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July 10, 2018, Peshawbestown, Michigan – When parishioners of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, gathered on June 30, they had much to celebrate – and many blessings that made up for the extreme heat of the day. The parish was celebrating its 160th anniversary – 160 years since the Venerable Bishop Frederic Baraga, the “Snowshoe Priest,” approved the purchase of the land and building the parish church. This was also the 150th anniversary of Bishop Baraga’s death.

During the celebration, Sister Susan Gardner, OP, Pastoral Administrator of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish, especially remembers the moment when Penny Concannon, a Native American, smudged the people in the entrance procession – including Bishop Steven J. Raica, Bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord, and herself. 

Sister Susan Gardner, OP, Pastoral Administrator at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish, addresses the assembly.

Sister Sue, now in her fifth year of ministry in the parish, treasured the Native American elements to the Mass: drumming by the Spirit Lake Drummers, the smudging of people and the altar, and the prayer to the four directions. But also important to Sister Sue and her parishioners was the strong connection to Bishop Baraga.

A native of Slovenia, Frederic Baraga left his home country in 1830 to serve as missionary in the Great Lakes area of the United States. He ministered to the Native peoples of the area, traveling from one church to another to offer the sacraments, thus earning the affectionate title, “Snowshoe Priest.” In 1853, he was ordained as the first Bishop of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Sister Sue noted Bishop Baraga’s efforts to reach out to the Native people by learning their language. He had written songs in the Native Odawa language and written an Odawa-English dictionary and a catechism in Odawa. In recognition of his language skills, the choir at St. Kateri Tekakwitha sang in its original language one of the three songs that Bishop Baraga had written in Odawa. 

Pope Benedict XVI declared Bishop Baraga Venerable on May 10, 2012. His next step toward canonization is to be beatified, which requires a miracle attributed to him.

As pastoral administrator of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Sister Sue takes on most of the responsibilities of an ordained pastor but relies on Father Emmanuel Tizhe, the Sacramental Minister, to offer the sacraments. 

Father Emmanuel Tizhe, front and Bishop Steven J. Raica

Father Emmanuel Tizhe, front, and Bishop Steven J. Raica bless the assembly.

“At one time this was a totally Native parish,” Sister Sue explained. “Now we have some Native and some non-Native [parishioners].” She added that years ago, several Native parishioners left when they were wrongly told that they had to choose between Catholicism and following Native American spirituality. Many have since returned, she added. “We try to engage Native spirituality as much as we can in hopes that more will come back.”

Sister Sue said the first challenge in her ministry is being patient. “You have to gain the trust of the Native American people – which took a few months – and keep a balance between the two communities,” she said. “The non-Native parishioners love the Native American rituals and are very supportive of the Native community.”

She especially treasures Thursday nights, when anybody is welcome to come for dinner. “A lot of Native Americans come who do not come for Sunday Mass,” Sister Sue explained. “I get to talk to a broader group of Native Americans. I get to hear their stories of growing up here. It’s a whole different atmosphere, getting to know the Native American people and the non-Native.”

The Spirit Lake Drummers enhance the music and the Native American spirituality during the anniversary Mass.

Sister Sue has felt drawn to the Native American peoples since fourth grade when, during a visit to her aunt, she stopped at a drug store in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. She saw a Native American man standing by the drug store, observing everything around him. When she came out of the drug store, he was still there. “I saw a little smile in his eyes,” Sister Sue recalled. Since then, she said, she attended every Native American experience that she could.

Sister Sue had the opportunity to serve the Native American population when she responded to the call of Sister Donna Markham, OP, then Prioress of the Congregation, to minister to the people of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, Manitoba, Canada. She stayed in that ministry for six years and, after she returned to the United States, responded to a call to serve at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish. “God has led me in the right way,” she said. “When one ministry was closing, another opened up.” 

The parish is named after St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), the “Lily of the Mohawks,” who was converted to Christianity by Jesuit missionaries. She chose a life of virginity dedicated to Jesus and spent the last five years of her life in the Jesuit mission south of Montreal. Her baptismal name, Kateri, is in honor of the great Dominican saint, St. Catherine of Siena.


Feature photo at top: Penny Concannon smudges Bishop Steven J. Raica of Gaylord, Michigan, during a special Mass celebrating the 160th Anniversary of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish.




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