Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, known as the "Lily of the Mohawks", was a 17th century woman of Mohawk and Algonquin ancestry who was the first Native American recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. A smallpox outbreak orphaned her at a young age and left her scarred and in weak health until she died at the age of 24.. Nevertheless in her short time on earth she became known for her great devotion to Christ and her acts of asceticism, despite many challenges.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is Prof Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (Kateri is a variant of the name Catherine). She was a 17th century Native American saint, of Mohawk and Algonquin ancestry, born in what is now the State of New York. She is known for her piety and asceiticism.
Let us read a biography, from the website of the Saint Kateri conservation center, a Roman Catholic american trust involved in issues of conservation and ecology:
Kateri Tekakwitha is popularly known as the patroness saint of Native Americans, First Nations Peoples, integral ecology, and traditional ecological knowledge.
Saint Kateri was born in 1656 and lived much of her life around the site of the present-day Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York.
Saint Kateri and the Indigenous Peoples had, and have, an extensive knowledge of the natural world, acquired over thousands of years of direct contact with nature. Saint Kateri is an eyewitness of the land before it would be drastically altered and damaged.
Kateri’s baptismal name is “Catherine,” which in the Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”) language is “Kateri.” Kateri’s Haudenosaunee name, “Tekakwitha,” can be translated as “One who places things in order” or “To put all into place.” Other translations include, “she pushes with her hands” and “one who walks groping for her way” (because of her faulty eyesight).
Kateri was born in 1656 at the Kanienkehaka (“Mohawk”) village of Ossernenon, which is near the present-day Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York.
Kateri’s father was a Kanienkehaka chief and her mother was an Algonquin Catholic. At the age of four, smallpox attacked Kateri’s village, taking the lives of her parents and baby brother, and leaving Kateri an orphan. Although forever weakened, scarred, and partially blind, Kateri survived. Kateri was adopted by her two aunts and her uncle, also a Kanienkehaka chief.
The brightness of the sun bothered Kateri’s eyes. She would often cover her head with a blanket, and would feel her way around as she walked.
After the smallpox outbreak subsided, Kateri and her people abandoned their village and built a new settlement called Caughnawaga, some five miles away, on the north bank of the Mohawk River, in the area of the present-day Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York.
In many ways, Kateri’s life was the same as other young Indigenous girls. It entailed days filled with chores, spending happy times with other girls, and planning for her future. Kateri grew into a young woman with a gentle, loving personality. She helped her aunts work in the fields where they tended to the corn, beans, and squash, and took care of the traditional longhouse in which they lived. She went to the neighboring forest to pick the roots needed to prepare medicines and dye. She collected firewood in the forest and water from a stream. Despite her poor vision, Kateri became very skilled at beadwork.
The Indigenous worldview then and now involves relationships built on reciprocity, respect, gratitude, and responsibility that extends to the natural world. It is a worldview of giving thanks daily for life and the world around us.
Kateri and the Haudenosaunee people had a deep connection with the fields, forests, rivers, and wildlife of their homeland. In Kateri’s time, and for thousands of years before then, the Haudenosaunee people carefully managed the natural world for food, shelter, and clothing. With the use of controlled fire, they managed the land for the benefit of people and all of nature, for which there was no separation. They hunted, fished, farmed, gathered, harvested, and traded for their material and spiritual needs, keenly aware of the rhythms of nature inscribed by our Creator.
Kateri may have had fond memories of her prayerful Catholic mother and the stories of faith that her mother shared with her in early childhood. These would have remained indelibly impressed upon her mind and heart and were to give shape and direction to her life’s destiny.
Kateri often went to the woods alone to speak to God and to listen to him in her heart and in the voice of nature.
When Kateri was eighteen years old, Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary, came to Caughnawaga and established a chapel. Kateri was fascinated by the stories she heard about Jesus Christ. She wanted to learn more about him and to become a Christian. Father de Lamberville asked her uncle to allow Kateri to attend religious instructions. The following Easter of 1676, twenty-year-old Kateri was baptized. Today, Saint Kateri’s Spring, located at the Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, NY, still flows with the sacred water used to baptize Kateri.
Not everyone in Kateri’s village accepted her choice to fully embrace Jesus, which for her meant refusing the marriage that had been planned for her. Kateri became a village outcast. Some members of her family refused her food on Sundays because she would not work. She suffered bullying, as some children would taunt her and throw stones. She was threatened by some with torture or death if she did not renounce her religion. Because of increasing hostility from some of her people, and because she wanted to be free to devote her life completely to Jesus, in July of 1677, Kateri left her village and traveled more than 200 miles through woods and rivers to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis, near Montreal. Kateri’s journey through the wilderness took more than two months. At the mission, Kateri lived with other Indigenous Catholics.
