It happened during the Religious Education Congress in 1992. Surrounded by fellow Catholics during the nation’s biggest catechetical gathering, regular Congress-goer Mary Meier was in the back of a packed arena at the Anaheim Convention Center, ready for worship, when she heard an unmistakable sound that unexpectedly transported her back in time … and in direct contact with her roots.
“The drums went off — the call to worship. I just stood there and I cried,” Meier told Angelus News, recalling the Indian drumming that kicked off the first-ever Native American liturgy to be celebrated during the R.E. Congress, which is presented once a year by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
For Meier, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, it was a powerful moment — one that crystalized the realization that “you can’t run away from who you are and your traditions, and I think basically that’s what I was trying to do.”
Born on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, Meier was raised Catholic from birth and grew up with strong ties to her American Indian heritage. Both were integral parts of her family’s life, including their cultural and religious rituals.
“My grandmother [Francise, who was a Gros Ventres Indian], was one of the most spiritual people I’ve known. When we would get up in the morning she would be saying her rosary and we knew not to interrupt her. Afterwards, she would make her fry bread and she would say to us, ‘You need to know where you come from and you need to know your people.’ And she would tell us our stories.”
Those ancestral stories included descriptions of her great-grandmother, who was a revered medicine woman, and her grandmother Francise’s own experience of being sent away to an Indian boarding school in Chemawa, Oregon, when she was just 8 or 9. Meier carried these stories and countless others with her as she boarded a Greyhound bus bound for California — and a new life — at the age of 18 in the late 1960s to rejoin her grandmother, who had relocated to Inglewood.
Although Meier never turned her back on her heritage and never denied her American Indian identity, she didn’t realize how much her soul had been missing until she heard — and felt — those distinctive drumbeats at Congress. During the preceding two-plus decades she had married, raised four children and regularly volunteered at her home parish, St. Lawrence Martyr Church in Redondo Beach.
But hearing the drumming had reawakened a longing for another home.
“When the liturgy was over, I walked down to the booth for the Los Angeles Kateri Circle [named for St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized] and there was a wonderful priest there, Father Paul Ojibway, and I introduced myself,” she said. “He was so welcoming and he said, ‘Come join us.’”
Eva Walters, an 83-year-old mother, grandmother and member of the Quechan Tribe, has extended similar words of welcome to both devout and fallen-away Catholic American Indians from across Southern California for nearly 35 years as a founding member of the City of Angels Kateri Circle in Los Angeles.
“My Catholicism, it’s my whole life,” she mused recently, noting that her faith is not only part of who she is, but also “what I do: evangelization and bringing in people. I don’t know where I would be without doing that. I love it.”
The City of Angels Kateri Circle (which is under the umbrella of the National Tekakwitha Conference) combines Catholicism and Indian customs. The City of Angels group has nearly 200 members — representing 24 different tribes — who reside across the archdiocese and in neighboring dioceses. There are also smaller Kateri Circles — including in Redondo Beach, which is headed by Meier at her parish, and in Burbank — as well as active adult and youth circles across the United States.
Up to 60 City of Angels members attend the circle’s monthly American Indian Mass on the first Sunday of every month at St. Marcellinus Church in the City of Commerce, which has hosted the Mass for more than five years.
“We don’t change the Mass; we just added our traditions and our culture … for Indian people to come in and feel a part of the Mass,” explained Walters. “We process in [wearing native attire or adornments, such as traditional shawls for the women] to the drum. Then we go in front of the altar and have the Prayer of the Four Directions. We pray that and they do the blessing with sage in between.”
Walters, a longtime parishioner at St. Francis of Rome in Azusa, noted that for some Catholic American Indians there is a lingering sense of “hurt” looking back on the historical treatment of their ancestors, including differing and sometimes conflicting accounts regarding early evangelization tactics. But for devout Catholics, like herself, forgiveness is the key to keep moving forward.
“I spoke with Bishop [David G.] O’Connell [during] a celebration for St. Junípero Serra at San Gabriel Mission,” recalled Walters. “He mentioned his concern for the American Indian. There were at least 10 of us who went to the Mass to meet him and we told him, ‘We’re American Indian, but, as good Christians, we’re trying to forgive.’ He gave me a big hug and said, ‘Thank you.’
“And we’re still here — still hanging in there,” she continued. “There’s a lot of new people coming into our group, and they’ll take over. They’ll continue, so I’m happy with that.”
Mary Windes is currently carrying the baton as president of the City of Angels Kateri Circle. She is Métis, and her roots are Canada Algonquin and Cree.
Her husband John, who is Muscogee Creek, previously served as vice president.
The Windes, who have been married nearly 49 years and have seven children and 18 grandchildren, describe the monAmerican Indian Mass at St. Marcellinus as an opportunity to experience a sense of “belonging” and “connection.”
“We found out about it just by chance [five years ago] at a powwow in Costa Mesa,” recounted Mary. “The first time we went, we felt that this was where we belonged, because we felt our Native connection to the people within the church.”
“If you have relocated to California for any reason from a rural area or a reservation, you can find life to be lonely and feel disconnected if your family isn’t here,” added John.
According to the Windes, they regularly share their stories, songs, dances and other cultural customs, such as shawl making, as well as their religious traditions with their grandchildren — just as their own grandparents did for them.
“I love teaching my grandchildren,” said Mary. “Hopefully, through our example, what we share with them will keep [our traditions and history] alive.”
Including their unique ancestry. Mary’s sixth great-grandmother was an Algonquin medicine woman who was a first cousin to St. Kateri’s mother.
Beloved among American Indian Catholics and beyond, St. Kateri Tekaktwitha was an Algonquin-Mohawk woman who lived in the mid-1600s and was ostracized by her tribe for trying to convert her people. She was canonized in Rome in 2012.
For Dan Lopez, a member of the Tigua Tribe, St. Kateri will forever hold a privileged place in his heart. Lopez — who serves as a “prayer man” and burns sage as a form of blessing during American Indian liturgies — credits St. Kateri’s intercession for halting the steady and increasingly worrying decline in his wife Phyllis’ health due to scleroderma, which is characterized by a hardening of the skin throughout the body that can affect the internal organs. In many cases, it proves fatal.
Although Phyllis still struggles with the ill effects of this rare autoimmune disease, her dramatic improvement, Lopez contends, has been nothing short of a miracle.
“To us, as Natives, [St. Kateri] is our strength to the Church; she was the one who has led many of us and kept us from falling off … and opened the door for many of us,” Lopez explained. “[She] keeps our souls strong … connected to God.
“God has always been right there with us, to guide us,” he added. “We believe in the red road, the path. As long as you see that light at the end of the path, he is guiding us to where he is going to lead us, and St. Kateri stands with him.”