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Tekakwitha Conference to Convene in Raleigh

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The Native Americans and their supporters who gather at the Raleigh Convention Center from July 1-5 will represent 155 tribes from the United States and several foreign countries, but they will count one central thing in common: their Catholic religion.

Under the patronage of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the 70 th Annual Tekakwitha Conference will open on Wednesday evening with welcomes from Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM, of Denver, the only archbishop of Native American descent and also the Tekakwitha Conference Episcopal Moderator. Organizers expect more than 700 to attend, with registration open through the conference.

Centered on the theme "With Kateri We Spread God’s Word," the conference will focus on the goals of North America’s only Catholic Native American/ Aboriginal organization: To unify Native American Catholics while respecting tribal differences, and to empower them to live in harmony with their Catholic and native spirituality.

“The expectation of people who come to the conference is that they’ll experience spiritual renewal and healing, especially during prayer time,” said Sister Kateri Mitchell, SSA, executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference . “It’s for enrichment as far as gaining a deeper understanding of native tradition and spirituality, and a deeper understanding of the Catholic Church, how native and traditional ways are compatible with each other.”

Founded in 1939, the Tekakwitha Conference represents almost a half-million Native Catholics who are members of more than 300 tribes in the United States and Canada. It works through Kateri Circles (parish-based prayer circles for youth and adults), regional mini-conferences, and by providing educational and support materials to Native Americans and to those who minister to them.

Tekakwitha, as she was named, was born in 1656 to a Catholic Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief. After a smallpox epidemic claimed her parents and young brother and left her badly scarred and vision-impaired, she was adopted by her aunt and uncle at age four.

Influenced by a nearby mission, Tekakwitha sought baptism and on April 5, 1676 was baptized and given the name Kateri. She left her Mohawk village for Sault St. Louis, and on Christmas Day of 1677 she received her first Holy Communion. After a life of chastity devoted to teaching children and caring for the sick and aged, she died on April 17, 1680 at age 24. Her last words were “Iesos konoronkwa”: “Jesus, I love you.”

Immediately after she died, those with her witnessed the disappearance of the smallpox scars on her face, and in 1980 she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Rome.

One of the conference’s missions is to pray for her canonization.

Throughout the conference, workshops and speakers will address the life of Blessed Kateri. Following the Thursday morning parade of participants in traditional native costume, Archbishop Chaput will speak on “A Comparison of the Spiritualities of St. Francis of Assisi and Blessed Kateri.” Other sessions will focus on “Wellness of Body, Mind and Spirit Through Kateri’s Love” and “Walking with Kateri Today.”

There will also be emphasis on integrating Blessed Kateri’s spirituality into personal prayer and parish life, such as establishing or rejuvenating Kateri Circles. Chris Keffer, the conference chair and a descendant of the Onandaga tribe , is the head of the Kateri Circle at St. Mary Church in Garner. “It’s a great opportunity for people to see there are other cultures within the Catholic Church,” she said of the conference.

Each day begins with prayer. “Prayer times are key for us,” said Sister Kateri. “Prayer is what binds us together.” In the mornings and afternoons are workshops: Keffer will present on North Carolina Natives, Father Eduardo Chavez of Mexico City will give an introduction to St. Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe, and others will give accounts of Blessed Kateri’s life and their own experiences with her.

There are also sessions for regional Kateri circles and gatherings for indigenous and religious clergy sharing.

Keynote speakers include Sister Judy Gomila, MSC, of New Orleans, who will speak on the conference’s theme, and Sarah Snake, who will present to both adults and youth on “My Walk with Kateri.” Bishop Burbidge and Archbishop Chaput will offer Mass, and on Thursday evening a healing and reconciliation service will be held.

Concurrently, a youth agenda will offer crafts, talks on native pride, workshops on spirituality and Kateri circles, the life of Blessed Kateri, games and a talent show, and visits to Raleigh sites.

After a Rosary and the transfer of the Kateri traveling statue to the 2010 host committee, the conference will close on Saturday evening with Mass offered by Father Wayne Passe, executive director of Black and Indian Missions of Washington, DC.

“Overall,” said Sister Kateri, “Everyone who comes to the conference has come to reconnect with family – we are all brothers and sisters, and extended family is very important in our tradition. We expect to see a wide span of ages, from infants on up to elders.”

Dana Lorelle