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Tekakwitha Conference brings participants a ‘renewal of faith’

Adrian Glass-Moore

Forum News Service

FARGO — Priests were dancing Thursday at the Ramada Plaza Suites conference center as musicians banged loudly on a drum behind them and a large crowd cheered them on.

The priests were taking part in the Nations Grand Entry, a traditional part of the five-day annual Tekakwitha Conference, when indigenous Catholics from across the U.S. and Canada come together to celebrate the legacy of Kateri Tekakwitha, the only indigenous saint who was canonized by the church in 2012.

The conference, attended by more than 750 people, started Wednesday with an opening prayer and kicked into full swing Thursday, with 13 workshops, a liturgy in the afternoon and the Nations Grand Entrance in the evening.

John Abraham and 15 others drove more than 1,000 miles from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to join the conference. With graying hair and a cross around his neck, Abraham said attending the conference was a tradition started by his mother, and he enjoyed returning frequently for “a renewal of faith.”

He brought along an intricate sign made from deer hide with his tribe’s name on it, and decorated with bright colored beads. He planned to show off during the Nations Grand Entry.

The original mission of the conference, which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, was to work toward the canonization of Tekakwitha, a Mohawk who joined a Jesuit mission in the late 1600s. After Pope Benedict XVI declared her a saint in 2012, the conference started rethinking its mission.

“Now they’re trying to decide what’s the focus,” said Kathy Loney, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Fargo, which was involved in planning this year’s event.

Sister Kateri Mitchell, executive director of the conference, who was named after Tekakwitha and is also Mohawk, said the conference is about “evangelization among Native American Catholics.”

“It’s taken on a whole new impetus,” Mitchell said, adding having Tekakwitha as a saint has been a boon to indigenous Christians.

“Now we feel we have a greater presence and recognition within the church,” she said.

More than 130 indigenous nations are usually represented at the annual conference, Mitchell said.

Loney said bringing together indigenous people is an important part of the conference.

“It started to group our Native Americans together,” she said. “That’s pretty awesome, considering they used to battle each other.”

The Rev. John Cavanaugh, a priest in Reynolds and Thompson, directed the conference’s operations in Fargo.

Cavanaugh, the only indigenous priest in the Fargo diocese, said the main mission of the event is changing.

“Now they are emphasizing more evangelization,” he said, echoing Mitchell.

On Thursday afternoon, a liturgy was led by Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput, the country’s only indigenous archbishop.

He began his sermon by commenting on the “hatred” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting Christianity could provide answers to their problems because it is the “only religion” that emphasizes forgiveness.

The Tekakwitha conference ends Sunday.

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