By JESSICA ABLE
Record Staff Writer
For 20 years Marlene Ryan, a parishioner of St. Agnes Church, has felt a special bond to recently-canonized St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The special connection began in the early 1990s when Ryan read two books — Saint Among Savages, by Jesuit Father Francis Talbot, and The Ghost in the Mohawk Valley, by Jesuit Father William Breault.
Both books discuss the lives of several Jesuit priests in the 17th century who served as missionaries to the Native American people in North America. The priests were eventually martyred.
Through these books Ryan came to know Kateri Tekakwitha. She was the daughter of a Mohawk father and an Algonquin Christian mother. With one foot in the Native American world and the other in the Christian world, Kateri was often ridiculed for her beliefs, Ryan noted. She died in 1680 at the age of 24.
St. Kateri was one of seven saints canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 21. Kateri is the first member of a North American tribe to be declared a saint.
Inspired by St. Kateri’s “tenacity and steadfastness,” Ryan often prays to the saint for her intercession.
“When I think of how old she was and her ability to stand firm in her faith under trying circumstances, I think about that today with the barrage we are under concerning religious liberty,” she said. “She
was so faithful to her calling and she suffered very much. To me she is an icon of what Christians should be.”
Ryan spoke during an interview follow-ing the All Saints’ Day Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption.
While the official canonization ceremony was held in Rome, Ryan and her husband, Jim, attended a Mass of thanksgiving in Kateri’s honor at the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y. The shrine honors Jesuit missionaries who were martyred at the Mohawk Indian village in the 1640s. Kateri is believed to have been born near the site of the shrine decades later.
From the moment she heard the pope’s announcement of Kateri’s canonization, Ryan knew she had to be in Auriesville for it.
“I didn’t consider going to Rome because I wanted to be on the grounds that she made sacred by her presence,” Ryan said. “I just wanted to be where she walked.”
Upwards of 6,000 people attended Mass at the coliseum-like shrine in Auriesville, Ryan said.
Though she has been to the North American martyrs shrine numerous times in the past, Ryan said this time was different, somehow more special.
“It was very solemn, it just felt like such a holy place. There was no rowdiness; everyone was so respectful,” Ryan said. “I just loved it. It had such a peaceful, holy atmosphere.”
Ryan said she believes St. Kateri’s witness and dedication to her faith are still applicable for Catholics today.
“She is a model for all time. Any person from any place, any century, any sex, any minority can look to her and how she handled her situation,” she said. “I wish more Catholics would look to her and read the story of her life and what she endured. Her witness to the truth and her witness to Jesus will be as true in 100 years as it is today, as it was then.”
Ryan, who is a secular Carmelite, has been a member of St. Agnes parish for 25 years. She is an active advocate for animals and organizes a blessing for animals at churches in the Archdiocese of Louisville.