Tekakwitha Conference draws attendees to Raleigh

RALEIGH – People from states such as South Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado, New York and Louisiana gathered July 3 – 7 at the Raleigh Marriott City Center for the 85th annual Tekakwitha Conference. Attendees also traveled from Quebec, Canada, organizers said, and programming was offered for both youth and adults.  

“This is the world’s largest gathering of Catholic, Native Americans,” said Jody Roy, of Chicago, who attended her first Tekakwitha conference in 2005. “We represent more than 500 different tribes in the United States. Here, we share how we integrate our traditional culture with Catholic faith.”

Roy is Ojibwe, which, she said, is one of the Great Lakes tribes. As she constructed a bookmark of fresh sweetgrass and black ash during an afternoon conference session, she noted that her favorite part of the five-day conference was praying as a group.

The conference offered attendees sunrise services, a trip to July 4th fireworks at nearby Dix Park and sacraments such as reconciliation. 

It also presented an opportunity to focus on the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, known as Lily of the Mohawks. She was born in 1656 in an area known today as Auriesville, New York. During her short life, she lost her parents and brother to smallpox, converted to Catholicism and died in her 20s of illness. The first North American, Indigenous saint in the Church, she was canonized in 2012.

Keynote speaker Debbie Thomas presented on the life of St. Kateri; Larry Deschiane discussed the Mepkin Truth and Reconciliation Meditation Garden. And Julienne Montour spoke about Boarding School Healing.

Workshops included Native Inculturation of the Roman Liturgy, which was led by Father Mike Carson, assistant director for Native American Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Other workshops focused on grief, parenting, care giving, human trafficking and vocations.

Four bishops and 12 priests and deacons joined attendees in the celebration of Mass July 5. Bishop Chad Zielinski of New Ulm, Minnesota and chairman of the USCCB’s Subcommittee on Native American Affairs was present, as were Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, Bishop Ramon Bejarano of San Diego, California and Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama of the Diocese of Raleigh, the conference’s host city. 

Bishop Luis began his homily by commenting on the 106-degree heat, a record high for July 5 in the city.

He discussed following Jesus with gratitude. The bishop also spoke of the life of St. Kateri.

“You have been motivated to come here because of her … and her internal struggle … to find peace and love,” he said. “Sometimes we see the saint and take for granted why they became a saint. We don’t see the moment the Lord called her. How often are we in the same position?”

Bishop Luis encouraged those gathered to share their time with Jesus, believe in the transformative power of love and to be examples of living faith.

Prayers of the faithful included intentions for those who feel isolated or bullied because of their heritage as well as prayers for harmony and the canonization of the Florida martyrs.

During Mass, three beats of a hand drum marked the moment just before consecration. In addition to the drum, musicians playing a keyboard and Native American flute made of rosewood added to the celebration.

Youth Pheji Hota-Wiya and Bree Black Bear wanted to give something special to the visiting bishops and made replicas of hair pipe necklaces with a St. Kateri medal on them. The necklaces, they said, were similar to what would be made by the Lakota people of South Dakota.