Kateri Tekakwitha, also known as the Lily of the Mohawks, was born in 1656 at Ossernenon, a Mohawk village in what is today Auriesville, N.Y. Her mother, a Christian Algonquin, was raised among the French and Kateri’s father was a Mohawk chief. When she was 4 years old, Kateri’s parents and little brother died of smallpox. She also contracted the disease and it left her face scarred with pock marks and partially blind.
Kateri was raised by relatives and when she was a teen she encountered Jesuit missionaries who arrived at her village. Kateri learned about the Catholic faith and wanted to be baptized, despite the objections from her family. When she was 20, Kateri was baptized on Easter Sunday. It led to her being ostracized and eventually leaving her village and moving to a Christian colony near Montreal.
For the remainder of her life, Kateri was dedicated to prayer, penance and care for the sick and elderly. Kateri died on April 7, 1680. According to the Tekakwitha Conference National Center, witnesses said her last words were, “Jesus, I love you,” and as she exhaled her last breath the scars on her face disappeared.
Kateri was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 22, 1980. She is the first North American Indian to be declared blessed and will likely be the first Native American saint. Her feast day is July 14 and, according to the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, she is the patron saint of the environment and ecology.
Many Native American Catholics in the Diocese of Green Bay have a strong devotion to Kateri Tekakwitha. The diocesan youth camp, located on Loon Lake in Shawano County, is named after her (although it is spelled Tekawitha). Through the Tekakwitha Conference National Center, which is based in Great Falls, Mont., they are able to share that devotion with others.
The conference promotes evangelization among the half-million indigenous Catholics in North America and sponsors annual gatherings around the country. In 2012, by good fortune — or divine providence — the conference will be held in Albany, N.Y., just 40 miles from Kateri’s birthplace.
The native influence on Wisconsin’s culture is indelible. Even the name of our state is an Algonquian word. Today 11 federally recognized Indian tribes exist in Wisconsin, with five of the tribes located in our diocese: the Forest County Potawatomi, the Menominee Indian Tribe, the Oneida Nation, the Sokaogan Mole Lake Community and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community.
Our links to Native American heritage, as well as our Catholic faith, give us good reason to rejoice in the impending canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. May she continue to grow as a source of spiritual strength and guidance for all Native American Catholics, especially youth and young adults.