Who Was Saint Kateri Tekakwitha?

Who Was Saint Kateri Tekakwitha?

Written by Sarah Feeney, friend of Stella & Tide

I was introduced to St. Kateri Tekakwitha as a second grader when each of the students in my class chose a saint to learn about and dress up as to celebrate All Saints Day 2002. I picked St. Lucy, and one of my closest friends decided on Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks. Almost 10 years later, in October 2012, Kateri was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI and made patron saint of the environment and ecology. Those patronages give us a glimpse into her life, but there’s so much more to learn about Kateri, the first Native American woman to be canonized by the Catholic Church!

Kateri’s Upbringing

Kateri was born in 1656 in Ossernenon, a Mohawk village about 40 miles northwest of present-day Albany, New York. Her father was a Mohawk chief, and her mother was a Christian Algonquin woman. At this time, the Mohawk people were one of five members that comprised the Iroquois League, which is known today as the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee.

When Kateri was only four, her village experienced a smallpox outbreak that killed her immediate family. Kateri survived the outbreak, but she was left with a scarred face and poor vision. In fact, “Tekakwitha” means “she who bumps into things,” likely in reference to her impaired vision. After her parents’ death, she was adopted by her aunt and uncle.

Kateri’s Catechesis

Kateri’s deep love for Christ began to form after spending time with Jesuit missionaries that visited her village. The missionaries were allowed to visit as one of the conditions of a peace treaty signed between the French and the Mowhawks in 1666. These missionaries played a crucial role in Kateri’s life, especially Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, who baptized her on Easter Sunday when she was eighteen. For her baptismal name, she chose Catherine, after St. Catherine of Siena; Kateri is an Iroquois pronunciation of Catherine.

After her baptism, Kateri was ridiculed because of her faith, but she persevered. Fr. Lamberville wrote in his journal that Kateri did everything possible to stay holy and avoid sin. She avoided working on Sundays so she could keep the Sabbath, which caused her family to deprive her of food. Additionally, to the disappointment and bewilderment of her family, she refused to marry and would go on to take a vow of chastity.

Kateri’s Devotion

Ultimately, Kateri only remained in her village for six months following her baptism before moving to the Mission of Saint Francis Xavier in Kahnawake, near present-day Montreal, Canada. This community was unique in that it was specifically intended for Catholic Native Americans. Here, she was able to attend Mass and Vespers in her native language. She received her First Communion and is said to have had a deep hunger for the Eucharist, seeking to enter into Jesus’ suffering. Her desire to share Jesus’ suffering led her to participate in severe ascetic practices, like fasting and sleeping on a bed of thorns. She also developed a steadfast prayer life and came to exemplify St. Paul’s command to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17)

Kateri died on April 17, 1680, which was Holy Wednesday. Tradition tells us that her last words were “Jesus, Mary, I love you,” and how, minutes after her death, the smallpox scars vanished from her face and her face shone radiantly. At her canonization Mass, Pope Benedict XVI said in his homily that “Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation…May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.” On her feast day, let us ask Kateri to intercede for all those who are ostracized and persecuted and who must persevere in their faith.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha is available as a charm selection for our Custom Saint Necklace, Custom Saint Bracelet, and Floral Cross & Saint Necklace

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