A reader sent me an email today wanting more information about St. Kateri Tekakwitha, whose feast day was celebrated on Sunday with a Mass and an intertribal powwow at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee. I have a story in today’s paper about the event.
I included information about St. Kateri’s life in a previous story that ran on Saturday, July 13. In this blog posting, I have expounded on that information to include other interesting aspects of her life:
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia and other reputable sources, Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in the Mohawk Valley that is now Auriesville, N.Y. Her mother was an Algonquin Indian who was a Christian and her father belonged to the Iroquois-Mohawk tribe.
She and her family contracted smallpox when she was about four and her parents and brother died from the diseased.
The orphaned Tekakwitha was adopted by relatives after her parents’ deaths. Church historians said the girl’s face was disfigured by her bout with smallpox and her eyesight also was seriously impaired.
One website, kateritekakwitha.net, says that because of the orphaned girl’s near blindness, she held her hands in front of her to feel her way along and protect herself from injury. It was from this characteristic she was renamed Tekakwitha or “She moves things” or “She who bumps into things.”
She met Jesuit missionaries when she was around 11. They helped her to find comfort and understanding of her life situation in Christianity. According to many historians, her uncle under whose care she was placed had an aversion to Christianity and some have said he felt this way because of the way American Indians were treated by white men at that time. Because of his aversion to the faith, church historians believe that much of Kateri’s early education of Christianity was learned in secret from her family.
Some historians have written that her uncle relented eventually and allowed her to be baptized as a Christian. He is said to have given his blessing on the condition that she would not try to leave the village. The Rev. James de Lamberville, a French priest, baptized her as Catherine Tekakwitha when she was somewhere between age 18 and 20. Kateri is the Mohawk pronunciation of Catherine.
Living in the village after her conversion to Christianity proved to be a great hardship because she was scorned and ridiculed by others there. Many historical accounts say that her life was even threatened because of her newfound faith in Christ.
Eventually Kateri Tekakwitha fled to the Mission of St. Francis Xavier, a settlement of Christian Indians in Canada. The village also was known as Caughnawaga or Kahnawake and, more informally, “The Village of the Praying Indians.”
Although her aunts had begun to consider marriage alliances for her when she grew older, Tekakwitha had always noted a preference for maintaining her virtue throughout her life. She is said to have made a vow of virginity on Christmas Day 1677.
Throughout her life, she was known as a person with a gentle and compassionate spirit. She also was known for her devout ways. In her new Canadian home, she often attended Mass at both dawn and sunset. Kateri Tekakwitha also taught children prayers and gave aid to the elderly and the sick.
She became ill and died at age 24. Several people who witnessed her death said they saw immediate evidence of her holy connection to God. They said the pockmarks that covered her face due to her childhood bout with smallpox disappeared and her skin appeared soft and smooth — radiant.
She is recognized as a devout woman who spent her life helping others and serving God. She is often referred to as the “Lily of the Mohawks.”
She was canonized in October 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
There are many schools and parishes named after this 17th century saint. A National St. Kateri Shrine is located in Fonda, N.Y.
Earlier this year, the Catholic Studies program at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., held a day-long conference featuring scholars and American Indian leaders on the impact St. Kateri’s life and legacy has had on the American Indian Catholic community.