BANGOR, Maine — For many years, the Most Rev. Donald E. Pelotte was a regular attendee of the national Tekakwitha Conference celebrating Native American spirituality.

The Waterville native who became the first Roman Catholic bishop of Native American heritage was himself half-Abenaki, and half-Franco-American. The Diocese of Gallup, N.M., where he presided for 18 years included members of seven Indian nations — Laguna, Hopi, Zuni, Navaho, Acoma and two tribes of Apaches.

Retired for more than a year, Pelotte died from illness on Jan. 7 at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at 64.

And this year’s Tekakwitha Conference? It’s scheduled for Albuquerque, next door to the diocese where he was ordained a bishop and will be buried later this week.

Pelotte was the principal celebrant for Mass the only time the Tekakwitha Conference was held in Maine, in 1992 at the University of Maine’s Alfond Arena in Orono and on Indian Island in Old Town.

He watched with pride during the opening ceremonies as the Laguna Eagle Dancers from his diocese performed, calling their dance “a prayer of praise.”

In a Bangor Daily News interview that week at the University’s Newman Center, Pelotte praised the efforts and “strong leadership” of Maine’s Indian nations.

The conference itself, which included strong participation from Maine’s Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet nations, was “one of the most profound experiences,” the bishop said.

He also talked about the privilege of taking part in a sweat lodge on Indian Island, calling it “a deeply spiritual experience, getting in touch with your roots. It was profoundly prayerful, genuinely gospel and authentic.”

The youngest bishop in the country when he became Gallup’s coadjutor bishop in 1986, and the first with Native American ancestry, Pelotte believed the Tekakwitha Conference might have played a part in his selection by Pope John Paul II.

The conference had asked the pro-nuncio, the pope’s representative to the United States, “to continue to empower us with a share in the leadership of the church,” Pelotte recalled.

By the time Pelotte attended the 1992 conference in Maine, the pope had appointed a second bishop of Native American ancestry as well, the Most Rev. Charles Chaput of Rapid City, S.D.

One of five sons raised in poverty by his divorced mother in Waterville, Pelotte never imagined he would go to college, much less become a priest and a bishop, and at one time provincial of the Blessed Sacrament priests.

As a bishop in a poor diocese in New Mexico, he saw the same deprivation and problems he’d known in his own family.

“I wasn’t afraid to show my woundedness, to share that,” he said. “I’m not afraid to say to the young people, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’ We can share the success stories. If they see that it can happen, it’s already a step in the right direction.”

“The critical issue is one of self-determination,” the bishop added, “to allow people to build self-confidence and self-esteem.”

Pelotte’s path to the priesthood seemed destined from an early age.

At 12, Donald and twin brother Dana, whom he ordained to the priesthood in 1999, became altar servers. Two years later, Donald left Maine to attend a seminary high school, knowing he wanted to become a priest.

Less than four years after attending the Tekakwitha Conference in Orono, Pelotte came to Maine to celebrate the funeral Mass for Sister Edna Mary Cardozo and Sister Mary Julien Fortin, two Blessed Sacrament sisters who had been murdered in an attack at their Waterville convent days earlier.

The bishop knew both sisters well, especially Sister Cardozo.

“She taught my brother and me to serve Mass,” he said. The nuns had been cloistered in his youth, he pointed out, and most people never saw them. To be an altar server was to be allowed into “the inner sanctum.”

Looking out over the 1,200 people gathered at Notre Dame Church in Waterville for the funeral Mass, Pelotte shared with those assembled how much the Blessed Sacrament nuns had meant to him and his brother.

“We were virtually brought up by these women, from the time we were 10 years old,” he said.

The bishop called the celebration of the Eucharist during the Mass “a time for thanksgiving, but also a sign of brokenness.”

The nuns had sacrificed so much, he said, “now we send them back to God.”

On Thursday, priests and bishops in Gallup, N.M., will do the same for the nation’s first Native American priest.

Roxanne Moore Saucier

Family Ties columnist