Sanctity in America: St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Kateri Tekakwitha was born around 1656 in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon, near present-day Auriesville, New York. Her father was a Mohawk chief named Kenneronkwa, and her mother a Catholic Algonquin woman named Tagaskouita. Tagaskouita had been baptized and catechized by French missionaries. She was captured by the Mohawk and adopted by them. Tekakwitha was the oldest of their two children. They also had a younger son.

When Tekakwitha was around four years old, both her parents and her younger brother died of a small pox epidemic that struck their village. Tekakwitha survived, but her face was left scarred and her vision poor as a result of the disease. Tekakwitha, now orphaned, was adopted by her aunt and uncle. As she grew, Tekakwitha was taught the skills of a young Indian maiden: making clothes from animal skins, weaving baskets and mats from grass and reeds, and preparing food from game and crops. Around 13 years old, she was pressured by her family to consider marriage, but she refused.

In 1666, the French attacked the Mohawk as part of an effort to expand their influence and trade. The French defeated the Mohawk, and the peace treaty ending the conflict allowed Jesuit missionaries into the Mohawk villages. The Jesuits who lived with the Mohawk studied their language and culture in an effort to introduce Christianity to them in a way they would understand. In 1667, Tekakwitha met her first French Jesuit missionaries. Her uncle, whose daughter had earlier become Catholic, opposed Tekakwitha having any contact with the missionaries because he did not want her converting to Christianity.

In the spring of 1675, Tekakwitha met with Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, SJ, and told him of her desire to become a Christian. She began studying the catechism under Fr. Lamberville’s instruction. Lamberville baptized Tekakwitha at the Easter Vigil, April 18, 1676. She took the name Kateri, the Mohawk form of Catherine, in honor of St. Catherine of Siena. Some of the Mohawk in her home village, opposed to her conversion, started harassing her and accused her of sorcery. Fr. Lamberville suggested that Kateri move to the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake, to join other native converts. Kateri did so in 1677 and lived there for the rest of her life.

At Kahnawake, Kateri continued to study the faith and learn Christian practices under her mentor, Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo, the clan matron of her longhouse, who had been a dear friend of her mother’s. She became close friends with Marie-Therese, another young convert, and the two would often pray and practice their faith together. When the women of the mission learned about Religious Sisters, they wanted to form their own convent and formed an association of devout laywomen. Kateri told the priest missionaries of her desire to give everything for Jesus:

“I have deliberated enough. For a long time my decision on what I will do has been made. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen Him for husband and He alone will take me for wife.”

Kateri believed in offering penances for her sins and for the sins of her family and for their conversion. She did not eat much, and would lie on a mat of thorns as penance (this was a custom of some native peoples, to pierce themselves in thanksgiving for some good fortune or as an offering for one’s needs or those of another). She would also burn herself in solidarity with prisoners of war, who were often burned by their captors. As a result of her penances, Kateri’s health began to suffer. Her friend, Marie-Therese, consulted one of the Jesuit priests out of concern for Kateri’s health. The priest scolded Kateri for taking on penances that were too harsh, telling her that penances must be practiced in moderation and insisting that she practice only those penances for which he gave her permission. Kateri obeyed.

In the spring of 1680, Kateri’s health began to fail. During Holy Week of that year, she approached death. With only hours to live, the villagers gathered together to pray, and she received the last rites of the Church. She died on April 17, 1680, Holy Wednesday, in the arms of her friend, Marie-Therese. Her last words were, “Jesus, Mary, I love you.” Shortly after her death, it is reported that the scars she suffered from her bout with small pox years earlier disappeared, and she was radiantly beautiful. In the weeks after her death, she appeared to Anastasia, Marie-Therese and one of the mission priests, to say good-bye and announce that she was on her way to heaven. The Jesuit missionaries built a chapel near her grave, and by 1684 pilgrimages to her gravesite to honor her had begun.

In 2006, Jake Finkbonner, a 5 year-old boy in Washington state, was suffering from flesh-eating bacteria, a fast-moving, highly fatal infection. The doctors were unable to stop its progression, and recommended that Jake’s parents prepare for their son’s death. Jake was half Lummi Indian, so his parents, along with family, friends and classmates, organized a prayer network, beseeching Kateri Tekakwitha’s intercession for his healing. Sr. Kateri Mitchell, a Catholic nun, visited Jake and placed on his bed a relic, a bone fragment, of Kateri Tekakwitha, and prayed with his parents. The next day, the infection’s progression stopped, and Jake survived. This miraculous healing was the second confirmed miracle attributed to Kateri’s intercession, and in 2011 she was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI. Her feast day is July 14 in the United States and April 17 in Canada.

The painting at the top of this post is the only known portrait of St. Kateri Tekakwitha from life, by Fr. Claude Chauchetiere, c. 1690.

Sources: “Kateri Tekakwitha,” Wikipedia; “Saint Kateri Tekakwitha,” Francisca Media; Saint Kateri Tekakwitha,” http://www.britannica.com

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.

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