Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Virgin
July 14—Memorial (U.S.A.)
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of Canada and orphans
Tough as a hide, pure as a fawn
Kateri (Iroquois for “Catherine”) Tekakwitha lived a short life of twenty-four years, the same age attained by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux when she died. Kateri’s father was a pagan Mohawk Chief and her mother a Christian Algonquin. The Mohawk people were the easternmost tribe of the larger Iroquois Confederacy. Her younger brother and both of her parents died in a smallpox epidemic which damaged young Kateri’s vision and scarred her face. She was taken in by an aunt and an uncle, the Chief of the Turtle Clan, and grew up in their longhouse. Over time she became expert in the domestic arts typical of the women of her tribe—fashioning animal skins into belts and clothes, weaving, cooking, etc… Kateri was shy, perhaps due to her impaired vision and damaged skin. But she listened carefully. Very carefully. Jesuit missionaries visited her relative’s home and taught them about Jesus Christ and the Catholic religion. Kateri was there in the background, sweeping, cooking, and sewing, paying close attention to what the adults were saying around the table, something typical of adolescents in every culture.
More than being converted, Kateri converted herself. After dramatically refusing an arranged marriage, eighteen-year-old Kateri approached a Black Robe, Jesuit Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, and requested baptism. He guided her through the Catechism. After a few months she told him: “I have deliberated enough. For a long time my decision on what I will do has been made. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen Him for husband and He alone will take me for wife.” She was baptized in honor of Saint Catherine of Siena on Easter Sunday, 1676.
Soon after her baptism, encountering some resistance from her fellow Mohawks, Kateri left upstate New York and crossed into present day Canada to live close to the French and their religion, but not too close, in a village called Kahnawake. This was a traditional Iroquois settlement—it survived on fishing, hunting, and farming—with a twist. Its inhabitants were Iroquois Catholics. They did not allow polygamy, premarital sex, divorce, or abuse of alcohol. The indians did not want to become French. They wanted to accommodate their traditional way of life to their new religion. The Jesuits served these Catholic Iroquois from the nearby mission of Sault Saint-Louis. A Jesuit priest’s letter from 1682 vividly describes life in Kahnawake, and specifically mentions, but leaves unnamed, a young female Mohawk convert of extraordinary piety. It was Kateri.
Kateri and a group of like minded Mohawk women bonded in a warrior sisterhood that practiced traditional Catholic piety with an Indian emphasis on voluntary suffering. These women were as tough as bark. They wanted to emulate the sufferings of Christ, atone for sins, and to mortify themselves in the tradition of so many great European saints. They wore hair shirts and put on iron belts with small metal spikes. They stood in ice water while praying the rosary. Bearing pain, publicly, was part of their culture and native religion. Catholicism’s theology of atonement and mortification melded perfectly with aspects of Iroquois religion.
Kateri was devoted to the Holy Eucharist and Mary. She was reserved and contemplative by nature. She delighted in nature’s beauty—in trees, birds, and wildflowers—and gathered these last to decorate the altar. She remained a virgin, and is called the Lily of the Mohawks for her purity. Her delicate health failed her early and she died with the words “Jesus, Mary, I love you” on her lips. Minutes after her death the people at her bedside noticed something. The skin on her face, so deeply scarred by smallpox, slowly turned smooth and beautiful. The scars were gone.
Saint Kateri, we ask your humble and pious intercession to inspire all young people, especially girls, to attain the virtues which came so easily to you—to be uncomplaining, physically tough, contemplative in spirit, chaste in body, pious, and charitable to all.