Because of her virtue, determination, and faith, Kateri was allowed to receive her First Holy Communion on Christmas Day in 1677. Although unable to read and write, Kateri led a life of prayer and penitential practices. She taught the young and helped those in the village who were poor or sick. People referred to her as the “Holy Woman.” Kateri spoke words of kindness to everyone she encountered.
Kateri’s motto became, “Who can tell me what is most pleasing to God that I may do it?” Kateri spent much of her time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, kneeling in the cold chapel for hours. When the winter hunting season took Kateri and many of the villagers away from the village, she made her own little chapel in the woods by making a wooden cross and spending time there in prayer, kneeling in the snow. Kateri loved the Rosary and carried it with her always.
Often people would ask, “Kateri, tell us a story.” Kateri remembered everything she was told about the life of Jesus and his followers. People would listen for a long time. They enjoyed being with her because they felt the presence of God. One time a priest asked the people why they gathered around Kateri in church. They responded that they felt close to God when Kateri prayed. They said that her face changed when she was praying; it became full of beauty and peace, as if she were looking at God’s face.
On March 25, 1679, Kateri made a vow of perpetual virginity, meaning that she would remain unmarried and totally devoted to Jesus. Kateri hoped to start a convent for Native American sisters in Sault St. Louis, something she was not allowed to do.
Father Peter Cholenic said that Kateri was so filled with the spirit of God, and tasted such sweetness in its possession, that her entire exterior gave testimony of it; her eyes, her gestures, her words were filled with divine love. If one were with her, it did not take long to be touched by it, and to be warmed with this heavenly fire.
The love of Kateri for God was the source of her great love for the Holy Eucharist and Our Savior on the Cross. From the time she had any knowledge of this great Sacrament, she remained devoted to it and delighted in it until her death. Kateri would spend hours or even entire days in Eucharistic Adoration in the church, even during the coldest weather in Canada. In order to always keep the image of the Cross in mind, Kateri wore around her neck a small crucifix, frequently kissing it with feelings of gratitude.
Kateri’s health, which was never good, was deteriorating rapidly, likely due to her childhood illness and the penances she inflicted on herself. Father Cholonec encouraged Kateri to take better care of herself, but she continued with her “acts of love.”
Kateri died on April 17, 1680, at the age of 24. Her last words were, “Jesus, I love You.” Like the flower she was named for, the lily, Kateri’s life was short and beautiful. Moments after dying, her scarred face miraculously cleared and was made beautiful by God. This miracle was witnessed by two Jesuit priests and all the others able to fit into the room.
Kateri’s pious existence did not end with her physical death. Three people had visions of her in the week following her death. A chapel was built near her grave, and soon pilgrims began to visit, coming to thank God for this Holy Woman. There are many accounts of miracles attributed to Kateri’s intercession, which continues to the present day.
Kateri is known as the “Lily of the Mohawks” and the “Beautiful Flower Among True Men.” She is recognized for her heroic faith, virtue, and love of God and people, in the face of adversity, bullying, and rejection, as well as her close connection with the natural world around her.
Indigenous Catholics and others worked for many years to have Kateri canonized by the Catholic Church. The Church declared Kateri venerable in 1943. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 21, 2012, thus becoming the first female Native American and First Nations saint.
Saint Kateri recognized the inherent dignity of all people, and thus offers a bridge of peace between European and other immigrants and the Indigenous Peoples; between people and all of creation, and between people and God.
Saint Kateri’s feast day is celebrated on July 14th in the United States and on April 17th in Canada.
Pope John Paul II designated Kateri as a patroness for World Youth Day in 2002.
Saint Kateri’s tomb is located at the St. Francis Xavier Mission in the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, near Montreal, Quebec. Kateri is honored at the Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York, and at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, located near her birthplace, in Auriesville, New York.
Saint Kateri never had the opportunity to become a nun, or join a religious order, but she nevertheless was well-known, and celebrated for her strict ascetic practices. Let us read an excerpt from an article by Rev. Terrance Klein, published in America Magazine, a publication run by the Jesuits. The article is titled: What can Catholics learn from the foreign yet familiar life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha?
The two Jesuit fathers who knew her best, Claude Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec, never really knew her. Though they struggled with Indian dialects, most of their catechesis was accomplished with gestures, pictures, and sacred objects. They certainly didn’t know, as it was happening, of Catherine’s predilection for forms of asceticism that strike us as extreme, even abhorrent. It was something she, and other young women of the settlement, kept hidden from them.
