‘Lily of the Mohawks’ came to know, love Christ over clan’s objections

'LILY OF MOHAWKS'--A portrait of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is seen at the Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Gallup, NM. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, “the Lily of the Mohawks,” is the young Indian maiden who, despite objections from some in her own clan, came to know and love Christ.

She was born in 1656 in a village on the Mohawk River called Ossernenon, now Auriesville, NY. Her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother a Christian Algonquin raised among the French.

She was born into a period of political and religious turmoil, 10 years after three of the Jesuit martyrs were tortured and killed: Rene Goupil, Isaac Jogues, and Jean Lalande. Indians blamed the “Blackrobes” for the sudden appearance of deadly white man’s diseases, including small pox.

When Kateri was only 4, a smallpox epidemic claimed her parents and baby brother. Kateri survived, but her face was disfigured and her eyesight impaired.

According to legend, she was raised by relatives who began to plan her marriage. But after meeting with Catholic priests, Kateri decided to be baptized and pursue religious life. When she was baptized on Easter in 1676 at age 20, her relatives were not pleased.

She fled the next year to Canada, taking refuge at St. Francis Xavier Mission in the Mohawk Nation at Caughnawaga on the St. Lawrence River, about 10 miles from Montreal. She reportedly made her first Communion on Christmas in 1677.

She astounded the Jesuits with her deep spirituality and her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. She took a private vow of virginity and devoted herself to prayer and to teaching prayers to the children and helping the sick and elderly of Caughnawaga.

Kateri was not the only member of her community to embrace Christianity during a colonial time fraught with conflict and struggle for native tribes. But to her older, more educated Jesuit mentors, she was remarkable.

When her request to start a religious community was denied, Kateri continued to live a life of austerity and prayer. She was said to perform “extraordinary penances.”

She died in 1680 at the age of 24. According to eyewitnesses, including two Jesuits and many Indians, the scars on her face suddenly disappeared after her death. Her tomb is in Caughnawaga. There is a shrine to her in St. Francis Xavier Church there.

Soon after Blessed Kateri died, Catholics started to claim that favors and miracles had been obtained through her intercession. American Indians have made appeals to the Catholic Church for her recognition since at least the late 1800s.

Documentation for her sainthood cause was sent to the Vatican in 1932. She was declared venerable in 1942, the first step to sainthood that recognizes the candidate’s heroic virtues.

Two miracles that occur after death are generally needed for a sainthood cause to move forward. After a first miracle is confirmed by the Church, the candidate is beatified. Kateri was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, giving her the title “Blessed.”

Documentation for the final miracle needed for her canonization was sent to the Vatican in July 2009. It involved the recovery of a young boy in Seattle whose face had been disfigured by flesh-eating bacteria and who almost died from the disease. But he recovered completely, and the Vatican confirmed the work of a tribunal who determined there was no medical explanation for it.

On Dec. 19, the pope signed the decree recognizing the miracle in Blessed Kateri’s cause clearing the way for her canonization.

The US Church marks her feast day July 14. She is listed as patron of American Indians, ecology, and the environment and is held up as a model for Catholic youths.

In the US, there are two shrines to Blessed Kateri, the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, NY, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville.

The National Tekakwitha Conference, based in Great Falls, MT, was started in 1939 as a way to unify Catholic American Indians from different tribes across the US. The organization is financed by membership dues and grants from the US bishops, the Catholic Church Extension Society and the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.

“The Indian people in the United States and Canada have longed for the canonization of Blessed Kateri from the moment of her beatification,” Abp. Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia told Catholic News Service at the Vatican Dec. 7.

A member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, he is the only Native American Catholic archbishop in the US.

“We are all very proud of her because she embodies in herself what Pope John Paul II called inculturation — the saints are the truly inculturated members of a particular ethnic group because they personally embody both the Gospel and the culture from which they come,” he said.

Interviewed before the pope’s decree, Abp. Chaput said news of her canonization would bring “great rejoicing for the Indian community,” and he predicted “we’ll show up in significant numbers here in Rome” for her canonization ceremony.

Blessed Kateri has always been held up “as a very holy person by members of the Native community and they have longed and longed for this moment to come,” Msgr. Paul A. Lenz said. He is vice postulator for her cause and former executive director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.

When she worked in the fields, Blessed Kateri would carry a cross with her as a source for contemplation. Her last words were reported to be, “Jesus, I love you.”

Timeline of key events related to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

–1656: Born in a village on the Mohawk River near Auriesville, NY. Her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother a Christian Algonquin.

–1660: Orphaned at age 4 when a smallpox epidemic claimed her parents and her baby brother.

–1676: Baptized on Easter at age 20.

–1677: Fled to Canada, taking refuge at St. Francis Xavier Mission in the Mohawk Nation at Caughnawaga. Reportedly made her first Communion on Christmas.

–1680: Died at age 24, is buried at Caughnawaga.

–Late 1800s: American Indians began making appeals to the Catholic Church that she be recognized for her deep spirituality and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

–1932: Documentation for her sainthood cause was sent to the Vatican.

–1939: National Tekakwitha Conference started to promote evangelization among indigenous Catholics who are members of more than 300 tribes and nations in the US and Canada.

— June 22, 1980: Beatified by Pope John Paul II.

–Dec. 19, 2011: Pope Benedict XVI approves miracle attributed to her intercession.

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