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 5-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 will be canonized on Sunday along with six other people, the first Native American to receive the honor.
Jake is fully 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 and an avid basketball player and cross-country runner, will be present at the canonization, along with hundreds of members of his own Lummi tribe from northwest Washington state and reservations across the U.S. and Canada who have converged on Rome to honor one of their own. It's a ceremony the Catholic 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 centuries ago.
"I believe everybody has a purpose on this earth," Jake's mother Elsa Finkbonner said this week soon after the family arrived in Rome for the ceremony. "I think this Sunday Jake will define his purpose, and that's to make Kateri a saint."
Jake, a poised, lanky kid who just got his braces off, seems perfectly at ease with his role in the whole thing, gracious and grateful to the doctors who performed 29 surgeries to save his life and reconstruct his face.
"It's a really special thing," Jake told The Associated Press, flanked by his parents on a hotel terrace sofa. "We've never been to Rome, and especially meeting the pope? It'll be an experience of a lifetime."
Besides Kateri, Pope Benedict XVI will declare another American a saint Sunday, Mother Marianne Cope, a 19th century Franciscan nun from Utica, New York — near where Kateri lived two centuries earlier — who cared for lepers exiled to Hawaii's Kalaupapa Peninsula. Another new saint is Pedro Calungsod, a Filipino teenager who was killed in 1672 along with his Jesuit missionary priest by natives resisting their conversion efforts.
'Lily of the Mohawks'
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, 25 miles south of the Canadian border, where Jake's grandparents worshipped and where Donny remembers being told of Kateri's story as a child.
Known as the "Lily of the Mohawks," Kateri was born in 1656 to a pagan Iroquois father and an Algonquin Christian mother in what is today upstate New York. Her parents and only brother died when she was 4 during a smallpox epidemic that left her badly scarred and with impaired eyesight. She went to live with her uncle, a Mohawk, and was baptized Catholic by Jesuit missionaries. But she was ostracized and persecuted by other natives for her faith, and she died in Canada when she was 24.
The Rev. 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 while playing basketball on Saturday, 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.
"At that point, we were desperate, and we were looking for anyone's help that would help our son," Donny said, recalling how doctors had said there wasn't much else for them to do but pray, and that they had come to terms with the possibility that their oldest of three children 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, 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, thinking their shared Native American heritage and scarring diseases were relevant.
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.
"There's been a growing sense of a return to Native American spirituality on reservations, which are good things, 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," he said.
He said Kateri represents a perfect model for indigenous Catholics today, someone who resisted the ostracization of fellow natives and kept the faith.
Prayer was all they had left
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. Jake was in a drug-induced coma for most of that time and says he doesn't remember much, a few memories "here and there, not all of it."
"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 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. "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, who bears the scars of his ordeal, seems all too happy to be the center of attention this weekend. But he seems keen to move on from his celebrity. He has basketball tryouts when he gets back home and his studies — he 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."