A Place of Peace: New Shrine Will Honor St. Kateri and Indigenous Catholic Traditions


Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight and head of the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus, on August 6th publicly announced for the first time that a site just south of Gallup, NM will host a new Shrine honoring St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Anderson delivered the announcement at the Knights’ annual convention in Minneapolis as part of his annual report on new initiatives undertaken by the fraternal organization.

But while the announcement brought the shrine to national attention, it was the first public acknowledgement of a dream first voiced nearly ten years earlier. It was around 2009 or 2010, recalls Fr. Matthew Keller – soon after Bishop James S. Wall assumed leadership of the Diocese of Gallup. St. Kateri Tekakwitha – then still under the status of “blessed” – would not be canonized for several more years, but she still held a crucial status as a role model and intercessor for Native American and First Nations Catholics.

“I think it came to me from God – it would be very fitting to have this shrine dedicated to St. Kateri in the Gallup diocese,” Fr. Keller said. Born, raised, and ordained a priest in the Diocese of Gallup, he currently serves as the rector at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

A shrine honoring Saint Kateri already exists in her home state of New York. So why another, 2000 miles away, in the desert Southwest? For the Gallup shrine, the primary intent is to provide a place of peace and prayer for Native American Catholics, whose devotion to St. Kateri has been a lifelong commitment.

All across the Diocese, parishes host Kateri Circles – informal groups of parishioners who strive to support each other and their communities in pursuing virtue and spirituality under the intercession of St. Kateri. A local Catholic non-profit that serves reservation communities, the Southwest Indian Foundation, sponsored many of these Circle members for a trip to Rome in 2012. Along with Bishop Wall and other Indigenous Catholics from the Diocese of Gallup, they were present as Pope Benedict XVI uttered the long-awaited words at the canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square: “Saint Kateri, Protectress of Canada and the first Native American Saint, we entrust to you the renewal of the faith in the First Nations and in all of North America! May God bless the First Nations!”

Victoria Begay heard those words in person. A board member of the Southwest Indian Foundation, she recalls the treasured memory of standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow Indigenous Catholics from the Diocese of Gallup, witnessing the worldwide proclamation that their patron, so long called “Blessed”, was now recognized by the Church as a Saint.

“Some of us had never been out of the States, some of the members had never been out of Arizona or New Mexico,” Begay said. “So it was a real blessing to be able to be part of the group, and bring them in to share something so special, so dear to all of them.”

Back home, a shrine would be an easily reached destination – a local recognition of a Saint and heroine dear to people who have called this land home for countless generations.

But when the Diocese of Gallup formally declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013, plans for the shrine had to be set aside as the diocese turned its attention to allocating resources and funds toward a settlement with survivors of abuse. Plans for the shrine were not abandoned, however, but remained on the back burner for the next several years as “it was something we could revisit after bankruptcy”, Fr. Keller remembers.

Which turned out to be the case when Carl Anderson visited the Diocese of Gallup for the first time over a year after bankruptcy proceedings were concluded. Speaking to a gathering of local knights and their families at Sacred Heart Cathedral in April of 2018, Anderson described his visit to the churches at Laguna and Acoma Pueblos and his first impressions of the centuries-old religious traditions of the state.

“The Catholic heritage of New Mexico, I consider a treasure of our country,” he said. And already he may have been considering how the Knights of Columbus could involve themselves in a project in the Southwest, as he ended his speech with a resolution: “What I hope we can do together is tell the story of the church of New Mexico in a much greater way.”

Connecting the story of Catholics in New Mexico to Catholicism in the Southwest – and especially Indigenous Catholics – was a logical evolution of Anderson’s initial idea.

“The knights had wanted an outreach to Native Americans,” Fr. Keller explained. And his shrine turned out to be the perfect match. The Southwest Indian Foundation came on board, commissioning the architect and builders. And there were other longtime friends and partners to consider – notably, the Black and Indian Mission, an agency founded by the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1874, which has worked closely with the Diocese of Gallup since the diocese’s founding in 1939.

Fr. Henry Sands is the director of the Mission. In his native Ojibway, Ottawa, and Potawatomi tongue, his name means “To walk by the first light of day”. He speaks of the Shrine as another milestone in a long history of both national and local efforts to serve Native American Catholics and to advocate on their behalf with state and federal governments. “Because at that time – and through the present day – there have been a lot of policies and practices of the government that were not just, that did not treat Native people properly, so that was one of the functions of our office.”

All these efforts – the years of waiting, the planning, the initial funding – had finally come together. When Anderson announced the project to the world, it was only a few short days until August 11, 2019: the formal groundbreaking for the Shrine and Rosary walk.

“In the United States, as well as in Canada, there are communities that too often are ignored,” he said in his speech at the Minneapolis convention. “That is why we are launching a new initiative focused on Native Americans in the United States and First Nations people in Canada.” The St. Kateri Shrine would be the first major project under this initiative.

Edwin Riley is an elder of Laguna Pueblo, and a drummer in a family of Pueblo dancers and singers. The Knights of Columbus invited the Rileys to come to the national convention and share their songs – the Eagle Dance, given by the sons, and the Butterfly Dance, given by the daughters. They were present as the new initiative was announced to the world.

“We were so grateful for their hospitality and the for the things they did up in Minneapolis,” Riley recalls. “That was a very happy journey that we’ll bring with us for the rest of our lives.”

Like Begay, the Rileys have esteemed St. Kateri for years. For them, the shrine is a public recognition of the Saint they have come to know so intimately and personally.

