Every day Graydon Nicholas’ grandmother said a prayer to St. Kateri, standing in front of the picture of the Flower of the Algonquins that held a prominent place in their household.
“She is a beacon of hope and reconciliation for our Indigenous peoples in the Americas,” said Nicholas, who is a member of the Knights’ board of directors.
“St. Kateri’s story of conversion, faith and endurance has definitely inspired me to try to lead a better life as an Indigenous Catholic.”
But it was more than a photo that inspired Nicholas.
“I was mindful of St. Kateri because she was one of us from the Algonquin family,” he said. “My tribe is part of the Algonquin family of Indigenous peoples in eastern Canada. … The mother of St. Kateri was born near Odanak near Trois-Rivières, Quebec. The original territory of the Maliseet Tribe extended west to near that place. I believe that St. Kateri is a distant relative because Indigenous people intermarried into neighboring tribes.”
Whether or not he can find her on his family tree doesn’t change Nicholas’s love of the young saint, who was born close to Auriesville, N.Y. — now home to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs — and died in 1680 near Montreal. When she was four years old, her family and most of her tribe were struck by the smallpox epidemic. Tekakwitha survived, but was left orphaned and essentially alone, with severe facial scarring and impaired eyesight.
Moving to a neighboring village, Tekakwitha converted to the Catholic Faith, being baptized at the age of 19, taking the baptismal name “Kateri,” the Mohawk variation of Catherine.
As one of only two Indigenous saints from the Americas, Kateri witnesses to the harmony that is possible between Aboriginal heritage and the Catholic faith.
Nicholas and his wife, Elizabeth, were present at Kateri’s canonization in Rome in 2012, attending along Supreme Knight Carl Anderson and past-Deputy Supreme Knight Dennis Savoie. “The best moment of the day was to meet Jake Finkbonner and his family,” shared Nicholas, speaking of the young boy whose survival of a flesh-eating bacteria was credited as a miracle through Kateri’s intercession.
Nicholas has been “asked a number of times to share my faith with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Catholics in my life time.” For that, he uses Kateri’s story, and that of another Indigenous saint, St. Juan Diego, to do so.
It was the story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe that brought Nicholas to the Knights of Columbus. “I was reluctant and resisted to join the Knights because of my positions as an aboriginal politician, lawyer and judge. I only had so much time because I was so busy. However, in January 2006, we saw the missionary Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Fredericton for the first time. In August 2006, my wife had a healing through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe and we have been devoted to her ever since.”
So when he was asked to participate at the First Marian Congress of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Phoenix in 2009, he took it as a sign that Our Lady of Guadalupe wanted him to join. And, by being part of the Knights and working with his brother Knights, he gets the opportunity to continue to share Our Lady’s message of love and evangelization.
“The missions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Kateri and the Knights are similar,” he said, “because each desires us to become followers of Jesus Christ by prayer, service and devotion to the Gospels.”
In 2015, Nicholas, former lieutenant governor of New Brunswick, Canada, was voted to the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors. As a lawyer, judge and government official, Nicholas achieved two historic precedents as the first Aboriginal judicial appointee for New Brunswick and the first Aboriginal person to become lieutenant governor of the province. Today, Nicholas regularly speaks about his Catholicism and his Aboriginal background sharing his personal connection with St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
For questions, or to share your Knights of Columbus stories, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published July 13, 2018. Updated July 2020, for a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. To access Knightline’s archives, click here.
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