Diamond jubilarian has bridged two worlds

By Suzanne Weiss | For The Compass | August 23, 2022

Sr. Kateri grew up in the Salt River Pima Community in New Mexico

Sr. Kateri Cooper is a 75-year jubilarian with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc. Now 97, she lives in St. Rita Health Center. She holds a beadwork of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. (Submitted photo from FSCC | Special To The Compass)

MANITOWOC — Sr. Kateri Cooper is the last living Pima Indian to be a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. This year, she celebrates 75 years as a religious sister.

The Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community of Arizona was officially recognized by the federal government in 1879. Its members are known as the “Salt River People,” after Arizona’s Salt River.

During her long and varied life, Sr. Kateri has bridged two worlds: once acing a job interview conducted in a Native American language; at another time, testifying before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in English.

Sr. Kateri also bridged the secular and religious worlds when she became a religious sister on June 14, 1947, joining the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc.

Her namesake is St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint from North America, who is today revered as a patron of ecology.

Sr. Kateri, 97, currently lives at St. Rita’s Health Care in Manitowoc.

One of seven children of Harry and Molly Cooper, Sr. Kateri was born on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Reservation, adjacent to Scottsdale, Ariz. Her family later moved to the Pima-Maricopa Gila River Reservation in Santan, just south of Phoenix.

A convert to the Catholic faith, her father opened an unused church building on the reservation and convinced a Catholic priest to serve the parish. Both of her parents wanted their children to receive a Catholic education, so Sr. Kateri attended St. John’s Indian School in Komatke, Ariz., which was staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity.

“Both of my parents were very intent on their children receiving a Catholic education,” Sr. Kateri told The Compass. “My parents assured us that the sisters (at the school) loved us as much as they, our parents did. They were correct! We have fond memories of St. John’s. Religious life was unknown to me until I attended St. John’s. The daily sacrifices the Franciscan fathers and sisters made for us were so genuine and filled with wholehearted love. It was this love, dedication and who they were as followers of Christ that struck me.” 

She continued her education at St. Catherine’s High School in Santa Fe, N.M. She was 19 when she came to the community’s motherhouse on June 20, 1945.

“I didn’t know where I was going. Where was Manitowoc? Wisconsin was so different from my beloved home in Arizona. But I was happy and didn’t look back,” she wrote in an email to The Compass.

“The lived faith of (Sr. Kateri’s) parents and the inspiring ministry of the Franciscan sisters and friars touched her life so deeply that she was inspired to become a religious sister,” said Sr. Camilla Wolfgram, a friend and fellow Franciscan. “Leaving her reservation and moving to Wisconsin didn’t seem to be really troubling for her because her desire to be a sister was so strong.”

The Franciscan friars of the Saint Barbara Province founded St. Peter Indian Mission School in 1923 in Bapchule, Ariz. Sr. Kateri later taught there.

Sr. Kateri said she counts among her blessings the fact that she enjoyed every place she was asked to minister while gaining experience teaching.

“Her ministry record included 14 ministries in Arizona at various places,” Sr. Camilla said. “This included being a teacher, graduate student, education coordinator, writer of government proposals and administrative secretary. As you can see, a religious sister of many talents.”

Sr. Kateri’s first year of teaching began in Cowlic, Ariz., “way out in the desert boondocks,” Sr. Kateri recalled in her religious community’s newsletter in 2010. She recalled how she had overheard one kindergartener say to another, in the Papago Indian language, that they should go home and play. Luckily, Papago is similar to her native Pima and she understood what the child said.

In 1957, she was sent to Hawaii to teach for six years. In Honolulu, at Cathedral School, her class consisted of 55 boys — most were children of military personnel stationed in Pearl Harbor. Years later, one of the boys from that class wrote to thank her for the education he received. He had become a captain in the U.S. Navy.

Sr. Kateri earned her undergraduate degree from Holy Family College (later Silver Lake College, now closed) of Manitowoc in 1964. In 1972, while working towards her master’s degree at Arizona State University in Tempe, she was called to serve the Papago tribe (called the Tohono O’odham People) as the tribe education coordinator. Her interview was in the Papago language, which she spoke fluently — albeit with a Pima accent, she said.

Sr. Kateri earned her master of arts degree in 1975, with a focus in education and in Native American education.

In 1979, she learned from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that federal funds were available for the tribe’s educational needs. She spent hours working on proposals and the total request was eventually granted.

One time, Sr. Kateri accompanied tribal and bureau leaders to Washington, D.C., where they appeared before a Senate subcommittee on native people’s education to seek funds for a reservation school. She was unexpectedly asked to speak and did so, detailing their needs. This and other requests were funded, and Sr. Kateri spent many years advancing this work.

The Pima people believe that, ultimately, each person can discover a physical, mental, social and spiritual balance in their lives.

“Sr. Kateri has found that balance by living out the blessings of 75 years as a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity,” Sr. Camilla said. “The fire of her permanent commitment to this vocational call continues as she proceeds on her journey.”

The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity contributed to this story.

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