By Sister Carol A. LeTourneau
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha was the among the first Native Americans to be canonized a saint. In the Catholic faith, we venerate saints as role models for how to follow Christ. We look to St. Kateri for inspiration in how to center our own lives on God.
While there are some Indigenous people that have a strong devotion to Kateri, not all share the same sentiment. Each tribal group throughout the United States and Canada has their own experience and perspective about colonization and the Church. It is important that we, as Sisters of Mercy, be most respectful and supportive of their cultures and experiences.
St. Kateri’s short life on earth does offer a story of resilience and faith.
An Iroquois baby girl was born in Ossernenon (Auriesville, New York) in 1656 to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief. Although little is known about Kateri’s earliest years, she endured with her people the hardships of war, famine and invaders, especially the colonists who brought a foreign religion.
At age four, a smallpox epidemic left her an orphan with a disfigured face, impaired vision and poor health. Her uncle, a powerful chief in the village, took her into his longhouse. When moving about, this little girl used her hands to avoid bumping into objects; thus, she was given the name “Tekakwitha” (De-gah-GWEE-tah) which means, “She moves something in front of her.”
Tekakwitha’s village moved to another area called Caughnawaga (Fonda, New York), where she encountered Jesuit missionaries and converted to Christianity. She was captivated by the Christian practices and felt an inner call to prayer. Being faithful to this call, she developed a deep love for “Iesos Christos” (Jesus Christ). Tekakwitha attended Mass, began saying the Rosary, and spent additional time in prayer in the tiny mission chapel.
One missionary noted that this young girl possessed a simplicity and thirst for God that was unusual. Tekakwitha received instruction in the faith and was baptized on Easter, April 5, 1676, when she was 20, taking the name Catherine (in Mohawk, Kateri “Gah-deh-LEE”).
Six months after her baptism, her Christian lifestyle and refusal to marry led to many insults, reproaches and unrest in the village. This behavior infuriated her uncle and Kateri’s life was threatened. With the aid of two Jesuits, she fled the area by canoe. and to a Christian village of peace and prayer located south of Montreal, Canada.
Kateri was able to embrace her call to live a life solely for God and in service to others. She spent most of her day in prayer and tending to the sick and infirmed, and practiced penances in thanksgiving for the Lord’s gift of salvation. Above all, she sought to do the will of God in all things.
On April 17, 1680, illness led Kateri to her final journey when she was just 24 years old. On her deathbed, the last words spoken by this courageous Iroquois woman were “Iesos, Wari “(Jesus, Mary). Shortly after her death, it was noted that Kateri’s disfigured face became radiantly clear, and her beauty was restored.
Her life story became known world-wide when she was canonized in Rome on October 21, 2012. Her remains can be venerated at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Kahnawake, Canada.