Dozens of Nova Scotians from the Indian Brook First Nation are travelling to the Vatican this week to witness a ceremony for the first ever First Nations person from North America to ascend to Catholic sainthood.

Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman, is set to be canonized at the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday — 300 years after her death.

Tekakwitha's canonization is being celebrated by the survivors of church-run residential schools — an unusual group given the terrible legacy of residential schools in Canada, where physical and emotional abuse was common.

"It's part of our healing process as a community and we need to heal to go farther in life," Catherine Innis told CBC News.

"My father went to residential school so I know the hardships of many families that had to go through that."

Patricia Pictou, a residential school survivor living in Indian Brook, said she turned to Tekakwitha for strength and guidance in her darkest times. She's one of 37 pilgrims from the reserve who are travelling to the Vatican.

"It's going to be marvelous, I think. I ain't got no idea what it's going to be like because I've never been there," said Pictou.

Dawn Marie Pictou, Patricia Pictou's daughter, is also travelling to the Vatican. She said she scrimped for months to save the $3,000 needed for the trip.


Patricia Pictou, a residential school survivor living in Indian Brook, said she was excited to travel to the Vatican. (CBC)

"It was a struggle for me to get this," said Dawn Marie Pictou. "I fundraised, did a lot just to get here."

Russell Julian, a recovering alcoholic, credits Tekakwitha with helping to fight his demons.

"I have been sober for 23 years, wouldn't have been without praying to God, praying to the saints," he said.

Lily of the Mohawks

Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in Ossernon, now known as Auriesville, NY. She died while serving the Catholic church in Kahnawake, Que., and has for centuries since been a symbol of hope for aboriginals in Canada.

According to reports, she suffered from smallpox at the age of four and was left scarred and partially blind.

Tekakwitha was ostracized for wanting to devote her life to God. She left her village and made her way to the Catholic Mission of St. Francis-Xavier in Sault-Saint-Louis, Que., where she eventually received her First Holy Communion in 1677.

The devout woman made a vow of virginity and decided to remain devoted to Jesus Christ for her entire life. She died at the age of 24 after years of self-flagellation and deteriorating health.

People who witnessed her death nearly 300 years ago said her scars disappeared shortly after her passing and her face was left beautiful and intact. She was then occasionally named "Lily of the Mohawks."

She was declared "venerable" by the Catholic Church in 1943 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980.