The Life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha

This year, on October 21st, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Kateri Tekakwitha at a special ceremony in Rome that will formally acknowledge her sainthood.  St. Kateri will be the second native North American to be so canonized.  The first was Juan Diego, who received the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe near what is now Mexico City in 1531—over a hundred years before Kateri was born.

Kateri Tekakwitha, known as the ‘Lily of the Mohawks,’ was born in 1656 in an Iroquois village in what is now Auriseville, New York.  Her father was a Mohawk chief, her mother a Catholic Algonquin.  When Kateri was four years old, she lost her parents and brother due to smallpox, leaving her an orphan.  She also contracted the disease, making her partially blind and leaving her face severely scarred.

Although not baptized as an infant, Kateri remembered the stories her mother told her about Jesus and the prayers they used together.  These remained fixed in her mind and heart, setting her on the path she would walk during the next twenty years.

Her uncle, also a Mohawk chief, and two aunts adopted Kateri, settling in what today is Fonda, New York.  As she grew up into adulthood, Kateri would often walk in the woods, seeking a quiet place to pray, to speak to God and listen to Him through the voice of nature.  It is no surprise that St. Kateri has come to be regarded as a patroness of the environment and ecology.

When Kateri was eighteen, Jesuit missionaries established a chapel in her village.  Although many in the community, including her uncle, disliked the ‘Black Robes’ and their religion, Kateri remembered her mother’s teachings.  She received further instruction and was baptized two years later, on Easter Day. 

This was a time of great turmoil, with war between the Iroquois and Algonquin tribes, as well as with the French and Dutch colonialists.  Religion also became a point of division in the community.  Kateri decided to leave her village to become a part of the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis, near Montreal. 

There she taught the young people and helped those in the community who were poor or sick.  Her work was conducted with a solid faith, in a spirit of humility, calm resignation and a radiant joy, in spite of physical suffering.   Her favourite devotion was to make crosses out of two sticks and place them throughout the bush, which reminded her to stop for a moment to pray as she walked in the woods.  At the time, converts to the Catholic faith were not immediately admitted to the Sacraments, but because of her determination, strong faith, and service to others, Kateri was given her First Holy Communion on Christmas Day, 1677.

Having lived a hard and difficult life, Kateri died on April 17, 1680—only twenty-four years old.  Those with her at her death reported that her face suddenly changed.  The scars left by smallpox disappeared, leaving her face clear, with a rosy complexion, serene and smiling.  Shortly afterward miracles were reported, including the healing of a sick woman who had wrapped herself in Kateri’s blue blanket.

In speaking to the First Nations People of North America, Pope John Paul II said that ‘Blessed Kateri stands before us as a symbol of the best of the heritage that is yours as North American Indians…[she] reminds us that we are all called to a life of holiness…  Holiness of life—union with Christ through prayer and works of charity—is not something reserved to a select few… It is the vocation of everyone.’

St. Kateri’s example is a gift of God, first to the First Nations people among whom she lived and worked.  With her canonization, the Church has come to realize that she is also a gift to the whole world.  Many First Nations parishes in our Diocese, together with a few non-aboriginal parishes, will be holding special services as part of a Kateri Trail to commemorate this event in the weeks before October 21st, which will culminate in a special Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral on that day in Prince Albert.  More information on this will be coming at a later date.

Those wishing for more information about St. Kateri will find several books and DVD’s about her at the Diocesan Resource Centre, together with bookmarks and holy cards for sale.  Sr. Rose-Marie or Michael Averyt will be most happy to help you.

For more photos of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha:


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