Kateri Tekakwitha was born at Ossernenon, a Mohawk village that once stood atop a steep hill near modern-day Amsterdam, New York. Her father was a chief, her mother a young Christian Algonquin woman captured on a raid in Canada. When Tekakwitha was four, her family was lost in the smallpox epidemic that swept through the village. The disease left the little girl an orphan with a pockmarked face and damaged eyesight. She was adopted by her uncle, the new chief.
After the smallpox outbreak subsided, the people of Ossernenon abandoned their village and eventually built a new settlement, called Caughnawaga, some five miles away on the north bank of the Mohawk River. Tekakwitha grew into a young woman with sweet, shy personality. She helped her aunts work in the fields where they tended to the corn, beans and squash, and took care of the traditional longhouse in which they lived. Despite her poor vision, she also became very skilled at beadwork. In many ways, her life was no different that that of the other Mohawk girls who went with her to draw water from the spring in the woods near Caughnawaga. Still, she was very different.
Perhaps because of her disfigured face, she was very shy. She didn't enjoy dances and celebrations. The brutal torture of prisoners was an event in which the whole village eagerly participated in, but Tekakwitha could not bear to witness human suffering and remained alone in her longhouse. Strangest of all, she showed no interest in marriage. She was considered an excellent catch for a lucky young man. She was the chief's adopted daughter; her status, good nature and skills more than made up for her scarred face.
When Tekakwitha was eighteen, a Jesuit missionary came to Caughnawaga and established a chapel there. Her uncle disliked the Blackrobe and his strange new religion, but tolerated the missionary's presence as part of a treaty with the French. He forbade his family members from having anything do with Father de Lamberville. Tekakwitha was obediant to her uncle, but the religion of the Blackrobes attracted her. She half-remembered her mother's whispered prayers, she was fascinated by the new stories she overheard about Jesus Christ, Son of the Holy Virgin. She wanted to learn more about Him and to become a Christian.
Her aunts had other plans. Frustrated by her repeated refusals to wed, they decided to trick her into marriage. One evening, they told her to dress in her best clothing since guests were coming. The guests arrived; it was a young man and his family. The aunts led him to a seat beside Tekakwitha and urged her to serve him a bowl sagamite, a hot corn soup. Suddenly Tekakwitha saw through the deception. If she offered him the bowl, it meant she accepted him in marriage. She threw the soup into the fire and ran from the longhouse in tears. She hid in the cornfields until the guests had gone.
One afternoon, Tekakwitha sat in her longhouse recovering from an injured foot. She was alone but for a few elderly or sick women who could not join the others in the fields. A figure appeared in the doorway. To her surprise, it was Father de Lamberville. The missionary knew that the uncle was hostile towards Christians and that a Blackrobe was not welcome in that lodge, but some strong, unknown impulse prompted him to look inside.
Tekakwitha was overjoyed at the sight of the Blackrobe and poured out her heart to him. She had one desire; she wanted to be baptized. Impressed by his eagerness and sincerity, Father de Lamberville somehow persuaded her uncle to allow Tekakwitha to attend religious instructions. The following Easter, twenty-year old Tekakwitha was baptised a Christian in the little mission chapel. Radiant with joy, she was given the name of Kateri which is Mohawk for Catherine.
Kateri's family did not accept her choice to embrace Christ. They no longer treated her as daughter, but as abused servant. When she walked to the spring or the chapel, she was confronted by angry drunks; children threw mud and stones at her. Once, when she was alone in her longhouse, a man burst in on her. He brandished a large war club and raged at her, demanding that she renounce the Blackrobe's religion or be killed at once. Kateri replied that she would give up her life, but never her faith. Seeing her so calm with her hands folded and her head bowed, the attacker suddenly lost his nerve. He dropped his club and fled from the house.
Kateri wanted to leave Caughnawaga; there was another village with the same name near the French settlement of Montreal. It was a mission village established by Jesuits for converts like Kateri who could not find peace or safety in their own villages. To Kateri, it seemed like a wonderful haven. Her adopted sister had already gone there, as had an old friend of mother, Anastastia Tegonhatsiio. Her uncle, however, would not allow her to go. Father de Lamberville arranged for her to escape while her uncle was away on a trading trip. With her adopted sister's husband and a Christian Huron, she slipped from the village early one fall morning.
The trip to the "Praying Castle" was not an easy one. Her uncle was told of her dissappearance and set off it pursuit. In anger, he loaded his gun with three bullets. Kateri and her companions were able to evade him. He gave up and they continued on their journey in peace. It was three hundred miles to the new Caughnawaga. They made their way through the dense woods and deep valleys until they reached Lake George, called in Kateri's language Andiarocte. There they found a canoe and sailed up Lake Goerge and Lake Champlain to Canada. When she safely arrived at the mission village, Kateri hurried to the chapel to give sincere thanks to God.
At the new Caughnawaga, Kateri's faith flourished. The Christmas following her arrival, she made her first Holy Communion. The day she received Our Lord was perhaps the happiest she had ever known. Her motto became, "Who can tell me what is most pleasing to God that I may do it?" She spent much of her time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, kneeling the cold chapel for hours. When the winter hunting season took Kateri and many of the villagers away from the village, she made her own little chapel in the woods by carving a Cross on a tree and spent time in prayer there, kneeling in the snow. She did all she could to help those in the village who were poor or sick.
Kateri also had a very great devotion to the Mother of God. She quickly learned the Litany of the Blessed Virgin by heart. Her Rosary was always at hand and Our Lady was her role model.
Well meaning friends encouraged Kateri to marry, but she refused. The life of a nun attracted her, but the missionaries denied her permission since had only been a Christian for three years. Still, Kateri had decided to give her life to Our Lord. On March 25, 1679, twenty-three year old Kateri Tekakwitha dedicated herself to Jesus with a vow of pepetual virginity. At the same time, she offered herself as a daughter to Mary.
Kateri's health was never good; it had been further weakened by the rigorous penance she imposed on herself and by frequent fasts. Not long after she took her vow, she became very ill. Soon, she was too weak to visit the chapel or even leave her bed. For months, she suffered with fevers and pains. She passed away on April 17, 1680. She was just twenty-four; her last words were, "Jesus, Mary, I love You!" Fifteen minutes after her death, Kateri's face became radiantly and beautiful. The ugly smallpox scars vanished and a sweet smile appeared on her lips.
Devotion to Kateri began immediately. Just before her death, she promised, much like Saint Therese of Lisieux, that she would rememeber her friends on earth, that she would help them from Heaven. She soon made good on her promise; cures were reported when she was invoked in prayer and through the use of her relics. In the early twentieth century, petitions were made in Rome for her canonization. Declared venerable in 1943, she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. In a speech to Native Americans, the Holy Father offered Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha as a beautiful example to all and urged people to appeal to her aid:
"My brothers and sisters, may you be inspired and encouraged by the life of Blessed Kateri. Look to her for an example of fidelity; see in her a model of purity and love; turn to her in prayer for assistance. May God bless you as He blessed her. " This summer, thousands of young people from dozens of countries will encounter Kateri of the Mohawks for the first time at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Canada. Named a patroness of this great event, a large banner of this humble, bright star of love and faith smiles gently down on her young brothers and sisters in Christ.
Only one more miracle is need for Kateri Tekakwitha to be be declared a saint. And miracles do happen!
Contact: http://www.tekakwitha.org NY, US
PaulaAnne SharkeyLemire - Author/webmaster.
Keywords: Kateri Tekakwitha