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The Lily of the Mohawks takes root in the desert

Gallup, New Mexico is in many respects a fairly ordinary American small city. The smell of southwestern spice wafts off a food truck sitting beside the train station and local cultural center. Stray dogs roam lazily some of the silent streets. Gaudy storefronts advertise to tourists, with famous bits of the region’s culture, Wild West and American Indian motifs prominent. Diners, auto shops, and gas stations dot Old Route 66, which bisects the town. 

Statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha at the entrance of the Sacred Heart Retreat Center. Credit: Joe Slama.


Just outside of town, though, a shrine is blooming in the desert. The St. Kateri Rosary Walk, about a 10-minute drive from the center of Gallup, is to be a testament to the faith of native peoples in a city known as the “Indian Capital of the World.”

Ground was first broken on the shrine in August 2019, and steady progress on construction has continued since, largely in the summertime. 

The hope is “to help create a spiritual centerplace for our native brothers,” said Patrick Mason, a member of the Osage Nation and Supreme Secretary for the Knights of Columbus. From Gallup originally, Mason has been involved with design and fundraising efforts for the shrine. 

The Gallup diocese has the highest Native American population of any U.S. diocese. Its 55,000 square-mile territory, which includes parts of New Mexico and Arizona, encompasses the Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation, the Acoma Pueblo Reservation, the Laguna Pueblo Reservation, the Zuni Reservation, and most of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation. The city itself has a population of around 20,000, of whom almost half are Native American. 

The shrine is a collaborative project of the Knights of Columbus, the Southwest Indian Foundation, and the Diocese of Gallup. It is named for St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized a saint. A convert to the faith, she lived with her uncle after the death of her parents. She refused marriage and was forced to practice the faith in secret.

She lived the last five years of her life at a Jesuit mission, where she was known for her daily Mass attendance until her death at age 24.

A shrine to St. Kateri also exists in Fonday, NY, near Caughnawaga, her village.

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In Gallup, locals told The Pillar that St. Kateri occupies a special place in their lives.

“She’s the one that really would understand why we pray with the cornmeal,” said Ed Riley, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in the Diocese of Gallup.

The use of cornmeal in sacred native ceremonies predates Christianity. It has been incorporated into the practice of many native Catholics within the United States as a sacramental, similar to the use of blessed salts. 

“It’s always the things that we request as native people: that there be peace in the world, there be love and respect for all people, for all plant life, animal life,” Riley said. “This is the thing that we pray for with our cornmeal. We can pray to St. Kateri in that way, and she will understand what we’re talking about.” 

There is “pride in knowing that one of our own was recognized [as a canonized saint], and she’s interceding on our behalf,” added Michelle Ray, a catechist from the Laguna village of Paguate who has served on the tribe’s council. “I’m sure there are many more natives who are walking that path that she walked. They just haven’t been recognized in that way.”

“To me, it’s like an incentive. It can be done. She’s one of us to follow.”

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The shrine is being built on the grounds of the Sacred Heart Retreat Center. Set in the hills 10 minutes outside of town, the desert yawns to the south and the Gallup skyline crops over the hills to the north.

“When she was taken into another tribe, she was forbidden to say her prayers,” said Bill McCarthy, CEO of the Southwest Indian Foundation. “So, she would walk in the woods and she would mark on the trees and pile little rocks to measure her prayers. And that’s how she said the rosary.” 

The outdoor architecture at the Gallup shrine is meant to pay homage both to St. Kateri’s connection to nature and to her piety, particularly her great love for the rosary. 

The design of the shrine resembles a 20-decade rosary carved from the desert. An outdoor chapel will to stand at the head, and a path will flow to the center of the Rosary Walk. From the centerpiece, four pathways will loop through the surrounding terrain, each dotted with five nichos (“niches”) to depict the mysteries of the rosary. Between each nicho will be 10 stones, representing the 10 Hail Marys of each decade. 

“The idea was, we have this beautiful, high desert here,” Bishop James Wall of the Diocese of Gallup told The Pillar. “It’s hard to touch, the beauty of this place. We said, ‘Let’s put a rosary walk here. Let’s do something that she’s associated with: God’s creation, and the rosary.’”

Bishop Wall hopes the center eventually be designated a national shrine. 

“We spend a lot of time in the outside, we’re always outside doing something: either planting, herding sheep, working outside,” said Angela Riley, a Navajo woman who serves as a catechist at Laguna.

“Nature is just part of who we are. And so for St. Kateri to be out there praying her rosary in nature is something that we understand.”

A nicho at the St. Kateri Shrine. Credit: Joe Slama.


The outdoor chapel will stand where a crucifix would normally hang from a handheld rosary. Along this path, there are to be three nichos depicting the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. 

“It’s not just a building, but it’s built into nature, one with the natural, much like Kateri’s rosary was,” said Mason.

The outdoor element is key for the connection to St. Kateri’s native spirituality. “She was able to see, as she walked through nature, as she walked through creation, the hand of the Creator,” Bishop Wall described her way of praying at a July 14 Mass for the Memorial of St. Kateri at Gallup’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. 

