For years, a group of women gathered in fluorescent-lit Anchorage church basements to sing hymns in Yup'ik, say the rosary and pray for the Catholic church to canonize its first Native American saint.
On Oct. 21, it happened.
Kateri Tekakwitha, a pious 17th-century Mohawk and Algonquin woman who has long been an emblem for Native American Catholics nationwide, officially became a saint.
In Rome to witness the moment were 56 Alaskans, including some from the Kateri Circle at East Anchorage's St. Anthony Catholic Church.
Francine Bolewicz was one of them. She stood among dozens of other kuspuk-clad Alaskans in a crowd of 80,000 at the Vatican's St. Peter's Square for a ceremony honoring St. Kateri and six other new saints.
It was a moment Bolewicz been hoping for since her mother told her stories of Kateri as a young girl.
"I wanted to jump but there was too many people," said Bolewicz, originally from Upper Kalskag. "It made me feel so good that a Native American became a saint. My mom would be so happy."
Aimee Aloysius, who grew up in Bethel, said the sainthood of Kateri has a special significance to Alaska Natives, who have long felt a sense of ownership and pride in her story.
"She's our saint," Aloysius said over a Kateri Circle meeting lunch of salmon and pizza Thursday. "Someone from our own people."
More than 100 Native American parishes nationwide hold Kateri Circles, according to the Tekakwitha Conference.
Tekakwitha was born in upstate New York in the 1600s to a Mohawk father and Algonquin mother. She was known for her devotion to the church and ascetic lifestyle. Disfigured from a smallpox outbreak that orphaned her as a young child, she died at age 24.
Her path to sainthood took more than 300 years.
In 2011, she passed the final step when the Roman Catholic Church attributed a miracle necessary for canonization to her.
The miracle had roots in the Pacific Northwest, making it all feel even closer for the St. Anthony's Kateri Circle women, said Gemma Gaudio, who also went on the pilgrimage.
According to the Catholic church, a young Bellingham, Wash., Lummi Nation boy named Jake Finkbonner was cured of a devastating flesh-eating bacterial infection in 2006 after his parents prayed to Kateri.
The now 12-year-old Finkbonner and his family attended the canonization and met some of the Alaskans.
"A lot of elderly people wanted to shake his hand and he hugged them instead," said Gaudio.
Alaskans on the pilgrimage included archbishops of both the Anchorage and Fairbanks archdioceses, an 85-year-old priest from Kaltag and dozens of faithful from around the state, including many Alaska Natives. A family from Aniak brought salmon strips, said Sister Frances Vista, who works with the Kateri Circle. Some also took a trip to Tekakwitha's birthplace in upstate New York.
The Alaska pilgrims saved and raised money for the trip to Rome for months, she said. Those who stayed home held a special Mass honoring the occasion.
Now that the trip is over, the group will continue meeting at the Kateri Circle on Thursday mornings. They say a prayer honoring St. Kateri rather than one asking for her canonization.
They hope the sainthood of Kateri might help their own children and grandchildren find themselves reflected in modern Catholicism.
Only 3.5 percent of American Catholics are Native American or Alaska Native, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"I tell my grandchildren we have a saint that's on our side now," said Aloysius. "Pray to her."
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