Kateri fasted from all food two days of week. She exposed her body to freezing temperatures, to fire and to repeated, bloody lashings. In declaring her a saint, what would the Church have us learn from her? What was in her mind? Her life was dark and full of suffering. Why chose to suffer more?
In his scholarly biography, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekekwitha and the Jesuits (2005), Allan Greer offers several explanations. Woodland Indians in Kateri’s time were often taken captive by rival tribes and then exposed to terrible tortures. Some Indians therefore regularly exposed themselves to pain as remote preparation for such an eventuality. Feminist scholars have suggested that asceticism, especially virginity, is a way for a woman to claim control of her own body and destiny, and Greer speculates that those who are weakest in society sometimes choose suffering as a way of exercising control over their fate. “Voluntarily inflicting pain on oneself is then part of the process of transvaluation by which suffering ceases to be pointless and random and becomes deeply meaningful to the sufferer” (121).
The Jesuits recorded some of Kateri’s last words, spoken to the women who nursed her. “Take courage, despise the words of those who have no faith.” “Be assured that you are pleasing in the sight of God and that I shall help you when I am with him.” “Never give up mortification.” How are we to understand her any better than we understand these troubling, perplexing words of Isaiah?
The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity. If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days;?through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear. (53:10-11).
As Kateri prayed alone in the forest, why did her mysterious Beloved urge her to such extremes? But didn’t Kateri do what her own Lord had done? To mortify is to draw death (Latin: mors, mortis) into the self. Like her Christ, Kateri took the apparently senseless suffering and death that is the lot of any human being and gave it meaning. In mortification, she embraced death and made of it the gift of her own self. If death is the end, mortification makes little sense. If death is a passage, asceticism clears a path.
Death is the “undiscovered country.” Nothing is more foreign to us. And yet in the life of this virgin, in her intense love, the familiar flowed into the foreign. Death in life became a path to love.
Another aspect of Kateri’s devotion to Christ is how she pursue him despite many difficulties, both internal and external. She suffered continually from poor health, and she suffered slander and misunderstanding from her people. Let us read a reflection on Saint Kateri’s struggles, from Deacon Greg Kandra of Diocese of Brooklyn. This is an excerpt of an article Deacon Kandra wrote in the website Aleteia.
St. Kateri was born to the Algonquin-Mohawk tribe in upstate New York in 1656. When she was a child, she suffered from smallpox, which left her partially blind, with scars all over her face. She often went out in public with a blanket to hide her scars. But her encounters with Christians, and the stories she heard of the gospel, moved her. And so, at the age of 20, on Easter Sunday, she was baptized. Kateri’s devotion was total. Every morning, even in the coldest days of winter, she stood before the chapel door until it opened and remained inside the church until after the last Mass. She had a great love of the Eucharist and the crucified Christ. She helped catechize the young, and care for the old. You’ll see her depicted holding a small cross made of twigs. She often would fashion these crosses herself and place them throughout the woods. But she suffered for her devotion. She was shunned by other members of her tribe, who accused her of witchcraft and promiscuity and incest. Because of the smallpox, her health was always frail, and she died young, at the age of 24. Her final words were: “Jesus, I love you.” Moments after her death, it is said, her face became luminous and the scars vanished. And now today, four centuries after her death, she has become the first Native American saint. In many ways, her life is a perfect companion to today’s gospel. James and John came to Jesus seeking their own glory. And Jesus turned the tables on them. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant,” he said. “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Greatness, Christ tells us, lies in humility, in servitude, in simplicity. Its ambition is fulfilled in small acts of sacrifice for others. A familiar example is St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. But so is St. Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks. She is the saint for all who are scarred, all who are ashamed, all who are shunned. She is the saint of the weak and the orphaned, the quiet and the resolute. Kateri is the saint for all who are outside, standing at the door, waiting to be let in. She is the saint of holy patience.
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Let us end with this short poem, written in 1939 by Jesuit priest Walter Jackson Ong, in honour of Kateri Tekakwitha:
Where earth goes to water.
The dark young birches cow—
Yet brown and dapple, daughter.
No silver now.
Down, down the white trees, felted
Now fast into the strand.
And the sun's green leaf-gold, melted.
Becomes thin sand.
Look! One sapling thrusts its arm, now paling fawn.
Out of the coal bed, Tekakwitha, into the new blue dawn.