Jake Finkbonner was so close to death after flesh-eating bacteria infected him through a cut on his lip that his parents had last rites performed and were discussing donating the five-year-old’s tiny organs.
Jake’s 2006 cure from the infection was deemed medically inexplicable by the Vatican, the “miracle” needed to propel a 17th-century Native American, Kateri Tekakwitha, on to sainthood. Kateri is to be canonized today along with six other people, the first Native American to receive the honor.
Jake is convinced, as is the church, that the prayers his family and community offered to Kateri, including the placement of a relic of the soon-to-be saint on Jake’s leg, were responsible for his survival.
Jake, now 12, will be present at the canonization, along with hundreds of members of his own Lummi tribe from northwest Washington state and reservations across the US and Canada who have converged on Rome to honor one of their own. It is a ceremony the church hopes will encourage Native Americans to keep to their Christian faith amid continued resentment among some that Catholicism was imposed on them by colonial-era missionaries.
The Catholic Church creates saints to hold up models for the faithful, convinced that their lives — even lived hundreds of years ago — are still relevant to today’s Catholics. The complicated saint-making procedure requires that the Vatican certify a “miracle” was performed through the intercession of the candidate — a medically inexplicable cure that can be directly linked to the prayers offered by the faithful. One miracle is needed for beatification, a second for canonization.
In Jake’s case, Kateri was already an important figure for Catholics in the Lummi tribe, of which his father, Donny, is a member. A carved wooden statue sits in the church on the Lummi reservation near Bellingham, Washington, 40km south of the Canadian border, where Jake’s grandparents worshiped and where Donny remembers being told of Kateri’s story as a child.
The Reverend Tim Sauer was the Finkbonner’s parish priest in Ferndale, Washington — as well as the visiting pastor on the Lummi reservation — when Jake cut his lip playing basketball on Feb. 11, 2006. The necrotizing fasciitis bacteria that entered Jake’s body through the cut immediately began spreading, and by the time Sauer arrived at Seattle Children’s Hospital where Jake was airlifted two days later, Donny and Elsa Finkbonner were preparing to bury their son.
Sauer, who performed the last rites ritual on Jake that Wednesday — four days after he cut his lip — said he immediately urged the Finkbonners and the congregation back on the reservation to pray to Kateri.
He said he did so first and foremost to save Jake, but also because he thought that Native Americans could use a “boost of faith” if one of their own were held up as a saint. Indigenous Catholics, he said, increasingly find themselves ostracized and criticized on their reservations for embracing and retaining the Christian faith spread by imperial colonizers.
He said Kateri represents a perfect model for indigenous Catholics today, someone who resisted the ostracization of fellow natives and kept the faith.
For the devoutly Catholic Finkbonners, prayer was all they had left after Jake’s doctors tried unsuccessfully for two weeks to stop the bacteria’s spread.
“Every day it would seem the news would get worse,” Donny said. “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.”
However, rather than bad news, the doctors said the infection had stopped.
It took the Finkbonners several years to realize that the turning point had come a day after a friend of the family — a nun named after Kateri — had visited them in the hospital, prayed with them and placed a relic of the soon-to-be saint 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.