Among the thousands of pilgrims trekking to Rome for the Oct. 21 canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha – the first Native American saint – a 4-year-old from Metairie, dressed as a Mohawk princess, likely will be on her father’s shoulders in St. Peter’s Square trying to take in the super-sized and sanctified Mardi Gras parade.
One day, Cory Howat hopes his daughter, Katherine Kateri Howat, will recognize that the sea of people who came to honor the “Lily of the Mohawks” was drawn to Rome by her simplicity and holiness.
“This is a journey for her to be able to personally know a strong woman in the church who loves Christ,” said Howat, the director of stewardship for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, whose special devotion to Blessed Kateri began in childhood, in part because they shared a July 14 birthday. “If Katherine Kateri can love Christ somewhat close to the way Kateri did, we’ve done our jobs as parents.”
Thousands on pilgrimage
Thousands from the United States are making the pilgrimage for the canonization, including more than 720 as part of an official pilgrimage coordinated by Father Wayne Paysse, a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans who serves as the director of the Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington, D.C.
Father Paysse said the office was able to raise money through donations to help defray the cost for some of the Native American pilgrims to travel to Rome.
“They are coming from all over the U.S.,” Father Paysse said. “This is a historic moment in the church universal but also among the Native American communities in the U.S. I think Kateri models for us what it means to be responsive and proactive to our baptismal grace. We are all called to be missionaries by virtue of our baptism.”
Howat and his wife Molly decided to name their daughter Katherine Kateri – in English, it’s actually Katherine Katherine – because of his intense interest in her life. Blessed Kateri, born in 1656 in upstate New York, lost both of her parents, a Christian Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father, when she was a child.
Howat’s mother had devotion
Howat got his first inkling of Blessed Kateri from his mother, who as a child in school had read stories about her. Kateri was declared venerable in 1943.
“They used to pray to Venerable Kateri, and when my mom heard about this trip, she pulled out an original Kateri prayer card,” Howat said. “It was a novena card praying for her canonization.”
After Kateri’s beatification in 1980, Howat’s ties to her grew even stronger. Howat’s parents welcomed into their home and cared for a teenager who had lost both of his parents. That teen, Marchant Kenney, went to Jesuit High School with Howat, and they graduated together in 1993. During his last few years at Jesuit, Kenney lived at Boys Hope, a house in which teenagers with difficult family situations live in community and attend Catholic high school.
Kenney went on to play football at the University of Southern Mississippi, and Howat eventually became the executive director of Boys Hope New Orleans.
Life without parents
“That was the other connection to Kateri,” Howat said. “Marchant didn’t have his parents. My life was affected by Marchant and by the fact that my parents took him in and worked with him. You could see the resiliency of Kateri and what she went through and how her faith led her through that.”
Other area residents are making the pilgrimage. Marianite of Holy Cross Sister Kateri Battaglia, director of mission integration for Our Lady of Wisdom Health Care Center in New Orleans, and Charlotte and Ken Bernard, who have had a lifetime devotion to Kateri after having adopted their two children, will be among the thousands in Rome.
Never imagined seeing this
“After our first year as a novice, when you receive the habit, you are able to give two names, and I had read her life as a young girl,” said Sister Kateri. “At first, they thought it would be too difficult for the children to pronounce, but I took that chance and received that name, and it’s been my name for 50 years. This is so wonderful. I prayed and prayed for her beatification, and I thought I wouldn’t live to be able to celebrate her canonization and still be able to walk. I have both things going – I’m alive and I can walk.”
The Bernards had prayed for many years to be able to adopt. They named their first daughter Kathleen Terisa – which can be shortened to Ka-Teri. They also adopted their son David.
“I knew she was the Lily of the Mohawks because as a child, I saw a pretty picture of her holding a cross that my parents had,” Charlotte Bernard said. “I have her prayer taped to my desk at work. I always promised that if in my lifetime she would be canonized, I don’t care what, even if I had to go by myself, I was going. I prayed to get that first child, and as soon as I got her, I prayed for the second. I’ve prayed for her intercession for everything. She’s tired of hearing from me.”
Howat said his wife Molly would be staying home to care for their other child, 22-month-old James. Venturing across the globe with a 4-year-old will be a minor miracle in itself. Howat already has reached out for information on kid-friendly attractions such as the Rome zoo and a children’s museum behind the Castel Sant’Angelo, near the Vatican.
“I like adventures,” Howat said with a laugh.
Katherine has been on a plane only once before – to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. – and she came back with hand, foot and mouth disease. But Howat isn’t deterred.
“Katherine is very gregarious,” Howat said. “Every night we pray to Blessed Kateri, and she’s already asked me, ‘So, the night after the canonization, I get to say St. Kateri?’ We pray every night, but I don’t think she has any idea where Italy is. She might say, ‘Can I go home right now?’ and I’ll have to tell her it’s a 14-hour flight.”
Howat said while he will make sure Katherine gets her required naps, on the day of the canonization, he will not be opposed to using the cuteness of a smiling child in Native American garb, perched on his shoulders, as a ticket to a better viewing spot.
“I told my wife it might be a pass to the front of the line,” Howat said. “I’ve heard it can be a little bit of a free-for-all. I might have to elbow an Italian nun.”
Just kidding, St. Kateri.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.