Introduction to St. Kateri Tekakwitha

St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Born into Conflict; Raised into Glory

It was a historic and jubilant day in the history of the Catholic Church when the Lily of the Mohawks, Kateri Tekakwitha, was canonized the first Native American Saint of North America. kateri w lily

Her story springs from the sacrifices made by the Jesuit missionaries, and specifically the North American Martyrs. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” is an adage fleshed out by their witness.

She was born at Ossernenon (Auriesville, NY) in 1656 on the same ground that received the blood of Sts. René Goupil (in 1642), and Isaac Jogues and John de Lalande (in 1646). Although they never met, she was a spiritual child of the Auriesville martyrs. It is likely that adults in the village recalled the saga of their French captives, especially of Father Jogues – his continuing charity toward them during his year-long captivity, his escape, his return in peace, and finally his murder.

Kateri’s mother was a captive as well, an Algonquin convert to the faith who was taken by the Iroquois from her home on the St. Lawrence River. Surely the Jesuits who catechized her spoke of the heroic Father Jogues and his companions.

Kateri’s father was the Mohawk chief of Ossernenon and likely remembered the French captives of the previous decade. Perhaps the sight of this Algonquin convert of the blackrobes jarred memories of the bravery and unshakable faith of the missionaries. Perhaps he recognized the same traits in this Algonquin captive. But there was something about her that inspired him to take her as his wife.

Their union produced a saint.

Painting by  Giovanna Paponetti

Painting by
Giovanna Paponetti

Teiorakwate, meaning Sunshine, was born to them in 1656, and a baby boy came a few years later. But a smallpox epidemic ravaged the village leaving Teiorakwate the only survivor of her family. She was four or five years old when this cruel disease left her with deep grief, severe facial scarring, and partial blindness. She was a shy and quiet child by nature, and these new characteristics caused further isolation. The sun hurt her sensitive eyes so she covered her face with a shawl when outdoors which added to her difficulty in navigating about the village. Thus she was given a new name – Tekakwitha, meaning she who bumps into things. 

Clan ties were strong in the Mohawk culture, and the orphaned Tekakwitha was adopted into the longhouse of her deceased father’s brother who had become the chief. He was fiercely protective of his people and their way of life. Thus he was no friend to the blackrobes and other Christian missionaries. We can be assured that Tekakwitha learned something of the faith from her mother in those early years even though it was discouraged by her father and then by her uncle. But the seed had been planted. Tekakwitha took it with her to the new Mohawk village, Caughnawaga, established a few miles west of her birthplace.

Troubles that would impact Tekakwitha’s life were not over. The French and Canadian tribes had enough of the continuing ambushes along the St. Lawrence River by the Mohawks and other Iroquois tribes. In October of 1666, when Tekakwitha was ten years old, a French regiment tore through the Valley of the Mohawks burning all the villages to the ground. On the brink of a harsh winter, Tekakwitha and her tribesmen watched as their homes and food supply were consumed by flames and dissipated as smoke into the chill autumn air.

Tekakwitha now moved to the third village of her young life. On the north bank of the Mohawk River, the tribe retained the name Caughnawaga. Hundreds of years later, the area would be known as Fonda. Here, Tekakwitha would spend the majority of her brief life.

Excavation stakes at Kateri's village in Caughnawaga (Fonda), NY.

Excavation stakes at Kateri’s village in Caughnawaga (Fonda), NY.

With the devastation of the villages, the Mohawks acquiesced to peace and requested that the blackrobed Jesuit missionaries return. As cultural protocol dictated, guests stayed at the chief’s longhouse, and it was little Tekakwitha who served the Jesuit missionaries their first meal. The encounter would reverberate through the annals of the Church history, for there was a mutual recognition between the humble native child and the cultured European priests. Tekakwitha knew from their manner and words, so unlike the violent French army of recent memory, that they would unlock an unnamed quest she had carried in her heart since first hearing from her mother the name of Jesus Christ.

Her catechesis was a struggle. Her uncle’s distain for Christianity was, in part, because it was depopulating the Mohawk villages as native peoples converted and moved to the Jesuits missions in Canada. So Tekakwitha listened at the eaves of the little church to the ancient liturgies and the intriguing homilies about the Man-God they called Jesus. She listened outside the longhouses where catechumens learned their lessons and prayers.

Father de Lamberville and Tekakwitha

Father de Lamberville and Tekakwitha

Finally, when Father Jacque de Lamberville came upon Tekakwitha in her longhouse resting an injured foot, her formal catechesis began. To the priest’s amazement, she was already advanced in the virtues which, he understood, had been initiated by the Holy Spirit.

