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Upcoming Tekakwitha Conference to feature healing, renewal

A statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized, is seen at Our Lady of the Island Shrine in Manorville, N.Y., March 25, 2021. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (OSV News) — Honoring Indigenous Catholics’ spirituality and traditions, the Tekakwitha Conference July 19-23 is expected to draw hundreds of attendees from North America and beyond.

“Gathering for Healing Through Living Waters” is the theme of the 84th annual conference being held in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. In Dakota and Ojibwe spirituality, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in Minnesota is considered a place of creation and healing. St. Kateri Tekakwitha — a 17th-century Mohawk-Algonquin woman who was canonized in 2012 and is the conference’s namesake — also lived in a village established along a confluence of rivers in what is present-day New York.

Presentations at this year’s conference will feature healing and renewal, said Shawn Phillips, director and pastoral minister of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Office of Indian Ministry. Originally from Idaho, Phillips grew up on the Nez Perce Reservation before he and his wife moved to Minnesota. He’s been a member of Gichitwaa Kateri for 35 years, and a director of the parish for six.

Phillips, who is co-chair of the upcoming conference, said, “About three years ago, American Indians had a listening session with the bishops and the primary issue that American Indians in the United States wanted dealt with was boarding schools” affiliated with various religious orders, including the Catholic Church. “And so, this became the topic as healing from the boarding school trauma,” he told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper.

The U.S. government set up hundreds of boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, and contracted with Catholic and other Christian groups and organizations to operate many of the schools, which sought to forcefully assimilate Indigenous children into white society.

As federal research on Indigenous boarding schools was released, documenting the physical abuse, forced labor and other traumas students experienced, church leaders issued statements of apology.

Pope Francis made a penitential pilgrimage to Canada in July 2022, formally apologizing for the suffering and trauma many endured in such church-run schools in that country. In Minnesota, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minnespolis formally apologized for “the role that our Church played as part of the U.S. government’s systemic separation of families, often leading to the intergenerational trauma experienced by so many of our sisters and brothers.”

A list of Native American boarding schools affiliated with the Catholic Church — including such schools in Minnesota — was made available in May.

This year’s conference will present opportunities for attendees to “get a clearer picture of what happened, but also give people an opportunity to share their stories and maybe do some of their own personal healing as well,” said Michele Beeksma, a member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a member of St. Lawrence in Duluth.

Phillips said the conference is an opportunity “for everybody” to attend and learn. “Unless we really know the story and heal from that story, we’ll never change. So, we as Catholics also need to be a part of that.”

Beeksma, co-chair of the upcoming conference, said, “It’s the idea of coming and learning and listening.”

Starting in 1939, the conference now known as the Tekakwitha Conference brought Indigenous Catholics together to affirm their cultural and spiritual identities and traditions. It was legally incorporated as a nonprofit in 1979 and currently has its headquarters in Alexandria, Louisiana.

With the intercession of St. Kateri, the conference now promotes healing, advocates for Indigenous communities, and encourages Indigenous Catholics to seek leadership positions within tribes and the Church. The annual gatherings are a time for Indigenous Catholics to express their identities and honor their traditions.

A key event at this year’s conference is a healing and reconciliation service to be held the night of July 20. The service will include the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick. Native healers will also be present.

Throughout the conference, sunrise prayers and recovery circles will be held. Keynote addresses and workshops include the topics of missing and murdered Indigenous women, archivist research on Native boarding schools, causes for sainthood among Indigenous men and women, and Native language hymns, among others. A grand entry and a pow wow will take place.

Three Masses will be celebrated during the conference. Presiders include Archbishop Hebda; Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of New Ulm and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Native American Affairs; and Father Maurice Henry Sands, executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington.

July 22, known within the conference as Cultural Day, will feature a water ceremony, Dakota and Ojibwe cultural speakers, food from Indigenous chefs, and Mass held outside at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Archbishop Hebda will celebrate the Mass.

Among those sharing their experience and knowledge will be Dana Thompson — co-owner and chief operating officer of the company The Sioux Chef and co-owner of the award-winning restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis. She will talk “about Native food, about her journey as a Native woman, and starting a business,” Beeksma said.

“It’s nice to share those success stories,” Beeksma said. “It’s nice to show that there’s a wide range of the Indigenous population.”

Beeksma, who heads up a Kateri Circle — circles include Native Catholics and support the Tekakwitha Conference — said she hopes conference attendees will “learn something about local Native culture” as well as the “unique subsection” of Native Catholic culture.

Phillips encouraged anyone who feels called to attend to register. “I know people are being called because this is great work to be done in the church and God is calling lots of us. … so, check in with God and if he’s calling you, we’d love to see you.”

By Rebecca Omastiak | OSV News


1 thought on “Upcoming Tekakwitha Conference to feature healing, renewal”

  1. Susan Devine Keeney

    How to apply. I am a member of the St Paul Minneapolis ACCW and Past President of my Parish.

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