October 20, 2012 7:29:37 PM
VATICAN CITY -- Jake Finkbonner was so close to death after flesh-eating bacteria infected him through a cut on his lip that his parents had last rites performed and were discussing donating the 5-year-old's tiny organs.
Jake's 2006 cure from the infection was deemed medically inexplicable by the Vatican, the "miracle" needed to propel a 17th century Native American, Kateri Tekakwitha, on to sainthood. Kateri will be canonized on Sunday along with six other people, the first Native American from what is now the U.S. to receive the honor.
Jake is fully convinced, as is the Catholic Church, that the prayers his family and community offered to God through Kateri's intercession, including the placement of a Kateri relic on Jake's leg, were responsible for his survival.
Jake, now 12 and an avid basketball player and cross-country runner, will be present at the canonization, along with hundreds of members of his own Lummi tribe from northwest Washington state and indigenous communities across the U.S. and Canada who have converged on Rome to honor one of their own. It's a ceremony the Catholic Church hopes will encourage Native Americans to keep to their Christian faith amid continued resentment among some that Catholicism was imposed on them by colonial-era missionaries centuries ago.
"I believe everybody has a purpose on this earth," Jake's mother Elsa Finkbonner said this week soon after the family arrived in Rome for the ceremony. "I think this Sunday Jake will define his purpose, and that's to make Kateri a saint."
Jake, a poised, lanky kid who just got his braces off, seems perfectly at ease with his role in the whole thing, gracious and grateful to the doctors who performed 29 surgeries to save his life and reconstruct his face.
"It's a really special thing," Jake told The Associated Press, flanked by his parents on a hotel terrace sofa. "We've never been to Rome, and especially meeting the pope? It'll be an experience of a lifetime."
Besides Kateri, Pope Benedict XVI will declare another American a saint Sunday, Mother Marianne Cope, a 19th century Franciscan nun from Utica, New York -- near where Kateri lived two centuries earlier -- who cared for lepers exiled to Hawaii's Kalaupapa Peninsula. Another new saint is Pedro Calungsod, a Filipino teenager who was killed in 1672 along with his Jesuit missionary priest by natives resisting their conversion efforts.
The Catholic Church creates saints to hold up models for the faithful, convinced that their lives -- even lived hundreds of years ago -- are still relevant to today's Catholics. The complicated saint-making procedure requires that the Vatican certify a "miracle" was performed through the intercession of the candidate -- a medically inexplicable cure that can be directly linked to the prayers offered by the faithful. One miracle is needed for beatification, a second for canonization.
In Jake's case, Kateri was already an important figure for Catholics in the Lummi tribe, of which his father Donny is a member. A carved wooden statue sits in the church on the Lummi reservation near Bellingham, Washington, 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the Canadian border, where Jake's grandparents worshipped and where Donny remembers being told of Kateri's story as a child.
Known as the "Lily of the Mohawks," Kateri was born in 1656 to a pagan Iroquois father and an Algonquin Christian mother in what is today upstate New York. Her parents and only brother died when she was 4 during a smallpox epidemic that left her badly scarred and with impaired eyesight. She went to live with her uncle, a Mohawk, and was baptized Catholic by Jesuit missionaries. But she was ostracized and persecuted by other natives for her faith, and she died in what is now Canada when she was 24.
The Rev. Tim Sauer was the Finkbonner's parish priest in Ferndale, Washington -- as well as the pastor on the Lummi reservation -- when Jake cut his lip while playing basketball on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2006. The necrotizing fasciitis bacteria that entered Jake's body through the cut immediately began spreading, and by the time Sauer arrived at Seattle Children's Hospital where Jake was airlifted two days later, Donny and Elsa Finkbonner were preparing to bury their son.
"At that point, we were desperate, and we were looking for anyone's help that would help our son," Donny said.