The Mohawk village of Ossernenon was the site of the gruesome and torturous martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues and his companions just a decade before. But in 1656, the village near present-day Auriesville, New York, brought a further and strikingly different significance to the story of American Catholicism — the birthplace of the first Native American canonized saint. Known as the Lily of the Mohawks, St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656 – 1680) embraced a countercultural Gospel wholeheartedly, committing herself entirely to Christ.
Kateri’s Christian journey started at birth. She was the daughter of a Mohawk-captured Christian Algonquin woman who married a Mohawk war chief. Her mother planted the seeds of Christian faith in her soul at an early age. These seeds would eventually bloom into a beautiful lily of purity and holiness, as her epitaph is translated, “the fairest flower that ever bloomed among red men.”
A smallpox outbreak killed her parents when Kateri was a toddler, and she was taken in by an aunt and uncle who raised her in a nearby village. Kateri’s face was scarred, and her eyesight was damaged due to the disease. Her talents in basket weaving, gathering crops, working with animal skins and cooking made her a more than suitable candidate for marriage. Nonetheless, attempts at arranged marriage were resisted by Kateri. Her heart desired God alone.
Her family became concerned about Kateri’s disinterest with marriage. She again resisted marriage to a young man they chose, this time hiding in a nearby field. Her family hoped Kateri, who was punished with ridicule and hard labor, would find marriage an easier life. When at home due to an injury, while other women in the village were harvesting, Kateri first encountered Jesuit missionaries. After studying the Faith with them, Kateri was baptized by Father Jacques de Lamberville on Easter Sunday in 1676, near present-day Fonda, New York. She was then named Kateri, a form of Catherine typically given to converts, in honor of the great virgin-saint from Siena.
Kateri’s public faith caused a great deal of persecution among the Mohawks and within her family. After six months of mockery and accusations of magic, she knew she needed to move on. Father de Lamberville arranged for Kateri to relocate to a village more conducive to Christian Mohawks in 1677 — the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake near present-day Montreal. Kateri’s virtuous reputation grew quickly, as seen when Father de Lamberville wrote of her to the priest in charge at Kahnawake, “You will soon know what a treasure we have sent you. Guard it well then! May it profit in your hands, for the glory of God and the salvation of a soul that certainly is very dear to him.”
In Kahnawake, Kateri found an environment in which she could enter more deeply into union with Christ. She took upon herself a variety of bodily penances, including strict fasting and mortifications. Eventually it became clear why she resisted marriage so long. Kateri consecrated her virginity to Christ in 1679, saying, “I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen him for husband and he alone will take me for wife.”
After the effects of her penances weakened her health, Kateri’s last days were spent in great suffering. St. Kateri Tekakwitha died at age 24 on April 17, 1680, uttering the last words, “Jesus, I love you!” Afterward, witnesses saw the scars she bore since childhood miraculously begin to disappear.
Kateri inspires those who embrace a countercultural Gospel. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized this at her 2012 canonization, saying, “Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture. In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”
St. Kateri Tekakwitha is a saint for those persecuted for piety, and her feast day is July 14.
Michael Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.