Colleen Kelly Spellecy was in fourth grade when she first read a story about the life of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Native American from eastern New York who was renowned for her holiness, chastity and devotion.
Something in the life story of Blessed Kateri (pronounced GAH-teh-lee) sparked a lifelong devotion in Spellecy.
"I just loved her right from the get-go," she said.
When Spellecy adopted a little girl from Korea, she named her after Blessed Kateri. For the child’s baptism, the family journeyed to Fonda, New York, to obtain water from the spring where Blessed Kateri is believed to have been baptized.
Spellecy, a member of St. Mary Parish in Waterloo, prayed and waited for years for the canonization of Blessed Kateri, which finally will take place Oct. 21.
On that day Spellecy and Catholics throughout New York state also can take pride in the canonization of Blessed Marianne Cope, who started hospitals in Syracuse and Utica before moving to Hawaii to minister to people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy).
Both New York women are role models, Pope Benedict XVI recently said.
"Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and Blessed Mother Marianne Cope are striking examples of sanctity and heroic charity, but they also remind us of the historic role played by women in the building up of the church in America," the pope said in an April 21 speech to the Papal Foundation on an annual pilgrimage to Rome.
Making travel plans
Two new parishes in the diocese that have been named for the saints-to-be say they are beginning to make plans to mark the upcoming canonizations.
A small group from Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Irondequoit will travel with a tour company leading pilgrimages from the dioceses of Albany and Syracuse.
"We moved very quickly when it happened, because we figured all the hotel rooms would be booked," said Basilian Father Norm Tanck, pastor of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish, which will be called St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish after the canonization.
Having just received its name April 12, the newly formed Blessed Marianne Cope Parish in Henrietta and Rush has not yet made plans for celebrating Blessed Marianne’s canonization, according to Barbara Swiecki, pastoral administrator. The parish was formed from the merger of Good Shepherd and Guardian Angels in Henrietta and St. Joseph in Rush.
Though a committee charged with creating a list of potential names had submitted three dozen to Bishop Matthew H. Clark, Blessed Marianne’s stood out.
"The committee told me that her name had come up several times just because she is relatively local, and they liked the work she did," Swiecki said
Deacon Tony Mercadel, who has long served the Henrietta churches, said the new name for the Rush-Henrietta parish was an answer to his prayers. He has had a special devotion to Blessed Marianne that started late last summer after he read her biography in a pamphlet he picked up about her at church.
"I started praying that she become canonized," Deacon Mercadel said.
Then in October, while he was on a retreat with other deacons at Stella Maris Retreat and Conference Center in Skaneateles, he saw Blessed Cope’s picture in the window of the retreat house.
"I realized (the center) was run by the order that she was from, so I just kicked it up a notch and started praying more," said Deacon Mercadel, who added that he hopes to visit Blessed Marianne’s shrine in Syracuse soon.
Shrines close by
The Syracuse shrine, like two others in the state, says it hopes to see an upswing in interest from devotees over the next few months.
The Shrine and Museum of Blessed Marianne Cope, which is located at the St. Anthony Convent of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Syracuse, will not host any events on Oct. 21 because the sisters’ leadership team will be in Rome for the canonization. But the shrine’s sponsors are planning a celebratory Mass at 2 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 259 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse.
A celebration of Blessed Marianne’s canonization also is scheduled for November in Utica, where the she was raised after her family emigrated from West Germany. Blessed Marianne, 24, entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse in 1862.
She taught in several schools and was an administrator before helping to establish St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, and to bring a medical school to Syracuse. At St. Joseph’s, she instituted several novel measures — including hand-washing procedures — to improve care.
She was elected Mother General of the Sisters of St. Francis in 1877. In this capacity, she answered a plea for help from the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii.
"She actually answered the call after 50 other congregations said they would not do it," said Sister Rose Raymond Wagner, regional minister for the Sisters of Central New York Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities.
Blessed Marianne and six sisters chosen from the congregation journeyed to Hawaii, where they established the first general hospital on the island of Maui, were given charge of an overcrowded hospital on Oahu and opened a home for the homeless female children of patients with leprosy.
When Hansen’s disease patients were exiled onto Molokai in the 1880s, Blessed Marianne agreed to found a new home for women and girls with leprosy on Molokai and to provide care at the Boys Home established by St. Damien of Molokai. Knowing that she was entering a life of exile, she arrived on Molokai just a few months before St. Damien’s death from Hansen’s disease.
Today the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities still minister on Molokai.
"About 20 some residents are left, and when they are no longer there, we’ll no longer be there," said Sister Wagner.
The first miracle attributed to Blessed Marianne’s intercession, which paved the way for her beatification on May 14, 2005, was the healing of Syracuse teen Kate Mahoney from multiple organ failure. A second miracle attributed to her intercession was the healing at St. Joseph Hospital of Sharon Smith, who had an extreme infection called pancreatitis that was destroying her internal organs.
On Dec. 19, 2011, officials announced that Vatican experts and Pope Benedict XVI had affirmed Smith’s cure as a miracle, clearing the final hurdle for Blessed Marianne to become a saint.
Native American saint
Also on that day, officials announced that the miraculous healing of a boy with necrotizing fasciitis — also known as infection with "flesh-eating bacteria" — had been attributed to the intercession of Blessed Kateri, who was beatified June 22, 1980.
On Oct. 21, the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, will celebrate a special Mass, hopes to broadcast the canonization in Rome, and will host a presentation by an artist who has created an image of Blessed Kateri, according to Elizabeth Lynch, event coordinator and museum manager for the Auriesville shrine. The shrine marks the spot of a 17th century Mohawk village where Jesuit missionaries St. Isaac Jogues, St. Rene Goupil and St. John Lalande were martyred in the 1640s. Blessed Kateri was born at the village in 1656.
The National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in nearby Fonda will have a Mass, activities and a reception on Oct. 21. Both shrines also have planned other events throughout the summer.
In addition to its chapel and gift shop, visitors can walk around the Fonda shrine’s 250 acre grounds, which include the spring in which Blessed Kateri is believed to have been baptized, said Conventual Franciscan Friar Mark Steed, director of the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine.
"There is an archeological dig in the place where they discovered the village they believe she lived in," Friar Steed said.
Blessed Kateri was orphaned at age 4 when her family contracted smallpox, and the disease left her with scars on her face and impaired eyesight. After her village was destroyed, she moved from Auriesville to Fonda at age 10. Despite the ridicule and scorn of other villagers, she resisted getting married and devoted her life to God. Two years after being baptized at Fonda, she fled to Canada to live at a mission, where the she died in 1680 at the age of 24.
A crowd of witnesses recorded her last words as "Jesus — Mary — I love you." Witnesses also reported that her smallpox scars miraculously disappeared at the moment of her death and her face appeared radiant.
"People knew right then that this was a saint," Lynch said.
Blessed Kateri will be the first Native American born in what is now the United States to be canonized. Although Native Americans have always considered Blessed Kateri a holy person, her canonization represents an inclusion of Native Americans among the church’s official litany saints, Friar Steed said.
Her canonization "means an awful lot of recognition," he said.
Colleen Spellecy observed that Blessed Kateri’s persistence in her faith, despite persecution, sets an example for modern Catholics.
"She certainly is a model of modesty and purity for young women in this world today, and she chose a life of chastity," she said. "I think it’s a great witness for people today."
Spellecy’s daughter, Kateri, who is now grown and living in Irondequoit, said she has been spared the suffering her namesake underwent in life.
"Maybe she’s been looking out for me all of these years," she said.