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Boy's cure attributed to Blessed Kateri

Pope's decree to lead to canonization


Elsa Finkbonner hugs her son, Jake, who holds a picture of Blessed Kateri, patroness of American Indians, credited with his recovery.

Bellingham (wash.) Herald Enlarge

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Pope Benedict XVI has decreed that a Washington state boy's recovery from the flesh-eating bacteria that nearly killed him in 2006 is a miracle that can be attributed to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha's help, making possible the canonization of the first American Indian saint in the Catholic Church.

Msgr. Paul Lenz, vice postulator for the cause of Blessed Kateri, confirmed on Dec. 19 the link to Jake Finkbonner.

Doctors who treated Jake, as well as a committee of doctors at the Vatican, came to the same conclusion, Monsignor Lenz said.

"They thought every night he was going to die," he said.

As Jake, who is of Lummi descent, lay near death, the Rev. Tim Sauer, a longtime family friend, advised the boy's parents, Elsa and Donny Finkbonner, to pray to Blessed Kateri, 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.

The Vatican decided Jake's recovery was a miracle that is beyond the explanation of medicine and attributable to intercession by Blessed Kateri, who was born in 1656.

Jake's family members, who are devout Catholics, have no question that a miracle occurred.

"In my heart, in all of us, we've always found that Jake's recovery, his healing, and his survival truly was a miracle. As far as Blessed Kateri becoming a saint, it's honorable to be a part of that process," Jake's mother said.

She said Jake, now a sixth grader in Bellingham, was excited by the news and the opportunity to attend a ceremony for the canonization.

"He's excited to meet the Pope. I think that's going to be the icing on the cake for him," she said.

For American Indian Catholics, Blessed Kateri's canonization was a cause for celebration.

"It's been a long time coming for the Indians across the country. A lot of people are happy today. … It's something that we've all been waiting for," said Henry Cagey, a former Lummi tribal chairman who is active at St. Joachim Catholic Church on the Lummi Reservation.

Father Sauer echoed those views. "I'm happy today for the Finkbonners. I'm happy today for Native American Catholics, especially. It's a celebration of faith. God continues to work in our lives and the world today. God continues to work miracles," said Father Sauer, now the pastor at St. Bridget Church in Seattle.

Jake's fight for his life began after 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. Doctors 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.

Jake still bears 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.

He has undergone 29 surgeries, but the 11-year-old is otherwise healthy. "He's very normal. He still likes to play video games like any 11-year-old boy," Ms. Finkbonner said, adding that her son still plays basketball "with passion and drive."

But there's been a change.

"He has a sense of wisdom about him that your typical 11-year-old most likely wouldn't have because he has been robbed of that sense of invincibility," she said.

Blessed Kateri was born to an Algonquin mother and Mohawk father 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, near what is today Montreal, and eyewitnesses claimed that her scars disappeared soon afterward.

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.

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