October 20, 2012

Sharing his gift from God


---- — AKWESASNE — Jackie Tarbell wanted to give something to the St. Regis Mohawk community and found a way, using his talent as a painter.

He chose bold colors and fine details to bring attention and visual life to a new 800-pound statue of Mohawk maiden Kateri Tekakwitha, the first aboriginal Indian to be declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.


Pope Benedict XVI will conduct the canonization ceremony Sunday at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, and witnessing the historic event will be a delegation of more than 500 from both the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation at Akwesasne and the Kahnawà:ke Reservation near Montreal.

Kateri Tekakwitha (pronounced Gah-Dah-LEE Degh-Agh-WEEdtha) and known as “the Lily of the Mohawks,” was born in 1656 to a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin woman and has two miracles attributed to her.

She died 1680 at age 24, living her short life in tribute to the Mohawk culture and to her faith as a Catholic.

She is among seven people to be elevated to sainthood today.


The newly painted statue stands in front of the Kateri Tekakwitha Center on Route 37 in Akwesasne, where Vicky Phillips is the religious-education coordinator.

She stood in the grassy lawn with the center’s secretary, Delia Terrance, on Thursday, watching Tarbell and admiring his work.

“It’s just amazing to me that someone would volunteer to do this,” Phillips said.

When the statue donated by the Kateri Circle arrived, it was plain white, and the center staff were unsure how they were going to afford to have it painted.

“Jackie came forward and said, ‘I’ll do it’,” and that was it,” Phillips said. “It is such a gift.”


Tarbell said he began painting when he was 11 and had early success when he created the signs that were hung to advertise and promote the original Bear’s Den Trading Post.

But painting was not his career. He was an ironworker, one of the “skywalkers” who specialize in building the steel framework for tall buildings across the Northeast. He was retired from the Massena General Motors plant.

But his love of painting was always there.

Phillips said Tarbell selected the color pallet for the statue, choosing a bright blue for Kateri’s shawl.

“We had chosen something darker, but he said using a brighter one would make it stand out more,” she said.

The old statue, which this one replaced, has more muted colors and couldn’t be seen very well by passing drivers.

But neither Tarbell nor Phillips think that will be an issue now.

The Rev. Jerome Pastores of the St. Regis Mission Church, who is in Rome for the canonization, had wanted to wait until everyone returned before having the statue painted.

“But we said no. We want it done before she becomes a saint,” Phillips said.


Terrance said that once the delegation has returned, Pastores will hold a traditional gathering to bless the new statue in its new home.

Tarbell was glad to help with the Kateri statue, even though he says he does not attend Catholic Church.

“God gave me this gift for free, so I give it back for free,” he said.

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