Each nicho is built in a traditional native style. This gives them symbolic significance as well as an architectural advantage: not only does this give the shrine a direct aesthetic connection to the populations it honors, it also ensures that the structures will likely survive for hundreds of years. 

Interns construct a nicho for the St. Kateri Shrine. Credit: Joe Slama.

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The construction of a traditional nicho begins with clearing the necessary space and setting a foundation in the ground. Adobe bricks are layered on top of the foundation. Pine beams are set into the brick structure, and a cross is placed on top. The entire nicho is stuccoed with a mixture of straw, sand, and clay, and a lime coat is added on top. Because multiple layers of stucco need to be added, and each take time to cure, the process takes several days. Coordinates for each nicho have been arranged by satellite.

An ovular plaza will form the centerpiece of the Rosary Walk. Rising above it is to be a large adobe wall with a mural depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as the story of her apparition.

“This was (Our Lady of Guadalupe’s) territory before it was actually acquired by the United States,” said McCarthy. “She’s the greatest missionary in the history of the Church,” he added, referencing the conversion en masse of millions of Native American peoples following the 1531 apparitions to St. Juan Diego. 

There are also plans to retrieve a boulder from Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City, the site of the Guadalupe apparitions, and walk it up from Mexico City across the border and to Gallup, to be placed in the middle of the plaza at the shrine. 

“A touchstone to the actual spot, we’re hopeful,” said McCarthy.

Most of the construction on the shrine happens in the summer, when groups of college-aged young men work through the diocese and Southwest Indian Foundation in the Catholic Pueblo Revival Internship. The men follow a daily schedule of prayer, work, and recreation, and receive academic credit and a stipend in exchange for their service to the shrine. 

“Knowing that the building methods are completely traditional and they’ll last for forever” is a highlight of the work, said one intern, Joe Meyers.

The day for the interns begins with a rosary at 6:45 a.m. Their work day is from 7:30 to 3:30, weather permitting, and meals are taken together in the retreat dining hall. The day closes with Night Prayer at 9 p.m., and there’s an option in the evening for daily Mass in town most days. 

The men also take a class on Christian virtue, with credit available through Thomas More College.

The program “is quiet, and contemplative,” said participant James Lafave. “We do Night Prayer every night at 9, and that for me has been probably the highlight of every day, just reflecting on the day, and looking back on things that you’ve been thankful for, and sitting in the silence.”

Living at a retreat center, working and praying and eating together - the life of the men working on the shrine resembles a kind of pseudo-monasticism, reflected Bishop Wall at the July 14 Mass. 

“Sometimes people refer to them as ‘interns.’ I don’t like that. They’re missionaries, because a missionary is somebody who is sent, and they have been sent to us for this particular apostolate, and that is to help build this beautiful shrine,” he said. 

Set on a hill just above the rest of the walk, space has been leveled out for another area of prayer - a memorial to commemorate Native Americans who have died from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While the pandemic’s devastation has been wide-reaching, it has been felt particularly harshly among native communities: Native peoples experienced over twice the death rate of White communities, and had more than 3.5 times the infection rate. Elders occupy an important part of native life, and the elderly have been among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“We’re losing our elders, we’re losing the ones who are going to teach,” lamented Ray, the Laguna catechist.

The memorial is sponsored by the Knights and an organization of pro-life native Catholics, called “Life is Sacred.”

Plans for the memorial emerged while Life Is Sacred volunteers provided pandemic relief to tribes across the country. The memorial in Gallup is part of a larger initiative to create similar spaces across the continent, which will be almost entirely natural in their structure.

“The idea is that each of these memorials would have 20 trees,” said Mason.

“Each of the trees would represent one mystery of the rosary, and that would tie it back to Kateri, but would also tie it back to the Kateri Shrine in the Southwest.” The goal is that multiple Catholic “hubs of native life” would have such memorials. 

“The idea is planting trees that are hardy and evergreen, ideally that would always stand for the life of native peoples that was lost,” Mason said. The memorial is still taking shape, but will likely feature a placard describing its purpose and encouraging prayer for the deceased. The intent is to honor losses not only in the coronavirus pandemic, but all pandemics that have historically decimated native tribes. 

The site of the future COVID-19 Native American Memorial. Credit: Joe Slama.

The St. Kateri Rosary Walk and Shrine is meant for all Catholics, but it holds a special resonance for native Catholics. 

“The shrine for me represents a sign of solidarity within the Church,” Mason said. “You look in the Church itself, there’s been groups that sometimes feel more relegated to the wings, or non-existent. I think a lot of Native Americans feel that way, both in our country and in our faith. A lot of people don’t want to think about the suffering that native people went through, a lot of people don’t want to think of the conditions that natives are living in now.”

“A shrine is something actually recognized by the Church that Bishop Wall is undertaking to create,” Mason continued. “We will have a shrine and a spiritual center for native people, a spiritual home, as it were. So many native people have lost their home... But to have a new location, a new place, a new land, even if it’s far away, the land is for us. It’s made, created, and set aside for us. It all ultimately belongs to God, but to have a place that is set aside for us, and our faith, and our history, I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

“To have it so close to us is really a blessing,” said Angela Riley, the Navajo catechist. “To have such a huge endeavor being taken on her behalf is really a blessing.”

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