Story

By Elise Gower

 This is the story of Kateri Native Ministry of Ottawa — a story of life, death, and resurrection. In my account of this journey of transformation, I seek to honour the survivors of the residential school system. I uplift the wisdom and witness of Donna Naughton and Christian Veselovsky who invite us to know not what Kateri Ministry is but rather the essence of how the ministry came to be and continues today.   

Donna Naughton, Executive Director of Kateri Native Ministry of Ottawa, begins by explaining the custom of gifting tobacco to an Indigenous knowledge keeper. This gesture accompanies the request for one to share their knowledge. I discovered just how sacred the sharing of ancestral knowledge is. As Donna speaks, she invokes Indigenous peoples, drawing specifically from her mother Bridget and her brother John Corston, founder of Kateri Native Ministry. These two people were the most influential in her life. 

photo : katerinativeministry.ca

Life  

Kateri Ministry celebrates Indigenous life. Named for their patron saint, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Kateri fosters a community where relationships are cultivated, culture is practiced, and learning is mutual. Their outreach ministries, including an Indigenous Mass, workshops, music, and the Kendaaswin: How We Learn (a land-based healing program) are platforms through which healing and training coincide. Donna recalls the beauty of two worlds merging through her personal exploration of her Indigenous ancestry and Catholic faith. “I practice our culture; I participate in ceremonies. And I go to Mass and practice my Catholic faith. I am blessed with the opportunity to have one big explorative space.”   

Kateri Ministry celebrates Indigenous life. Named for their patron saint, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Kateri fosters a community where relationships are cultivated, culture is practiced, and learning is mutual.

This experience Donna shared with John offered an important integration of her full-being, both her Indigenous and Catholic selves. She reflects on this intentional weaving of culture and heritage, saying, “It gives me a chance to experience Minobimaatisiiwin — the good life. I have the opportunity to do that with Kateri Ministry and it strengthens my faith with a deeper relationship to God.” She connects this to the Jesuit principle of finding “God in all things.” 

The traditional Medicine Wheel can represent the essence of a human being — spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical. Donna references their essential connection. “As an Indigenous Catholic, my spirituality brings me into the fullness of Christ. If you take one part away, I’m no longer whole.” 

Kateri’s vision statement recognizes truth and power in Christian and Indigenous spirituality. This means life and transformation through the fullness of an Indigenous identity. It is a recognition of God in all things.  

Death

Residential schools, established by the Canadian government and administered, in part, by the Catholic Church, were the site of forced assimilation and fatal abuse. They operated under the guise of an education system, with the oppressive purpose of dismantling the Indigenous identity through Euro-Canadian and Christian indoctrination. From the 1880s through 1996, residential schools were destructive to Indigenous wholeness. Donna recounts, “Colonization arrived, and it was like a death where there was loss of language, identity, purpose, and meaning — the things that are most important in the life of the community.” 

photo : Donna Naughton, katerinativeministry.ca

Donna’s mother, a residential school survivor, was taught to fear key aspects of her culture as “evil.” She feared to even look at the drum — the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Consequently, she never passed her knowledge of living off the land to her children. “She was really afraid because she had been assimilated to believe those things were evil. She passed away never realizing how beautiful and sacred [Bush] culture is [that is, living off the land].” 

Donna reveals the depths of intergenerational trauma and racism. “[My mother] always felt less than until she died.”  

She and her siblings have borne this burden in their internalized sense of self and lack of communal coherence. Donna remembers John’s search for identity through harmful things, like alcohol, “that didn’t give him much love.”  

Christian Veselovsky

The Catholic Church carries this history. Christian Veselovsky, young adult employee of Kateri Ministry, emphasizes a communal understanding of his faith. “Indigenous relations, right now, are the biggest issue with the Church in Canada.” In his personal and professional discernment, he determined, “I can’t be in a flawed institution if I’m not doing something about it.”  

 Donna and Christian have a profound relationship, one that embodies healing between the communities they represent and what is possible through authentic allyship and reconciliation. Reminiscing, Donna shares John’s concept of hope, that “all things are possible with love.” Christian notes the spiritual connection he feels to John, a man he never met, whose vision he is invited to participate in. This leads us to resurrection.  

Resurrection  

Donna describes Kateri’s healing and reconciliation ministry with a certainty of resurrection: “We are able to explore our culture, have pride in who we are, understand where we come from and have hope for the future generations.” 

Donna defines hope as “something you anticipate but can’t see.” It is a trust in God’s calling, in “God bringing you to something.” John’s conversion and resurrection brought him to the role of an elder and staff carrier, one of the highest positions in the Indigenous community. His deep love for Christ enacted his desire to help Indigenous people and convey his Catholic spirituality. His healing experience elicited pride in reflecting God’s image through his Indigenous identity. He convened communities, speaking of God’s love and mercy until he took his last breath.  

“We are able to explore our culture, have pride in who we are, understand where we come from and have hope for the future generations.” 

John once asked Donna if she considered working in the ministry. She responded, “No, I don’t think so. You’re so gifted, and I don’t believe I have the same gifts that you do.” Like John, her journey of self-discovery led to a shared sense of pride, recognizing God in her own gifts and Indigenous roots. Donna now furthers John’s mission and vision. She considers her role to empower others in utilizing their gifts to lead the shared work of reconciliation. “We need each other,” she offers. “Reconciliation can’t happen on its own. We have to do this together.” 

photo : Kateri Native Ministry Facebook Page

We are all invited to participate in the resurrection. Donna identifies three ways the Church can share in transformation: Honour the survivors and those who went on to the Creator, respect what they’ve done and their incredible strength, and celebrate what they bring to the Church. She affirms the Church’s apologies and ongoing work toward reconciliation: “But more action is needed. Reconciliation is done through action. Show me that you really understand. All the children who never came home. How it continues to affect our lives. Intergenerational trauma is real and continues. My hope is that our beautiful Catholic institution can come to that realization.” 

Christian’s final reflection holds a palpable urgency: “Indigenous people are one of the Church’s greatest gifts in Canada. It’s important for people to understand that. Reconciliation is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity for the Church to receive the fullness of its mission.” Resurrection. 

Kateri Ministry is not about what they “do.” Kateri is a spirit and way of being in the memory of John Corston, in the truth of the history the Indigenous community carries, and in the hope collectively envisioned.  

Donna identifies three ways the Church can share in transformation: Honour the survivors and those who went on to the Creator, respect what they’ve done and their incredible strength, and celebrate what they bring to the Church.

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Kateri Native Ministry has been working in partnership with the Jesuits for over 20 years. It is now moving toward formalizing the relationship in some kind of covenant and endorsement.

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