Today is the feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized a saint. St. Kateri was born in 1656, the daughter of a war chief of the Mohawk tribe and a Christian Algonquin mother, near present-day Auriesville, NY. It was in that same area, 10 years earlier, where the French missionaries, St. Isaac Jogues and his Jesuit companions were killed by Mohawk tribesmen who resented the presence of missionaries in their lands. When she was a small child, Kateri’s family died during an outbreak of smallpox. The disease left Kateri’s eyesight damaged and the skin on her face disfigured with scars. She was raised by relatives in a nearby village who adopted her into their family and raised her as their own.
When she was 14, a Catholic mission run by members of the Society of Jesus was established in the area and she sought baptism there at the age of 20. The priest there understood that this could cause serious problems, for she was the daughter of a war chief, and it would be very controversial for someone of her exalted social status to become Christian. Nonetheless, he acquiesced to her desire and discovered a young woman who had a deep understanding of the Catholic faith and the spirituality of a contemplative that he said was singular among the people he encountered in his missionary activities. Her baptism made her an outcast among her family members and tribesmen, especially for her refusal to marry, a decision they considered shameful. They also didn’t understand her disinterest in festivals and community gatherings, preferring the solitude of the wilderness where she would go on her own to pray. Out of frustration with her, they accused her of failing to perform her domestic duties. Because of their harsh treatment, the local priest helped her to leave her home and move to a mission community near Montreal, where she would live with other members of the Mohawk tribe who had converted to Christianity. There, she publicly made a vow of virginity, consecrating herself to Christ, on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1679. A year later, on Wednesday of Holy Week, she passed away from illness. When she died, witnesses said that her appearance changed, and the scars on her face, which she had borne since childhood, disappeared. A priest who was there, wrote about this miraculous transformation, and described how Kateri’s face, “so disfigured and so swarthy in life, suddenly changed about 15 minutes after her death, and in an instant became so beautiful and so fair that just as soon as I saw it (I was praying by her side) I let out a yell, I was so astonished.”
I was in seminary when Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Kateri Tekakwitha in St. Peter’s Square in October 2012. A college friend of mine, whose father is a member of the Mohawk tribe, came to Rome with her family for the celebrations. There were members of many other Native American tribes in Rome for the great occasion, but my friend’s family felt particularly proud since St. Kateri, like them, was Mohawk. During the canonization festivities, a religious sister from the Mohawk tribe, who had taken St. Kateri’s name in religion, was quoted as saying: “With the elevation of one of our own to the altars, the universal Church will know that we have a person from our community who has climbed to the heights of holiness and attained a deep relationship with God.”
St. Kateri Tekakwitha is the patroness of the environment, of those who have lost their parents, and of Native Americans. What a beautiful thing it is that this young woman who enjoyed no great accomplishments, who left no spiritual writings, who was poor and disfigured and treated as an outcast most her life, has become not just a source of pride to members of her Mohawk tribe, but also a source of pride to all native peoples, as well as a source of hope for Catholics everywhere.