Native Village 
Youth and Education News

December  2012

Boy's miracle cure makes Native American saint
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Washington: In 2006, 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner cut his lip. The cut became infected with a deadly flesh-eating bacteria and within days, Jake hovered near death. The priest performed the last rites while Jake's shocked parents agonized about donating the boy's tiny organs.

But a true miracle occurred. Jake was cured in a healing deemed medically inexplicable by the Vatican. It was the miracle needed to propel Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Native American, on to sainthood.

Jake, his family, and the Catholic Church are convinced that prayers offered to God through Kateri's intercession were responsible for his survival.

Last month, Jake attended Kateri's canonization at the Vatican in Rome. Joining him were hundreds of members of his own Lummi tribe and indigenous communities across the U.S. and Canada.

"I believe everybody has a purpose on this earth," Jake's mother Elsa Finkbonner said. "I think this Sunday Jake will define his purpose, and that's to make Kateri a saint."

Catholic saints are models for the faithful, and the saint-making process is a complicated one.  One miracle is needed for beatification, a second for canonization. The Vatican must certify one of these miracle was performed through the intercession of the candidate.






Jake Finkbonner, of Ferndale, Washington, receives the holy communion from Pope Benedict XVI during a canonization ceremony, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012.

Kateri was already an important figure for Lummi tribal members of the Catholic faith. A carved wooden statue sits in the Lummi reservation church where Jake's grandparents worshipped.  And Jake's father, Donny, remembers being told of Kateri's story as a child:

Known as the "Lily of the Mohawks," Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to an Iroquois father and an Algonquin Christian mother in New York. When Kateri was 4, her parents and brother died during a smallpox epidemic. Kateri was infected, but lived. The smallpox left her badly scarred and damaged her eyesight.

Kateri went to live with her uncle, a Mohawk, and was baptized Catholic by Jesuit missionaries. However, other natives  ostracized and persecuted her for her faith. Kateri died in what is now Canada when she was 24.

The Rev. Tim Sauer is a parish priest and the Finkbonner's pastor on the Lummi reservation. Two days after Jake's infection, the boy was airlifted to Seattle Children's Hospital. By the time Sauer arrived, Donny and Elsa Finkbonner were preparing to bury their son.

"At that point, we were desperate, and we were looking for anyone's help that would help our son," Donny said. Doctors said there wasn't much else to do but pray. The Finkbonners accepted the possibility that their oldest child might not survive the week.

"We wanted Jake back with us desperately," he recalled. "But we were willing to give him up to God."

Sauer performed the last rites on Jake four days after the injury. Then he urged the devoutly Catholic Finkbonners and the congregation back on the reservation to pray to Kateri. He thought Jake's and Kateri's Native heritage and scarring diseases were relevant. And while he believed Kateri could help Jake, he also thought Native Americans could use a "boost of faith" if one of their own were held up as a saint.

"There's been a growing sense of a return to Native American spirituality on reservations, which are good things,"  he said,  "but at the same time along with that has been some criticism that native people should let go of Christianity because that was brought by the 'white man' and should go back to their own native culture entirely,"

For two weeks, Jake's doctors were unable to stop the bacteria's spread. He was in a drug-induced coma most of that time and has very few memories.

"Every day it would seem the news would get worse," Donny recalled. "I remember the last day that we met with the whole group of doctors, Elsa didn't even want to hear. She just got behind me and was holding on."

But rather than bad news, the doctors said the infection had stopped. "It was like a volcano that was erupting, and they opened him up and it was gone. It had stopped. It was a pretty amazing day," Donny said.

It took the Finkbonners several years to realize the turning point came the day after a family friend -- a nun named after Kateri -- visited them in the hospital. The nun prayed with them and placed a relic of Kateri Tekakwitha on Jake's leg.

"It took years for us to look at the calendar and recall that this is the day she came, this is the day she put the relic on, this is the day the infection stopped," Elsa said. "As the years of the investigation have gone on, little bits and pieces of puzzle seem to fall into place, and that's where it all makes sense now as to why Jake's story turned out so big."

Jake and his family are very grateful for the doctors who
performed 29 surgeries to help save his life and reconstruct his face. Jake now wants to be a plastic surgeon when he grows up.

"Kateri was placed on this earth, and she has interceded on many people's behalf, she has defined her purpose," Elsa said. "I think Jake has bigger, larger plans in store for him."  

Artwork: Leanin' Tree Christmas Card
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