St. Kateri Tekakwitha: First Native American Saint
By Jean M. Heimann
Today, June 14th, is the memorial of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint in the United States.
Known as the “Lily of the Mohawks” and the “Geneviève of New France,” Kateri was born near the town of Auriesville, New York, in the year 1656, the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin Christian. She was four-years-old when her parents and younger brother died of smallpox. The disease also attacked Kateri, scarring her face and damaging her eyesight. Due to her poor vision, Kateri was named “Tekakwitha”, which means “she who bumps into things”.
Kateri was adopted by her two aunts and an uncle, who was strongly opposed to Christianity. When she was 18 years of age, Kateri secretly began instructions in the Catholic Faith. Her uncle finally relented and gave his permission for Kateri to become a Christian, provided that she did not try to leave the Indian village. At the age of 20, she was baptized with the name Kateri (Catherine after St. Catherine of Siena) on Easter Sunday. For joining the Catholic Church, she was ridiculed and reviled. She even received death threats from members of her own tribe. They also treated her like a slave. For example, when she refused to work on Sunday, she received no food that day.
Although she suffered greatly for her Faith, she remained steadfast in it. On the advice of a priest, she fled from her village and walked over 300 miles to a settlement of Christian Indians, near Montreal, Canada. The St. Francis Xavier settlement became her new home. Here she was known for her gentleness, generosity, and virtuous character. She lived a life dedicated to prayer, penance, and care for the sick and elderly. She was deeply devoted to the Eucharist and to Jesus Crucified. At 23, she made a vow of virginity, a heroic and unprecedented act for a Native American woman, who was expected to marry to insure her future survival. She also consecrated herself to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
She died on April 17, 1680 at the age of twenty-four. Her last words were: “Jesus — Mary — I love you.” Witnesses stated that within minutes of her death, the pock marks from the smallpox completely disappeared and her face lit up with radiant beauty.
Devotion to Kateri is responsible for establishing Native American ministries in Catholic Churches all over the United States and Canada. Kateri was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2012.
“I am not my own; I have given myself to Jesus. He must be my only love. The state of helpless poverty that may befall me if I do not marry does not frighten me. All I need is a little food and a few pieces of clothing. With the work of my hands I shall always earn what is necessary and what is left over I’ll give to my relatives and to the poor. If I should become sick and unable to work, then I shall be like the Lord on the cross. He will have mercy on me and help me, I am sure.”
— St. Kateri Tekakwitha
Patronage: Ecologists; ecology; environment; environmentalism; exiles; loss of parents; people in exile; people ridiculed for their piety; World Youth Day.
Symbols: lily (a symbol of her purity); a cross (a symbol of her love of Jesus Christ); or a turtle (a symbol of her clan).