Illinois church marks miracle of the lilies

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Kampwerth ~ Southern Illinoisan

KASKASKIA, Ill. -- It seemed a little incongruous at first to see modern American women pretending to be French colonists joining an American Indian display of the Christian faith.

However, as John White, chief at Ancient Lifeways Institute, Inc. and a cultural expert on the native history of the area, explained, there is historical continuity in Kaskaskia that reaches through the years.

Though the Kaskaskia native people who stayed when the rest of the tribe went west did intermarry with the French colonists, White said, the somewhat isolated island town kept the French and Indian heritage alive as people tended to marry within their own cultural bounds.

"We've been able to have a continuity here in a way that's meaningful to the people," he said.

And meaningful to the Church of the Immaculate Conception as well. The Catholic church on Kaskaskia Island recently celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, for which the church is named. The feast had double meaning for the parishioners as they held a special service before the Mass commemorating Mary of Kaskaskia and the miracle of the lily.

The story itself is simple. Many years ago, an American Indian woman from an alcohol-ridden and destitute family was late for the processional on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception at the church. She had nothing to offer in the processional.

As she approached the church, she saw a white lily in full bloom -- unheard of at that cold time of year. She heard a woman's voice in her own tongue say, "I love flowers." The woman took the flower with her to the church to present to Mary. As the other parishioners saw her with it, they realized they were witnessing a miracle.

A long shot

After many years, the miracle helped the parishioners save the church after the flood of 1993.

White explained that the church contacted him, hoping he could prove some native significance with the church which might convince the Belleville Diocese to keep it open. It was a long shot, but as White helped the congregation rally around the symbol of the white lily, they were able to convince the various agencies that wanted the church closed to keep it open.

On this year's feast, the congregation was flowing into the aisles for a special ceremony conducted partly in the native Illiniwek tongue. Women from the congregation honored the American Indian woman from long ago by carrying white lilies to lay at the altar of Mary of Kaskaskia -- 150 lilies representing 150 years the church has taught the Immaculate Conception.

White's wife, Ela, led the procession. She is descended from the Kaskaskia people, and arrived at the church in native dress. Currently battling leukemia, she nevertheless was able to play an active role in the ceremony. White, also descended from native Illinois tribes, led the congregation in song and prayer in the language of the Native Americans of the area, complete with an Indian drum.

"When you can hear the language spoken and hear the prayers, people feel it in their hearts if it's their roots," White said. "It's different than if it's an intellectual effort."

He said the ceremony was compiled from many sources, gleaned from historical documents and oral tradition.

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