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Could Rose Prince be a saint?

The body of Rose Prince did not cool for hours following her last breath, according to the nurse at her side when she died of tuberculosis on Aug. 19, 1949.

The body of Rose Prince did not cool for hours following her last breath, according to the nurse at her side when she died of tuberculosis on Aug. 19, 1949.

After doctors did an extraordinary battery of tests to ensure Prince was in fact dead, she was laid to rest during a Catholic funeral befitting her devout faith.

The service was held on what would have been her 34th birthday, and her resting place was a graveyard near the Lejac Residential School, where she spent her childhood as a student then carried straight on living and working there in her adult years.

This grave was not her final resting place, however, and when the time came to move her during a cemetery transfer in 1951, one man's macabre curiosity set off shock waves felt all the way to Rome.

Jack Lacerte was there, the only remaining survivor of the many witnesses to something divine.

Now an elder, and a decorated retiree of the RCMP, he remembers that moment like he just walked in today from the field overlooking Fraser Lake where he, his father Phillip Lacerte, brother Victor Lacerte and a Stoney Creek Reserve friend of Phillip's were digging up 15 or 20 caskets in a small, discontinued Lejac graveyard in a cow pasture and ferrying them by horse and stone-boat to a larger, better maintained cemetery nearby. It was about a week's worth of work.

"I must have been about nine or 10 at the time," said Lacerte. "My dad opened each and every casket. He didn't do anything to the bodies inside, just opened the lid and looked in. To me, there was no need for that, but he opened them all. He had been there a long time, working at Lejac school, working for the Catholic Church, so he knew the story for almost all these graves - who would be bones, who would be less decomposed."

Lacerte said the opening of the wooden box containing Rose Prince startled his dad.

"There was a real hissing sound that came from Rose Prince's casket when dad pried the lid open with the shovel. That didn't happen with the others. It kind of took dad by surprise. Dad knew she had been dead for years, so he was astounded when he looked in. He called us all over to look. I remember the blouse she wore was crispy white, it looked freshly laundered. It was actually kind of scary. Her face, her body, everything looked like she'd just laid down to sleep, like she'd only been in there an hour."

The band of laborours transported the casket up to the new cemetery and called out the people inside the school. Lacerte estimated a group of six or seven priests and about a dozen nuns came outside and stared at the pristine corpse of Rose Prince.

"It was breathtaking," Lacerte said. "Everyone was astounded."

It would have been a puzzling scene for anyone to observe, but for those of the Catholic persuasion, it was profound. Incorruptibility of an unenbalmed dead body is not considered an outright miracle but is considered an act of the supernatural. It is one of the foundational conditions by which someone advances toward sainthood.

The first incorruptible saint was St. Cecilia who died in the year 177 but her non-decayed body was not discovered until more than 1,400 years later. Other famous incorruptible saints include St. Vincent de Paul, St. Albert, St. Francis Xavier, St. Bernadette, and the most recent was St. Maria Goretti who died in 1902.

Should Prince be forwarded through the various steps of beatification, she would become the first aboriginal incorruptible in the world.

A great deal must happen before Prince is added to the list of those canonized by the Pope as a supremely holy servant of God. Some of the other considerations include miracles attributable to the candidate that can be verified and if the candidate was martyred for their faith.

Father Vincent James presides over the Fraser Lake parish where Prince is interred. He said the Roman Catholic Church is never in any hurry to rush a canonization. The research takes its own course through time. For example, he said, the first aboriginal saint in Catholic history, Canadian-Mohawk St. Kateri Tekakwitha, died in 1680 and was not canonized until last year.

"We sent materials to Rome some time back, and a priest came here about six years ago and talked to us and told us we had a gem here but it would take a lot of work to get there. I have seen a lot of progress since then and in that way it is moving ahead," James said.

The most compelling evidence to Rose Prince being a saint was the medical ailments of Fraser Lake mine worker Nick Loza. It was disclosed by Loza and Father Jules Goulet that dirt from Prince's grave was used in a healing touch ceremony on his bad back. He was so wracked with pain from his condition that doctors had given up hope of repair. Yet, after the application of the dirt, the pain subsided and Loza was back doing regular physical labour soon afterwards.

Other healings have been attributed to Prince.

"If someone claims a miracle it has to be examined," said James. But even if official confirmation from the Pope never happens, the Father of Fraser Lake is pleased with what is already happening in the name of Rose Prince. An annual pilgrimage started by Goulet in 1990 with a few hundred people has grown to thousands who now attend each July from all over Canada and even other parts of the world.

"If even one person finds healing, it is worth it," James said. "And for those who come, it helps them in their lives, and that's what it is all about. And everybody's welcome, and many do come, not just Catholics, who just want to come share this time with us. It gets to be a busy place."

Known now as Rose of the Carrier, Prince is a religious icon but also a major figure of peace and reconciliation for the many aboriginal people touched by Lejac, a residential school with a tragic and horrific history. Prince is one of the few positive chapters in the Lejac story.

Although he has long since renounced religion of any kind, Lacerte is also looking forward to attending the pilgrimage again this year.

"I don't feel resentment or hatred. I walk my own path now," he said, following his and his family's own victimization via the Lejac Residential School legacy. "What I would like to see is Rose exhumed again and placed on display, as many [incorruptible saints are] so the people can see for themselves, and feel closer to that amazing thing that I got to see."

The 2013 Rose Prince pilgrimage happens July 5 to 7 at Lejac, a few minutes east of Fraser Lake.