Two years ago, Kateri Tekakwitha (the “Lily of the Mohawks”), patron of the diocese’s Camp Tekakwitha, became the first Native American saint. Yet, some 300 years earlier, news of her death spread with the words “the saint has died.”
Tekakwitha was born near Auriesville, N.Y. Her father, Kenhoronkwa, a non-Christian Mohawk chief, had married her mother, Kahenta, an Algonquin Christian, after her capture in a raid. When Tekakwitha was four, her parents and brother died of smallpox. It left her with impaired vision and a badly scarred face.
Her uncle, Iowerano, adopted her and took her to Caughnawaga, near present-day Fonda, N.Y., site of her national Shrine. Elderly Mohawk matrons taught her basic domestic skills. When she was 13, Tekakwitha declined marriage.
Soon, three Canadian Jesuit priests started a Mohawk mission. Iowerano welcomed them and Tekakwitha served his guests. The Jesuits began winning converts and Tekakwitha often went to chapel.
In 1675, she told Jesuit Fr. Jacques de Lambertville about her mother and asked to be baptized. Iowerano had seen the Mohawks persecute Christians — some of whom left — and didn’t want his people divided. He also feared that Tekakwitha might stop doing chores. Fr. Lambertville worried that the conversion of so important a person would harm his relationship with the tribes, but agreed.
Tekakawitha was baptized on Easter 1676, taking the name Kateri after St. Catherine of Siena. Almost immediately, she began spending her time in prayer, ignoring even festivals and gatherings. Women said she was not doing her duties. Young children ridiculed her and one warrior threatened to kill her.
Fr. Lambertville and Garonhiague, an Oneida chief, helped her escape to St. Francis Xavier de Sault Mission near La Prairie de Madeleine, where about 150 Christian natives lived. She bore a letter from Fr. Lamberville saying, “I send you a treasure, guard it well.”
Kateri attended daily Mass, meditated before the Blessed Sacrament and joined the Brotherhood of the Faith. She practiced strict penances and was known for good cheer. She became a consecrated virgin on March 25, 1679. Her health began to fail. On Wednesday of Holy Week, April 17, 1680, she said “Iesos konoronkwa” (“Jesus, I love you”) and died.
Sources: biographi.ca; blackandindianmission.org; camptekawitha.net; saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; and wikipedia.org.
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.