Today is the feast day of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Ora pro nobis.
Kateri Tekakwitha was daughter of Kenneronkwa, a Mohawk chief, and Tagaskouita, a devout Roman Catholic Algonquian woman. She was born in the Mohawk fortress of Ossernenon near present-day Auriesville, New York, in 1656. Kateri’s mother was baptized and educated by French missionaries in Trois-Rivières, like many of Abenaki converts.
Her chieftain father, Algonquian mother and her brother died in a plague and, though the young Tekakwitha survived the ravages of her illness, it left her delicate for the rest of her life. The Mohawk community in Ossernenon was stridently anti-Christian, yet she held fast to the faith of her mother. At the age of 20, Tekakwitha was baptized on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1676 by Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit. At her baptism, she took the name Kateri, a Mohawk pronunciation of the French name Catherine. Tekakwitha literally means “she moves things.”
However this step and her newfound joy did not endear her to the other members of her tribe. She was often scorned and persecuted. For instance, her family refused her food on Sundays because she would not work on that day. Sometimes children would taunt her and throw stones.
Finally a priest arranged that she should escape to Canada to live there with other Christians. She made her way to the area around the great St. Lawrence River. She spent her time near modern-day Montreal helping the old and the sick and teaching the children. She made her first Holy Communion on Christmas Day, 1677.
She would often spend hours before the Blessed Sacrament, kneeling in the cold chapel by herself. When the winter season took many of the villagers away on hunting expeditions she would be left to erect her own little chapel in the woods by carving a cross on a tree and spending time there in prayer.
She was a most gentle and loving presence in the community. She was a great storyteller and people listened to her for hours. Her favorite subjects of discourse, of course, were Jesus and his mother. It is said that when she was praying, Saint Kateri’s face became radiantly beautiful, ‘as if she was seeing the face of God’. Her great desire was to establish a religious order for Native American women but her poor health did not allow for this. She herself, however, was allowed to take the vows of a religious and consecrate herself to Christ. “Now, I belong to no one – only Jesus”, she said.
Her poor health which had plagued her since the age of four was fast declining. She died in 1680, aged twenty-four. Immediately after her death, according to a number of witnesses, the smallpox scars that had covered her face for twenty years disappeared. It was claimed too, that on the day of her funeral, many of the sick who attended were healed. Her last words were, ‘Jesus, I love you.’ Like the flower after which she was named – the lily – her life was short and beautiful.
She is called “The Lily of the Mohawks,” the “Mohawk Maiden,” the “Pure and Tender Lily,” and the “Flower among True Men,” the “Lily of Purity” and “The New Star of the New World.” According to Rev. Lawrence G. Lovasik’s Kateri of the Mohawks, her tribal neighbors called her “the fairest flower that ever bloomed among the redmen,” which was engraved on her tomb stone.
Pope John Paul beatified Kateri on 22 June 1980, and her feast day is 14 July. She was the first native American to be so honoured. She was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI.
Image: Crop of One of the oldest portraits of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha by father Claude Chauchetière around 1696 (4)