On Oct. 21, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks” and the first Native American to be proclaimed as a member of the Communion of Saints.
This is an historic honor for the faith and the culture of Native Americans in the United States and Canada, as well as an acknowledgment of the courageous spirit of Catholics in the New World.
The Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Saints (Revised, 2003) tells us that Kateri was born around 1656 in the Indian village of Ossernenon, near Auriesville, N.Y., to a Mohawk war chief and his enslaved Algonquin mother who was a Christian.
This village had been the site some 10 years previously of the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues and St. Jean de Lalande. Kateri’s mother, kidnapped in a raid near Quebec, was a baptized Christian who tried to pass her faith on to her daughter.
At the fair age of 4 years, Kateri’s life was irreparably changed when her mother, father and baby brother died of smallpox. While she herself survived the disease, it left her with permanent scars to her face and nearly blind. She was taken in by an aunt and uncle in Caughnawaga, N.Y., where she learned the trade of making moccasins and Native American clothing.
No doubt as a result of her physical disfigurement, Kateri grew up rather shy and distant from others. Early on, she decided she would never marry, a decision that left her at odds with her family and immediate community.
In 1667, Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary, was allowed to enter the village. He eventually stopped to visit Kateri, at which time she told him of her determination not to marry and of her desire for baptism.
The Jesuit priest baptized Kateri on Easter Sunday, 1676, naming her after St. Catherine of Siena. She quickly developed a spirit of prayer and transformed her isolation into spiritual solitude. However, this change was not well received by her family and fellow villagers and she soon moved to a Jesuit mission near Sault Sainte Marie, near Montreal, Canada.
There she received her first Holy Communion on Christmas Day, 1677. She then took a vow of chastity and began an exemplary life of prayer and Christian service.
Together with a friend, Maria Therese Tegaiaguenta, she attempted to found a religious community, but was dismissed by the Jesuit directors who could not imagine a Native American being a nun.
In 1679, Kateri was struck on the head by a large branch of a tree. This led to a gradual decline in her health and she eventually died on Wednesday of Holy Week, in April of 1680 at the young age of 24.
It is said that upon her death, her facial scars disappeared and soon apparitions and miracles were reported through her intercession.
Pope Pius XII declared her venerable in 1943 and Pope John Paul II beatified her in June of 1980. When the latter did so, he noted that Kateri was not just an important figure for the Native American community, but a model for all Christians throughout the world.
He said: “All of us are inspired by the example of this young woman of faith . . . . We are all edified by her complete trust in the Providence of God, and we are encouraged by her joyful fidelity to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This soon-to-be new saint showed a remarkable desire to live a life of virtue, dedicated to her heavenly Father. She knew her destiny was to live with Him in heaven. That confidence allowed her to overcome the trials she endured here on earth.
In this, she proves to be a great mentor for all of us.
The Tekakwitha League in Auriesville, N.Y., proposes this prayer for her intercession:
“O St. Kateri Tekakwitha, in your life you experienced pain, sorrow and hardship. Yet in all things you found joy and peace in believing in Jesus, present to us in the Eucharist and in His love expressed to us on the Cross.
“O great Lily of the Mohawks, we ask that you take our intentions to the foot of the Cross. Ask Jesus, our loving Savior, to bring healing to those who are heavily burdened.
“Through your intercession, may this favor be granted if such be according to the will of God. By your prayer, help us always to remain faithful to Jesus and to his Holy Church.
“St. Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us.”
God love you!