Pope told of sainthood bid for former residential school student
More than 1,000 aboriginal believers make the annual pilgrimage to Rose Prince's grave in British Columbia
May 1, 2009
OTTAWA -- A bid to have a former Indian residential school student from northern British Columbia declared a saint was raised directly with Pope Benedict this week during a private discussion at the Vatican.
Grand Chief Ed John said he told the pontiff about Rose Prince, a woman who died in 1949 after spending most of her life at Lejac Indian Residential School, first as a student and later as an employee.
When the school was shut down two years after her death, a construction project accidentally unearthed her grave and opened her casket, where witnesses said her body was surprisingly intact.
"Yes, that's a sign," Pope Benedict said this week when told the story, according to Chief John and Canadian Archbishop James Weisgerber, who were both in the Wednesday meeting.
According to Canadian Catholic bishops, a body that does not decay is a miracle and a possible indication of sainthood. Supporters of Ms. Prince's cause point to a reference in the New Testament stating the body of Jesus remained uncorrupted - or did not decay - after his death because it was raised by God to heaven.
"We just wanted for the Pope to understand that there's also another side to Indian residential schools," said Chief John in a telephone interview from Rome. "She had a very deep sense of faith in her religion and God."
There are many aboriginal believers across Western Canada who now make an annual pilgrimage to Ms. Prince's grave in Lejac, B.C., which is also known as Fraser Lake.
The bishop of the Prince George diocese, Gerald Wiesner, says the pilgrimage used to attract about 50 people every summer. Now the numbers exceed 1,000.
They come to scoop up dirt from Ms. Prince's grave, filling sandwich bags and other plastic containers to bring home. The dirt is credited with healing a man with a broken back and eliminating scarring on a badly burned girl.
Bishop Wiesner said his diocese has investigated the claims, interviewed eyewitnesses, and submitted two reports to the Vatican as part of the first stage toward having Ms. Prince declared a saint. The Vatican responded, indicating there was not enough evidence to proceed. The faithful are undeterred and continue to document incidents believed to be miracles associated with the grave.
"To prove a miracle, that's quite a lengthy process," Bishop Wiesner said.
"The cases that have been brought to us, while one wouldn't say 'disbelieve them,' but you might also at the same time have a difficult time to really give them a lot of credence."
The story of Rose Prince does not fit with the predominant view that residential schools were awful, prison-like places. The young orphan so loved school life at Lejac, the story goes, that she didn't want to leave when she graduated. Instead, she worked at various jobs at the school and was known to be very prayerful. She is widely described as kind and rather ordinary. It was after her body was viewed that people began researching her life.
The aboriginals who return to Ms. Prince's grave admit they struggle with the contradictions of Ms. Prince's story and their own negative memories of residential school. Ms. Prince is buried at the site of the former school and many of the pilgrims are former students of Lejac. According to those interviewed by CBC radio during last year's pilgrimage, some remember the school as a place of physical abuse and children screaming.
Bishop Wiesner said he hopes the interest in Ms. Prince will draw attention to what he said are the many aboriginals who had positive experiences at the schools.
"She spent her entire life basically in a residential school and chose to do so freely," he said. "Like a lot of the aboriginal people with whom I speak, at least privately, they would speak very positively of their experience of a residential school.
"Many, many. I think they're reluctant to speak out publicly though because of the repercussions that that would have, but many of the older people will tell you that they're just eternally grateful to what they achieved at the residential school."
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