Her baptism on Easter Sunday in 1676 was a public statement of conversion away from her native beliefs. Her uncle, seeing her determination, reluctantly agreed that she could pursue this strange path only if she agreed not to leave the village as other converts had done.

At baptism, she was given the name Catherine. Through centuries of oral and written chronicling of her life as well as translations among multiple languages – Latin, French, Mohawk, English – “Catherine” became “Kateri.” The Church recognizes her by both her Christian and Mohawk names – Kateri Tekakwitha.

Tekakwitha is baptized "Catherine"

Tekakwitha is baptized “Catherine”

As Jesus warned his disciples, “As the world has persecuted me, so it will persecute you” (Jn 15:20), Kateri’s new life in Christ brought persecution. In keeping the Lord’s Day holy, she refused to work on Sundays. This was seen as laziness and so she was denied food. Choosing a celibate life, she resisted the marriage traditions of her tribe.   This created scandal and threats of being ostracized with no one to clothe and feed her. Having a contemplative nature and a respect of the dignity of life, she refused to attend festivals, engage in gossip, or witness torture rituals. For this she was scorned as a “weak Algonquin like your mother,” not a strong Mohawk.

She remained steadfast in the practice of her faith, meeting every insult and cruelty with composure and charity. But when her life was threatened, the missionaries arranged for her to flee to the “Praying Village,” a community of native converts on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River across from Montreal. A pursuit by her uncle was unsuccessful, and Kateri trekked with two companions for 200 miles over rivers and wetland in the frost and rain of autumn, 1677. Upon arrival at the village, she handed the missionaries a note from Father de Lamberville that read, “I send you a treasure. Guard it well.”

Kateri had always been a sweet, charitable woman and an industrious worker, and had exemplary talent in artistic craftsmanship. Her baskets and bead work were valuable trade items. No doubt her departure from Cauhnawaga was keenly felt by the tribe and by her uncle’s longhouse. Certainly, Kateri struggled with homesickness for her family, her people, her home in the Mohawk Valley.

Kateri flees to the Praying Village

Kateri flees to the Praying Village. Painting by Giovanna Paponetti

But she joyfully grew in the faith at the Praying Village, particularly through her love of Jesus in the Eucharist. She received her First Holy Communion on Christmas Day, 1677, and her love and devotion poured out into service to others. She cared for the elderly and sick, offered penance and sacrifices, and gave instruction to neophytes. So powerful was her countenance of holiness after receiving Holy Communion, others clamored to sit beside her.

She continued her formation with the missionary priests who frequently reprimanded her for the severity of her mortifications. She could only explain, “I have given my body to Jesus on the cross, and my soul to Him in the Blessed Sacrament.”

When Kateri learned of Catholic nuns who lived together for the love of Jesus in prayer and service to others, she wanted to found an order of native converts. Although the priests deemed the idea to be premature, they did honor her continuing resistance to marriage and her embrace of celibacy by allowing her to take a vow of perpetual virginity on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1679.

Beginning with the small pox, Kateri’s health had always been fragile. The austere life in the open, the constant struggle for survival, and her extreme penances had taken their toll. In the spring of 1680, she developed an abdominal malady and took to her bed. Villagers constantly visited, asking for her parting wisdom and her prayers. All wanted to witness “the death of a saint.” In an unprecedented acknowledgment of sanctity among the people of the New World, the priests brought Viaticum to her in the lowly longhouse, and she died on Wednesday of Holy Week.

Kateri's death on  April 17, 1680. Painting by Giovanna Paponetti

Kateri’s death on
April 17, 1680.
Painting by Giovanna Paponetti

Miracles occurred almost immediately. Many experienced apparitions, including her spiritual director Father Chauchetiére. She was always with the cross, and always in light and joy.

Testimonies of miracles through Kateri’s intercession continued for centuries. Finally, a miracle was documented, and she was canonized on October 22, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. She is buried in the St. Francis Xavier Mission Church in Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims visit St. Kateri’s shrines every year:

Auriesville where she was born:

http://www.martyrshrine.org/

Fonda where she was baptized:

http://katerishrine.com/

Kahnawake where she is buried:

http://kateritekakwitha.net/st-francis-xavier-mission/

The Tekakwitha Conference, the indigenous Catholic non-profit that carries on her cultural and spiritual legacy:

http://2014.tekconf.org/

All have in some way been touched by her story. Perhaps they have been marginalized and persecuted – for their faith, their infirmities, their ethnicity. Perhaps they have been bullied on playgrounds and in classrooms, shunned in the workplace, mocked by their families, or attacked in the political and cultural arenas. All can find strength in the example of this humble Native American who lived a “white martyrdom” for her beloved Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith she so passionately embraced.

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