Kateri Tekakwitha was known as Lily of the Mohawks and had a short life during which she experienced great resistance to her embracing Catholicism, yet she persisted in her love for Jesus. Kateri was born at Ossernenon, which was a village near present-day New York in 1656. She was the daughter of a non-Christian Mohawk chieftain. Her mother came from an Algonquin tribe and had been reared as Catholic. At that time, the various tribes were frequently at war with each other. During one of these battles, Kateri’s mother had been taken hostage and brought to where her father lived. Apparently her mother was very beautiful, so Kateri’s father chose her as his wife.
When Kateri was four, the tribe was afflicted with an outbreak of smallpox. Both her parents died from the infection and she herself barely survived. She was left with severe pockmarks on her face and scarring of her eyes, which meant she had poor vision for the rest of her life. After her parents’ deaths, she was adopted by an uncle and an aunt.
From 1534 to 1763, France was actively trying to colonise the North American continent. It was hoped that ‘New France’, as the country was called, would become a Catholic part of the parent country. As part of this project, members of the Society of Jesus travelled from France with the French troops. A number of these died at the hands of the Iroquois. However, the Jesuits were more successful in what is now the Province of Quebec in Canada. Here they established a mission headquarters.
In 1667, a delegation of Mohawk warriors went to Quebec to negotiate a peace settlement with the French. With them were three Jesuit priests named Fremin, Bruyas and Pierron, who then spent a few days with Kateri’s uncle. They introduced her to the Catholic faith. This was the first time that the Christian message had been explained to her and she immediately accepted it. There was great pressure on her at that time from the other women in the tribe to marry, but Kateri rejected the idea of marriage and decided she was going to remain a virgin for Jesus’ sake. This was to be a difficult decision for her, because Indian women were expected to marry and have children.
Soon after this, the whole tribe moved across to the north side of the Mohawk River and established a settlement there, where the town of Fonda is now located. A Jesuit priest, Fr Jacques de Lamberville, came to live at this settlement when Kateri was eighteen years of age, and she received further instruction from him. She requested baptism and the priest felt she was ready. He formally baptised her at the age of twenty at Easter 1676. After her baptism, she became deeply committed to the practise of her faith. This produced resentment among many of her friends. Her uncle, in particular, was bitter about her conversion, since one of his daughters had previously converted and moved to the Jesuit-run settlement near Montreal in Canada. Kateri decided that, for her own safety, she would have to leave her tribe and move to this Jesuit village named Kahnawake, which is still a Native American village today. She stole away from her tribe to make this arduous journey of two-hundred miles on foot.
At the Canadian settlement, Kateri was surrounded by a number of Indian women who had become enthusiastic converts and were intent on showing how they had changed. She lived with another convert name Anastasia, a friend of her mother, who was able to instruct her more fully in the faith. These converts engaged in various mortifications, which included sleeping on a bed of thorns, fasting and flagellation. The Jesuits felt that these women were going to extreme forms of mortification, but had difficulty in persuading them to be more moderate.
Life and Death
Kateri spent much of her time instructing children in the faith and looked after elderly people. It was soon realised by the priests and her friends that there was something exceptional about this woman. Her faith shone out and it was evident that a bond of love had developed between her and Jesus. She often sought the solitude of the forest to commune with Jesus. Her health was never good. During Holy Week in 1680, she grew fragile. She was given the Last Rites and then, surrounded by the priests and her friends, she died on 17 April 1680 her last words were, ‘Jesus, I love you’.
Immediately after her death, unusual signs were noted. A priest recorded that minutes after her death, the disfigurement of her face by the scars of smallpox disappeared and her complexion became normal. Many of her friends said that she had appeared to them after she died, and she had told them that she was going to heaven. Word quickly spread of the death of this unusually holy person and people came to pray at the place where she died. Cures were attributed to her intercession, including the cure of deafness in a priest. Fifty years after her death, a convent for Native American nuns was opened in Mexico where they prayed for Kateri’s canonisation. However, there was to be a long wait until this took place.
The Much-Needed Miracle
On 22 June 1980, Pope John Paul II beatified Kateri. A further miracle was required before she was canonised. This occurred in 2006. A six-year-old Native American boy named Jacob Finkbonner, who lived in Washington, sustained a cut to his face. This became infected with flesh-eating bacteria in the condition known as necrotising fasciitis. Despite surgery, the flesh was being destroyed as far as his eye and his condition was regarded as terminal. When Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Mohawk nun, touched the boy’s face with a first class relic of Kateri, the infection was controlled. During the following five years, while he was having plastic surgery to repair the damage to his face, the boy was kept under observation by doctors until the remarkable recovery was accepted as a miracle. Saint Kateri’s feast day is celebrated on 14 July.