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Catholic Vancouver Aug. 13, 2018

First Nations communities seek healing through St. Kateri

By Agnieszka Ruck

The communities of Sts’ailes and Seabird Island in Agassiz at a chapel on the American feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. (Photos by Connie Meskas)

AGASSIZ—St. Kateri Tekakwitha is proving a powerful symbol for two First Nations communities in the Eastern Fraser Valley.

The Sts’ailes (Chehalis) and Seabird Island peoples in Agassiz, B.C., have found her to be an icon of inspiration, strength, and reconciliation.

“We certainly need a lot of prayers because in this world today, there are so many things that can lead our people astray, especially alcohol and drugs and all of the destruction they cause in our individuals and families,” said elder Virginia Peters.

“We really want our people to be able to deal with those kinds of problems and we can be strong in prayer.”

St. Kateri is that example of strength for the Sts’ailes and Seabird Island people. Peters said the Indigenous saint suffered the pains of smallpox and tuberculosis, as well as the deaths of her parents and brother, but did not let those pains pull her away from faith. She was baptized, made a vow of perpetual virginity, and cared for children, the elderly, and the sick.

“Even though she was filled with scars,” St. Kateri “showed all of us the importance of devoting ourselves to someone higher.”

The community hosted a procession to honour St. Kateri on her American feast day, July 15. (The Canadian feast day is April 17). Peters was thrilled.

Elder Virginia Peters (on left, wearing hat) with the firetruck escort.

“The procession meant a whole lot to me,” said Peters, who led the march, riding atop a firetruck escort as 40 community members walked through the Sts’ailes reserve praying the Rosary.

“How strong our people can be if we always remember the power of prayer!”

She said St. Kateri has been a powerful force for reconciliation in her community. Many First Nations people who left the Catholic Church due to abuses in residential schools are turning to the saint to find ways to embrace their faith and their culture.

“We don’t have a lot of people still practising” in the Catholic Church, but “a lot of them are very spiritual and true to our traditional ways,” said Peters. “We need to see some blending in both of our ways.”

St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Agassiz cares for two chapels in First Nations communities: Our Lady of Fatima in Sts’ailes, and Immaculate Conception on Seabird Island. Peters said they do good job of uniting religion and tradition.

“It wasn’t permitted in the past to have a feather or smudge or drumming in the church. Now, we blend all of that in and we can really worship in both of our ways.”

An image of St. Kateri during the procession.

The positive reception is good news for Deacon Jamie Meskas, a permanent deacon currently on assignment at the Agassiz parish.

“It’s a very broken, hurt community that needs a lot of healing,” he told The B.C. Catholic. “Reconciliation is not a word just to be said. To me, it inspires action.”

The July 15 procession began with Mass, followed by walking, prayer, and drumming across the length of the reserve and back to the church, where they had a community picnic and an outdoor First Nations ceremony and a community picnic.

The ceremony involved placing tobacco in a shell and burning it, its smoke symbolizing their prayers being carried toward heaven.

Beside embracing First Nations symbols like drums and tobacco smoke, Deacon Meskas has found other ways to encourage First Nations people to give Catholicism another chance. He has brought in relationship healing and other programs and a food bank. He has also made it a personal rule that when he gets up to share the Gospel, elders get a chance to speak too.

About two and a half years ago, he said there were only two or three people coming to the chapels regularly on Sundays. Now, 15 to 25 of them come.

“St. Kateri’s life symbolizes to us that the Gospel can shine a light on the culture. They don't oppose each other,” he said.

“We look at it as the Church being rebuilt to what it once was.”

Peters trusts that the First Nations community’s ties with the Church will only grow stronger. Before the procession, her granddaughters were invited to say a prayer in traditional Halq’emeylem, an “awesome” experience for everyone, she said.

“That really goes to show it’s going to go down to the next generations.”

Young girls pray in their traditional language, an “awesome” sign of reconciliation, according to Virginia Peters.
Deacon Jaime Meskas (left) marching next to two priests.
Tobacco smoke and St. Kateri statue.
Children participating.