Odanah Stories and Tips

St. Mary's Church: An Indian Treasure

St. Mary's Church Photo, Odanah, Wisconsin


Ask a child to draw a church. The likely result will be a rectangular shaped building with a steeple topped with a cross. The overly simplistic drawing would resemble the many churches Ed and I passed during our 2007 -2009 Grand Tour of the US & Canada. The drawing would probably look something like St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Odanah.

We found St. Mary’s Church by following a directional sign off Wisconsin Hwy. 2 in Odanah. On our first visit, we could only walk around the outside admiring the white church with Wedgewood blue trim. We wondered about the cultural significance of the statue of a young Indian woman encased in a triangular shrine that decorated the lawn. I made a note to attend the Saturday Mass at 4 PM.

At 4:50 PM on Saturday, July 11th, Ed and I approached the Hwy. 2 directional sign returning from a lakeshore drive. "We missed Mass," I reminded myself aloud. "But, let’s head over to St. Mary’s anyway. Maybe the Church door is still unlocked."
We found the door wide open. The soft sound of conversations confirmed that Mass had ended. We could smell the aroma of seasoned food and fried chicken. "Welcome! Welcome! Let us fix you a plate of food." A woman, who introduced herself as the President of the Parish Council, embraced me in a hug and led me by the hand to a buffet on narrow tables set against the back of the last church pew. I allowed her to make a plate for me even though I’d had filled up on pizza only a short time ago. The traditional Indian corn chowder tasted delicious. I saw Ed smacking his lips as he munched on some chicken and talked to the pastor, a Franciscan Friar named Father Paul. The parish potluck celebrated the Feast of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Indian in the outdoor shrine.

Pope Pius XII venerated Kateri in 1943 and Pope John Paul II beatified her in 1980. This Parish and others pray for her canonization. Kateri was born in 1656, the daughter of a Christian Algonquian mother and a non-Christian Mohawk Chief. At age four, she suffered from smallpox, a disease that left her eyesight weakened and her face scarred. As a teenager, she converted to the Catholic Faith. She suffered for her faith because her tribe did not accept her decision to be baptized. She left her village called Ossernemom, near the town of Auriesville, New York to live in a new Christian colony of Indians near Montreal in Canada. Kateri dedicated her life to prayer, penitential practices, and caring for the ill and aged. On April 17, 1680, when Kateri died, two Jesuits and many Indians with her witnessed a miracle. Within 15 minutes of her death, the ugly scars on her face suddenly disappeared. She became known as Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, "Lilly of the Mohawks."

There is a second shrine to Kateri within St. Mary’s Church. Her statue is surrounded by vases of flowers. A candle flickers in a tall red votive glass. On her head is a beaded crown bearing the name "Kateri" and around her neck is a beaded necklace. The women of the parish made beading for the statue. More displays of this craft decorate the altar with intricate detail of flowers, a heart, and even a turtle.

For the Feast another statue of Kateri, sat among some green plants, candles and some special offerings. A table near this display held ivory crosses decorated with a small yellow lily. Father Paul wanted each parishioner to have a cross to remember this day honoring "Lilly of the Mohawks." I also received one as a gift to keep as a memento of this special day. It is the day when I missed Mass but found a symbol of cultural heritage, worship, friendship and love in that little rectangular church with a steeple and a cross on top.


Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip