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Catholic Heroes… St. Kateri Tekakwitha

September 17, 2020 saints No Comments


The Lily of the Mohawks, as she is known, was born near Auriesville, N.Y., in 1656. As you will know, here the North American Martyrs sowed the seeds of early martyrdom in the New World and St. Isaac Jogues had been martyred merely a decade earlier. Kateri’s mother was a Christian Algonquin. The Algonquins and the Mohawks fought over territory; Kateri’s mother was captured and eventually married the Mohawk chief.
Sadly, at the age of four, her family fell victim to the smallpox. Both parents died and while Kateri survived, she was left with facial pockmarks and loss of sight in one eye. Her name, “Tekakwitha,” means a person who bumps into things. When she was about ten, a combination of French forces and hostile Indians attacked the Mohawks and the tribe had to relocate five miles away, across the Mohawk River, to the village of Fonda. Today this remains the site of the National Shrine dedicated to St. Kateri.
She was raised by her uncle, who hated the Catholic missionaries. Yet when they visited, the Indians were bound by an agreement not to harm them. And it is thanks to the resilient tradition of the Jesuit missionaries that Kateri would be converted.
In her culture, marriage was a given. So even when she was a child, a mate was sought out for Kateri. But we are told that as she grew up, she rejected the married life and withstood standoffs with relatives who would have forced her to marry. Perhaps she already felt called — without knowing the faith — to union with Christ, her Savior.
Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, a saintly Jesuit, traveled to her village (his brother was likewise a Jesuit missionary!). But he nearly missed her when visiting because she was not out among the villagers, and was instead nursing an injured foot in a longhouse. In entering, he came across a young Indian girl, aged 19, with a great longing to learn about Catholicism.
He immediately began to teach her. This priest, who labored 37 years in the New World, was referred to by the Indians as the “Divine Man,” and practiced many mortifications to prepare himself should he ever be martyred. Indeed, miracles have been attributed to him since his death. Kateri is his most famous convert.
Kateri received formal permission from her family and he instructed her thoroughly in the faith. He baptized her April 5, 1676, on the Feast of the Resurrection, in the village chapel of St. Peter’s, now at the location of the shrine bearing her name. Fr. De Lamberville saw this as a great occasion to witness before her fellow villagers who came to the ceremony; at the age of 20 she chose as her Christian name the translation of her name Kateri, which is Catherine, after St. Catherine of Siena.
Initially and for some time thereafter, Kateri’s conversion was viewed as a good thing by the other Mohawks. But after an interval, as is wont to occur, the Devil began to intervene. Her example of purity and kindness, her holiness, seemed a reproach to others living contradictory lifestyles. Furthermore, she would honor both the Lord’s Day and feast days by staying home from work in the fields to pray.
For this reason, fellow villagers would deny her food, saying she deserved none for electing to stay home. Kateri preferred to stay home and fast. Some threw stones at her, and at one point one native even confronted her with a hatchet. When she did not react, he ran off, almost as though in fear. But it was clear she was no longer safe at home.
Today there are those who, instead of praising her right to self-determination, would condemn her free choice of conversion to a “European” religion. Some would even unjustly accuse her of falling for the “ills of colonialism” for not conforming to the Mohawk mold of womanhood. Yet Kateri was called from a young age to follow her dreams to be Christian and risked her very life for this dream to become reality. Who is anyone to condemn her?
At the urging of others concerned for her welfare, she escaped 200 miles away to a Canadian village, to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis. Its Indian name was Kahnawake, “place of the rapids,” on the St. Lawrence River, and many Christian indigenous people lived there. An adopted sister and a friend of her mother were already at the village and they welcomed her with open arms. It was here, on Christmas Day in 1677, that she made her First Communion. Two years later, on the Feast of the Annunciation, she took a vow of perpetual virginity.
She loved our Lord’s Passion and spent hours praying before the Eucharist. She undertook additional mortifications, would frequently sleep on thorns, or burn herself as she had seen Mohawks do in torturing prisoners. But due to her weak health, the local Jesuit priest in charge, Fr. Claude Chauchetière, had to order her to cease and only suffer such privations if given permission. While she was not long for this world, Fr. Chauchetière was quite impressed with her and sensed her saintliness.
She chose to appear to him and others after her death, giving him new vigor, and encouragement in his difficult vocation in the New World. He would later write one of her first two biographies and worked toward her case for canonization. Indeed, it was his “positio” or lengthy position paper on the saint that provided the main basis for her 1980 beatification by Pope St. John Paul II. We have referred to parts of his biography in the writing of this article.
In her short time on earth, Kateri was known for her piety, particularly her purity, her kindness, her great love of the Blessed Sacrament and the cross. She was also passionate in her Marian devotion for Mary, Mother of God, being the Queen of Virgins.
“From the moment she took the resolution at the Sault to take Jesus Christ for her Spouse, she took Mary for her Mother, throwing herself into her arms and abandoning herself entirely to her guidance, with perfect filial obedience, worthy daughter of such a mother” (Fr. Cholenac, biographer).
Just one year after her final vow she became terribly ill, suffered greatly, and passed away on Wednesday of Holy Week. Fr. Chauchetière observed her death was accompanied by the odor of sanctity. The saint, the purist Lily of the Mohawks, was only 24 years old. Her final words were, “Jesus, Mary, I love you.”
Those present when she passed away testified her pockmarks disappeared, leaving her face serene and beautiful. In the days following, as mentioned above, she also appeared to several persons, one vision lasting two hours. Her joy in approaching Heaven was clearly evidenced.
Scores of miracles began happening, yet none actually met the modern requirements demanded for her beatification over three centuries later. (No medical charts available from the New World back then!) Pope St. John Paul II waived the miracle to move forward on her beatification and God, in His wisdom, duly provided another timelier miracle, with all the evidence required, for her canonization in 2012 under Pope Benedict XVI.

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