When Pope Benedict canonized Kateri Tekakwitha yesterday—making her the first Native American saint—he not only elevated an extraordinary Catholic woman; he lifted the entire community of Native American believers.
Ever since the “Lily of the Mohawks” died in the seventeenth century, her indigenous supporters have believed what the Catholic Church now officially proclaims: that she was a bold and prophetic saint.
Born in 1656 at the Mohawk fortress called Gandaouague, near present-day Auriesville, New York, Kateri Tekakwitha was thrust into a world of conflict and danger: Inter-tribal warfare raged, and was aggravated by Dutch, English, and French colonialists fighting for the surrounding land. She was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and Algonquin Christian Mother, and the elder sister of an infant brother. When Kateri was a child, a smallpox epidemic, brought by the colonialists, swept through her village, taking the lives of her parents and brother. She survived, but the disease left her half-blind, with a disfigured face.
Adopted by her aunts and uncle, Kateri’s new family moved to a more secure location, the new settlement of Gandawague (in what is today, Fonda, New York). There, she exhibited what might be called pre-Christian tendencies. Though never baptized as an infant, Kateri had received rudimentary knowledge about Catholicism from her devout mother (who had once been a captive, before marrying into the Mohawk nation and receiving full rights). The young Kateri would often spend time in the woods in silence, listening to God’s voice within her heart.
Her non-Christian relatives put up with the youngster’s eccentric habits, if only because she was so helpful and well-behaved toward others, despite her afflictions. The sun hurt her damaged eyes, and was a severe disability for a people who spent their lives largely outdoors. But tensions arose when tribal pressure was put on Kateri to accept an arranged marriage. She refused, for reasons still mysterious to her elders. The cause of Kateri’s independence, however, soon became clear when French Jesuit missionaries were allowed into the village in 1668. She immediately welcomed their message, as if she had expected it all her life.
The Jesuits, or “Black Robes,” as they were known, had a very uneven relationship with native Americans, not least because the most famous of them—St. Isaac Jogues and his companions—had been martyred just a decade before Kateri’s birth. But now they had returned, after reaching a fragile agreement with the natives, determined to spread the Gospel.
It was Father Jacques de Lamberville, a dedicated Jesuit missionary, who first discovered Kateri’s religious longings, and encouraged her to attend the village chapel and begin instruction in the Catholic faith. Surprisingly, and at least temporarily, her relatives didn’t try to impede her, provided she was discreet. But once she began her quest to know Christ, Kateri’s fervor wouldn’t be suppressed.
On Easter Sunday, 1676, after intense preparation, the future saint was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. From then on, Kateri’s life took on a new dimension. Mathew and Margaret Benson, her latest biographers, write:
Having converted and received the sacraments after so many years of searching and waiting, Kateri was filled with an exaltation that altered her vision of everything around her. . . . these reactions are experienced by most converts to Catholicism. . . . the reception of baptism means the expunging of the past, the rapture of having discovered truth amid so many lies, and the joy of becoming part of a universal family, both on earth and in heaven. It is a plunge into the depths of love and the spirit, so far removed from the halfway measures of many human lives.
Kateri let her new faith shine in everything she did. She resolved not to engage in any tribal action which conflicted with it, and this had consequences in a community that condoned and often celebrated non-Christian practices.
While some natives sympathized with Kateri’s new life, others reacted negatively. When Kateri went to chapel, stones were thrown at her; she was mocked and ostracized; deprived of food; and had her good name defamed: She was falsely branded a sorceress and seductress. At no time, however, did she ever allow this abuse to weaken her convictions. “She would not retreat one step,” wrote her early biographer, Ellen Walworth, “nor entertain for a moment the thought of surrender, though she was cut off almost entirely from communication with those of her own faith.”
It was the saint’s fearlessness and utter peace that forged her reputation. At one point, confronted by an angry tribesman, Kateri prepared herself for martyrdom. Walworth writes:
A young Indian suddenly rushed in upon her, his features distorted with rage, his eyes flashing fire, his tomahawk raised above his head as if to strike her dead at the least opposition. Tekakwitha did not cry out, or make an appeal for mercy, or promise to abandon the course she was taking in the midst of this ever increasing torrent of threats and abuse. With perfect composure, without the tremor or twitch of a muscle, she simply bowed her head . . . as immovable as a rock. Words were not needed on either side. With all the eloquent silence of the Indian sign language, her gesture and attitude spoke to the youth and said: “I am here, I am ready. My life you can take; my faith is my own in life or in death. I fear you not!”
Awed and unnerved by Kateri’s firmness, the warrior suddenly dropped his weapon: “Admiration, then a strange fear, overmastered the young brave . . . he could not have been more astonished at what he beheld if a spirit had appeared before him and ordered him out of the lodge. Cowed and abashed, he slunk away . . . ”
Though Kateri accepted her sufferings, and loved her people, she eventually was persuaded to move to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis, near Montreal, which had become a haven for Native American Catholics. After a harrowing journey of some two-hundred miles, she arrived in late 1677, and at once was embraced by the local community. That Christmas, she received her first Communion.
Father Claude Chauchetiere, who, along with fellow Jesuit Pierre Cholenec, would chronicle Kateri’s story for future generations, spoke of her spirituality with wonder: “Not only did Kateri practice her faith in such a manner that her confessor declared she never once relaxed her original fervor, but her extraordinary virtue was remarked by everyone.”
She devoted herself to prayer, penance, and works of mercy, and was known for planting crosses wherever she could. In 1679, still in her early twenties, she made a perpetual vow of virginity, something highly unusual even among native American converts. She hoped to start a convent, but her health, never strong, deteriorated, and she barely lived another year. On April 17, 1680, on Wednesday of Holy Week, Kateri breathed her last words, “Jesus, I love thee.” She was only twenty-four. Two Jesuit witnesses and a crowd of Native Americans, saw the scars from her face miraculously disappear minutes after her death. Over three hundred years later, a young boy from Washington with a flesh- eating disease, facing death, would pray to Blessed Kateri, and he, too, would be miraculously healed, fostering her canonization.
In death, as in life, Kateri Tekakwitha remained a controversial figure for some time. Though promoted and lionized by her fellow Native American Catholics, others saw her as a symbol of European oppression and spiritual conquest, though that idea is gradually fading as people realize Kateri can hardly be held responsible for the sins of others. Increasingly, her beautiful life is seen as a source of healing and reconciliation for minorities within new cultures.
Having already been hailed as a model of sanctity by Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict paid her the highest possible compliment at her canonization ceremony, entrusting her with “the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America.”
Kateri’s long journey has undergone three stages: first, her courageous conversion; second, her death and return to Christ; and, finally, her broad acceptance as a universal symbol of sanctity and love. St. Kateri is no longer just the Lily of the Mohawks: she has become the Lily of the New World.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
The Life and Times of Kateri Tekakwitha by Ellen H Walworth (1891)
Mohawk Saint by Allan Greer (2005)
Saint Kateri: Lily of the Mohawks by Mathew and Margaret Bunson (2012)
“Boy’s Miracle Cure Makes ‘Lily of the Mohawks’ First Native American Saint,” Associated Press, October 21, 2012
Pope Canonizes 7 Saints, including Kateri Tekakwitha, New York Times, October 21, 2012.
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