August 10, 2012

Akwesasne artist's work heading to Vatican

By RACHAEL OSBORNE, Features Editor

---- — AKWESASNE — An Akwesasne artist’s depiction of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha will soon be on its way to the Vatican.

Jordan Thompson’s representation of Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be considered for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church, was selected in a competition to be her official portrait at the Vatican. Many from the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation will make the journey to Vatican City and Rome on Oct. 21 for the canonization ceremony and a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI.

Thompson said his pen-and-ink drawing will be featured at future conferences and on a new prayer card that is in the works. The first 5,000 cards, he said, are expected to be blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. 

Debbie Thomas, the St. Regis Mission Church liaison, had asked Thompson to submit an entry, and his was chosen by Catholic Church officials during last month’s Kateri Tekakwitha Peace Conference in Albany.


Thompson, who is the first Mohawk artist to portray Tekakwitha, said he felt the symbolism was important. 

“I was really trying to get the symbolism of her native side,” he said, adding that past portraits featured the typical “native look,” showing her with braided hair.

In Thompson’s rendition, Tekakwitha’s hair flows out from under her shawl, which she always wore over her head. 

“She never wore her hair in braids. That’s a very important part of what Debbie Thomas wanted in there,” he said. 

Because Tekakwitha was a member of the Turtle Clan, a turtle is featured in the drawing, along with 24 lilies representing each year of her life. 

“She was known as the Lily of the Mohawks or Lily of the Thorns,” said Thompson, who shares Tekakwitha’s Catholic faith and is also of the Turtle Clan.

The “Three Sisters” of corn, beans and squash are pictured, as one of her tasks was working in the garden, where she would construct a wooden cross tied with a rope. The artist included a rosary since she always had it beside her.


Tekakwitha, born in 1656, lost her immediate family to a smallpox epidemic when she was 4, which left her scarred and partially blind.

“There’s a hint of smallpox on her face. No other portrait has that,” Thompson said. 

“Her eyes are partially white,” he added, to portray her troubled eyesight.

To prepare for the project, Thompson said he read a number of books about Tekakwitha and talked with church elders. The portrait, itself, represents about 40 hours with pen in hand.

Thompson, who has been drawing almost his whole life, said he’s received a lot of congratulations and well-wishes from the St. Regis Mohawk community.

“It’s a great honor, a big honor, especially to my family. It’s the biggest thing I can name that can actually happen to me,” he said, adding that the portrait will be presented as a gift to the pope. 

Thompson’s mother, Connie Thompson of Akwesasne, will be traveling to Italy for the canonization ceremony. One day he would love to visit the Vatican, too. 


Tekakwitha’s journey to sainthood has been a long one, one many Mohawk Roman Catholics have prayed for for many years.  

Two miracles have been attributed to her, one at her funeral on April 17, 1680, when witnesses saw her scars disappear and sick people were suddenly healed; and one in 2006, when flesh-eating disease that was killing a 5-year-old boy healed after the family prayed intensely to her for help for three weeks.

Pope Pius XII declared her venerable in 1943, and she was the first Native American beatified in a dedication made in 1980 by Pope John Paul II.

“She’s a symbol of all Catholic Mohawks,” Thompson said. “She led the way of that religion.”

Email Rachael Osborne: