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St. Kateri Tekakwitha

A few years ago I wrote an entry on St. Kateri Tekakwitha for the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. She is important here in the Dakotas, of course, with our large Native American population, many of whom are Catholics. Here it is, on this her feast day:

Katherine Tekakwitha, known to Catholics as St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks,” is the first Native American Catholic saint. Tekakwitha was born at Ossernenon (now Auriesville, New York) in 1656. Her mother, Tagaskouita (also known as Kahenta), was an Algonquin native American and a Christian. Her father, Kenneronkwa, was a Mohawk chief and followed traditional native practices. She received her given name of “Tekakwitha” (which means “she who bumps into things”) at age four after a bout with smallpox damaged her eyesight and scarred her face. The epidemic ravaged the Mohawk population around Ossernenon until 1663 and claimed both her parents and brother. An aunt and her husband, a chief of the Turtle clan, adopted Tekakwitha. The survivors relocated to Caughnawaga (“wild water” in Mohawk) two miles upstream on the Mohawk River.

In 1666 the French destroyed Mohawk villages in the area and as part of the terms of peace the Mohawks agreed to receive Jesuit missionaries. In 1667 the priests Jacques Frémin, Jean Pierron, and Jacques Bruyas arrived. Tekakwitha began practicing Christianity against her chieftain uncle’s wishes, whose opposition is likely the reason she did not receive baptism at this time. Tekakwitha’s family began to pressure her to marry but she resisted, believing she was called to a life of virginity dedicated to the Christian God.

Having survived the depredations of intermittent warfare, resisted her family’s attempts to have her married, and lived a life of Christian purity in a hostile environment, Tekakwitha began receiving catechetical instruction in the spring of 1675 from Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, who had recently arrived to supervise native American missionary efforts in the area. Tekakwitha received baptism from de Lamberville a year later on April 18, 1676, Easter Sunday. She took the Christian name Catherine after the famous Italian saint of medieval Italian Siena, which became Kateri in Mohawk. Kateri’s baptism precipitated severe hostility, and so in 1677 she departed for the Catholic native settlement named for St. Francis Xavier at Kahnawake (an alternative spelling of Caughnawaga but a different location than the original village) situated on the St. Lawrence River somewhat south of Montreal. Kateri received her first holy communion there on Christmas Day 1677. On March 25, 1679, the Feast of the Annunciation, Kateri made a vow of perpetual virginity in emulation of the Virgin Mary, formalizing her commitment of several years prior.

The Jesuit missionaries Claude Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec, who arrived in 1677 and who provide the earliest sources for Kateri’s life, record that she practiced the most uncompromising mortifications after their introduction by Cholenec himself and encouraged by her friend and mentor Anastasia Tegonhatsihonga, with whom she resided at Kahnawake. These disciplines including sleeping on thorns to pierce her body, the use of scourges, self-burning, extreme abstemiousness in diet, the wearing of hair shirts, and remaining outside in winter’s cold long before masses. Chauchetière, however, admonished Kateri and the native Christians with her to moderation in such mortifications.

Kateri died on April 17, 1680, having received extreme unction, her last words being “Jesus, Mary, I love you.” Cholenec and Chauchetière claimed her face was healed of its scarring and shone with brilliant beauty and that she later appeared to her friends Marie-Therèse Tegaiaguenta and Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo as well as Fr. Chauchetière.

Catholic devotion to Kateri began soon after her death with pilgrimages to her gravesite and the taking of relics from her body, and has increased through the centuries, the faithful seeing in her an example of conversion, radical piety, cultural encounter, and ecological harmony. From shortly after her death to the present Kateri has been thought to work miracles of healing, usually through her relics. On January 3, 1943, Pope Pius XII declared Kateri venerable; on June 22, 1980, John Paul II beatified her; and on February 18, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized her as a saint. Kateri’s feast day is July 14. The National Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine is located slightly west of Fonda, New York.

References and Resources

Greer, Allan. Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Thiel, Mark G. and Vecsey, Christopher (eds). Native Footsteps: Along the Path of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2012

Cholenec, Fr. Pierre, S.J. Kateri Tekakwitha, The Iroquois Saint: With an Account of the Iroquois Martyrs. Pennsauken Township, NJ: Arx Publishing, 2012.

Chauchetière, Fr. Claude, S.J. La Vie de La B. Catherine Tegakouita Dite a Present La Saincte Sauuagesse. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2014.

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