When St. Kateri lost her mother, father and brother to the same outbreak of smallpox that would leave her permanently scarred, she was only four years old.  Her next closest relative was an uncle, a Mohawk chief, with whom she was sent to live. She learned about Catholicism from nearby Jesuits and was baptized when she was 19. She subsequently pledged herself to Christ and refused all offers or pressures to marriage. Her conversion made her unpopular with many in her tribe, but no threat would cause her to renounce her faith.

One popular traditional narrative of the Saint’s life holds that she would spend many hours in the forests alone, seeking the peace and stillness in order to pray and grow closer to God. St. Kateri had treasured memories of the stories and prayers her mother – a Catholic – would whisper to her as a young child. Grown and fond of walking alone in forests, St. Kateri would construct her own rosary stations out of the natural landscape – a pile of rocks here, a series of woven branches there.

In a modern Catholic landscape, an open-air site, with a rosary walk and trail that winds its way through the desert landscape and among the twisting piñon and juniper trees – this is a way to pray just as St. Kateri did, hundreds of years ago.

As shepherd of the Gallup Diocese, which contains the largest percentage of Indigenous Catholics in relation to the population, Bishop James Wall has spoken of the legacy of St. Kateri in numerous celebrations of her feast day and Masses at Pueblos and Native Missions.

“When we pray, we pray just as St. Kateri did: we raise our hearts and our minds to God,” he told those gathered at the groundbreaking. “And we see this in the example – the beautiful example – of the Lily of the Mohawks. Her faith in Christ and His Church was everything to her. In happy times, and in not so happy times…life was easy and not so easy for her, but her faith was everything.”

Edwin Riley and his family have been present at many feast day Masses honoring St. Kateri. The traditions he was taught by his grandparents, and that he now passes on to his own children and grandchildren, reflect many of the same virtues exemplified by St. Kateri, despite the geographic and historical divide between the 21st century American Southwest and 18th century New York.

“We have many feast days throughout our reservations – the 19 pueblos each have a feast day, and it is always the day that we pray to our Creator in thanksgiving,” Riley said. “And we invite all the people to our homes, to eat and enjoy the meal that we have, in thanksgiving to the Creator for the many blessings that we receive throughout the year.”

These traditions, often overlooked or misunderstood by outsiders, are nevertheless tightly woven into the history of the Church in the Americas. And for Anderson, the question of what it means to be a Catholic in North American cannot be answered without a recognition of Indigenous peoples: “As we think about the tapestry of Catholicism in North America, an important part of that tapestry belongs to the tribes who have been so faithful for so many years.”

On Sunday, August 11, Bishop Wall, Anderson, Fr. Sands, Fr. Keller, Begay and Riley were present for the formal groundbreaking at the site of the Shrine and Rosary Walk. Following Mass at the Cathedral, they drove just a few minutes to the site located just south of Gallup, on acres of land owned by the diocese, and gathered under a large tent packed with hundreds of people, mostly Native American Catholics, who had traveled from across the diocese to witness and celebrate.

The tent was necessary for shelter on that day with intermittent rainfall, a blessing in the arid New Mexico desert. Along with the occasional patter of raindrops on the tent’s canvas, the smell of grilled meats and frybread wafted through the air. Staff from the Southwest Indian Foundation had already been at the site for hours, preparing a suitably authentic meal for the guests at the groundbreaking.

After the bishop blessed the first load of building materials, and the notable guests gathered in a line for the groundbreaking ritual – golden shovels held at the ready, then plunged in unison into the red earth – everyone gathered back at the tent for a short succession of speeches.

Edwin Riley presented Carl Anderson with a handmade silver bolo tie. It was a gift that that conveyed his family’s appreciation for the work of the Knight of Columbus; for Anderson, it seemed to be an unexpected yet significant gesture. At his seat, listening to the other speeches, Anderson held the tie with a careful touch almost approaching reverence, and then, carefully, slipped it over his head.

The groundbreaking was attended by Catholics from all over the Gallup Diocese.

When his turn came to speak, Anderson kept his remarks short, but filled them with recognition of the legacy of Indigenous Catholics. After all, he noted, it was through an Indigenous Catholic that “the greatest event in the history of evangelization took place”, when Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 and spoke to him in his native Náhuatl language.

“If we look at the history, we see that there is a great reason for reconciliation, and an honest appraisal of what that history really is,” he said. “And so, from the standpoint of the Knights of Columbus, that’s what this great shrine promises. A shrine not only for Native peoples, but for all Catholics in North America. And through that, and through a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and her chosen messenger, The Eagle Who Speaks” – here he referenced Juan Diego’s Náhuatl name – “we have the promise of a true reconciliation, a true incorporation, a true unity. And so that’s why the Knights of Columbus think that this project is so very, very important.”

These thoughts were echoed by Bishop Wall.

“We will rely on the intercession of Our Lady, under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who we know first appeared to an Indigenous person, that being St. Juan Diego. And so this shrine will be a special place for everyone, but especially to the Indigenous people of this land, the Native American peoples of this land,” he told the gathered crowd. “And my prayer for everyone who visits this – especially the Native American peoples – is that you come and walk and pray the rosary walk, and as you leave the rosary walk, that your faith might be strengthened, and your hope might be strengthened in the world to come.”

Victoria Begay also addressed her people, reminding them of the devotion St. Kateri displayed to the elderly, the sick and the young.

“This trail – the Rosary Walk – will give us an opportunity to be near most of our native brothers and sisters who are out there, and we can pray for them and pray for all First Peoples on this nation,” she said. “Thank you – Ahéhee’ – for being here.”


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