Ferndale family heads to Rome for canonization of first American Indian saint

The Sandy Point boy who nearly died when flesh-eating bacteria invaded his face and whose recovery was decreed a miracle attributed to the help of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha will be in Rome when she is canonized as the first American Indian saint in the Catholic Church.

Jake Finkbonner, who is of Lummi tribal descent, and his family - mom Elsa, dad Donny, sisters Miranda and Malia - will meet Pope Benedict XVI and be honored during that trip, which will include receiving Holy Communion from the Pope at the Oct. 21 Mass.

Other family members and parishioners, many from Whatcom County, will travel with them as well as part of a pilgrimage arranged by the Archdiocese in Seattle.

“We’re all pretty excited,” said Elsa Finkbonner. “There’s going to be a lot of people on this journey with us.”

Among them will be Father Scott Connolly, who is pastor for Assumption Catholic Church in Bellingham. The Finkbonners attend the church.

“It is a wonderful moment for the life of the church, but it’s also a great moment for our local community here in Whatcom County,” Connolly said.

“To be actually present when the Holy Father names a person as a saint is a tremendous moment,” he added, “and then to physically know the person who was identified as the miracle is even more special.”

Although Jake was excited about meeting the Pope, he also was experiencing some anxiety.

“I think he’s feeling a little bit of pressure as well. He’s just 12,” Elsa said, adding that the family was reassuring him by saying that six other saints will be canonized that day so the spotlight and the camera will be on the family for just a little while before moving on.

The sainthood of Blessed Kateri, who was born in the 17th century, has ignited excitement among American Indian Catholics, with Elsa saying that they now will have a saint “to call their own.”

“She’s not for one tribe or another. She’s for all Native Americans,” Elsa said.

Henry Cagey, a former Lummi tribal chairman who is active at St. Joachim Catholic Church on the Lummi Reservation, said Kateri’s canonization has significance in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

“It’s all an indigenous sort of celebration. This affects all indigenous families across the continent,” Cagey said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Jake was 5 when he fell and bumped his mouth in the closing moments of a basketball game on Feb. 11, 2006.

Necrotizing fasciitis, or Strep A, invaded his body and bloodstream through that small cut, and the aggressive bacteria raced across his cheeks, eyelids, scalp and chest as doctors worked desperately to stop its spread.

To save him, they surgically removed his damaged flesh each day.

And every day for two weeks, they put the boy, who was then in kindergarten, in a hyperbaric chamber at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle to deliver oxygen to his body to help quell the infection’s progression.

Jake spent nine weeks at Seattle Children’s hospital, where doctors prepared the family several times for what they believed to be the boy’s impending death.

As Jake lay near death, Father Tim Sauer, a longtime family friend, advised his parents to pray to Blessed Kateri, who is the patroness for American Indians, for her intercession.

That is akin to asking Blessed Kateri to pray to God to perform a miracle on Jake’s behalf.

Sauer was at that time pastor of three Catholic churches in Whatcom County: St. Joseph in Ferndale, where he baptized Jake and where the deeply faithful Finkbonners also attend, St. Anne in Blaine and St. Joachim on the Lummi Reservation.

As Jake fought for his life, parishioners were urged to ask Blessed Kateri for her help.

Some months after Jake recovered in 2006, Sauer sent a letter to the Archbishop in Seattle about a possible miraculous occurrence.

After Sauer wrote the letter, investigators from the Catholic Church spent years interviewing people including the priest, Jake’s family, his doctors, and others who testified that they had prayed for her intercession.

Elsa submitted information in 2006 about what happened to her son; the Catholic Church also was given his medical records.

Blessed Kateri had needed one more miracle that could be attributed to her intercession to be declared a saint.

In December, the Vatican announced that Jake’s recovery was a miracle that was beyond the explanation of medicine and one that could be attributed to the intercession on his behalf by Blessed Kateri, who was born in 1656.

To his family, there was no question that a miracle occurred, because, one day and without explanation, the disease’s progression just stopped, Elsa said.

“We’ve always known that Jake’s survival is a miracle, simply because of everything that we witnessed him go through,” she said.

“We do not discredit the doctors by any means,” Elsa added, noting excellent care provided by doctors and nurses.

Jake bears still the scars from that fight for his survival.

They are on his face and neck, across his scalp from ear to ear, and across his chest from shoulder to shoulder.

The seventh-grader at Assumption School is an otherwise healthy boy, who just had the braces removed from his teeth, is looking forward to racing cross-country for the first time this year, and will again play basketball in a league.

And his studies are going well, Elsa said.

“He’s doing exceptionally well in all aspects considering everything he’s been through,” she said. “We’re happy to say he’s a happy 12- year-old boy.”

As for Blessed Kateri, she was born to an Algonquin mother and Mohawk father in 1656 near what is today Auriesville, N.Y. When she was 4, smallpox killed her parents and her brother, scarred her face and damaged her eyesight.

She was baptized into the faith in 1676, a conversion that led to persecution by tribal members, according to reports. In 1679, she took a vow of chastity.

She died April 17, 1680 - at age 24 - near what is today Montreal, Canada, and eyewitnesses claimed that her scars disappeared soon after.

Known as the Lily of the Mohawks, she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, becoming the first American Indian to be so honored.

Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle, said her canonization is important to American Indian Catholics here and back East.

It also is an inspiration for all Catholics.

“Kateri was just an ordinary person,” he explained, “and ordinary people acting on their faith can have extraordinary results.”


The Canonization Mass for Saint Kateri Tekakwitha is scheduled to be shown on CatholicTV.com at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PST Sunday, Oct. 21.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea