July 14, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Living in God’s presence guided Native American saint

John F. FinkToday, July 14, is the feast of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the only Native American to be canonized.

Ten years after the Mohawk Indians martyred Isaac Jogues and John de Lalande in the village of Ossernenon, near modern Auriesville, N.Y., a baby girl was born there in 1656, the daughter of a Mohawk chief. She was given the name Tekakwitha. Her mother was a Christian, an Algonquin Indian who had been captured during a raid by the Mohawks on her village.

When Tekakwitha was 4, a smallpox epidemic broke out in the village. Her parents and brother died of the disease, and Tekakwitha caught it, too. She survived, but the illness left her severely pockmarked and half blind. For the rest of her life, she saw only shadows, and sunshine hurt her eyes.

Tekakwitha’s uncle and his wife cared for her after her parents died, and she lived a normal Indian child’s life. But she was withdrawn from other children. From the time of her childhood, she enjoyed the solitude that the wilderness provided.

As she matured, the women in the village made plans for her marriage, but Tekakwitha adamantly refused to even discuss marriage. From then on, she received harsh treatment from the women.

Since the murder of the eight Jesuit martyrs, missionaries had stayed away from Iroquois, and particularly Mohawk territory. But the Mohawk chiefs approved a peace treaty in 1667, and the Jesuits decided to make another attempt to convert the Indians.

One day, as Father Jacques de Lamberville passed Tekakwitha’s longhouse, he felt compelled to go in. Tekakwitha welcomed him and told him about her Christian mother. She also said that she wanted to become a Christian.

Father Lamberville gave her instructions and baptized her on Easter Sunday of 1676. She took the Christian name Catherine, or Kateri, in honor of St. Catherine of Siena.

As Kateri learned more about her namesake, a true mystic and contemplative, she began to emulate her. She spent long hours in prayer, became particularly attached to the rosary, and began some of the severe penances that some mystics have inflicted upon themselves. She learned to live always in the presence of God. She became, as she has been known ever since, the Lily of the Mohawks and the Mystic of the Wilderness.

But her behavior antagonized the other Mohawks, especially other Indian women her age. Father Lamberville thought it important to get Kateri to the St. Francis Xavier Indian Mission at Sault St. Louis. In 1677, he plotted with some Christian Indians to take her there. When Kateri’s uncle learned that she had left, he chased them in a canoe but was unable to catch them.

Kateri was ecstatically happy at Sault Mission. She deepened her piety as well as her penances and her reputation for sanctity grew. However, she was not to live long. She died on April 17, 1680, with the names of Jesus and Mary on her lips. She was only 24.

St. Pope John Paul II beatified her on June 22, 1980, and Pope Benedict XVI canonized her on Oct. 21, 2012. †

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