Jake is making his first visit to Rome and will be a special guest at the canonization.

So, too, will be Albert Lazare and wife, who will be sitting on the steps of St. Peter's, near the altar, to the left of the Pope. VIP seats in recognition of a lifetime of advocacy.