A quick one today, and our first woman. I submit for your consideration the recently canonized “Lily of the Mohawks,” Kateri Tekakwitha.
Catholic Credentials: Converted to Catholicism over the strenuous objections of her family; lived a life of fervent prayer and humble suffering; first Native American Saint.
Nerd Credentials: Her life reads like a classic adventure story, full of escapes, persecution, and ending on a spectacularly romantic note.
There has been a glaring omission in our Famous Catholic series so far; I’ve completely neglected the ladies. Considering that some of the most inspiring and fascinating figures in Catholicism are women, this is a terrible oversight.
Well, today we’re fixing that with not only our first female Catholic, but with someone I think has one of the most thrilling tales of modern saints: Kateri Tekakwitha.
Kateri (Catherine) was born (we think) at the village of Gandauge in 1656. Her parents were a Mohawk warrior and a Christian Algonquin woman. Foreshadowing her own adventurous life, the story of her parents is classic romance: her mother had been taken captive by the Iroquois, but a Mohawk warrior protected her from her captors and, eventually she married him and bore him two children: Kateri and her younger brother.
When Kateri was three years old, Smallpox struck the Mohawks. Her mother, father, and brother all succumbed to the disease. Kateri herself, though she survived, was left with a heavily scarred face, damaged eyesight, and a fearful, shrinking personality. With her parents gone, she was taken in by her uncle, who had become chief of the Turtle clan. The scarred, shy girl dutifully learned the traditional woman’s arts, but avoided other people and wore a heavy blanket around her head to hide her scars. Nevertheless, as she grew up her uncle began to start thinking of marriage for her, and instructed her to prepare herself for it.
Kateri didn’t want to get married. She was uncomfortable around other people, and self-conscious of her ravaged face. But, she also had her duty to her tribe and her uncle, who had raised her. So, while she didn’t relish the idea, she most likely accepted that she would one day have to obey her uncle’s wishes.
Then, one day, three men came to stay with her uncle. They were French; the people Kateri’s tribe had been trading (and occasionally warring) with for decades at this point, but they weren’t interested in either trading or fighting. Instead, they talked about a man she had never heard of named Jesus (her mother had died before she could give her daughter any instruction in the faith). This Man fascinated her, as did the three Jesuits who told her about Him. She asked for more information, and the Jesuits happily gave it to her, so that by the time they left three days later, she had decided that she would dedicate herself to this new faith (though she was not, at this point, baptized). Here, at last, was the Man she wished to marry, and she determined that she would have no other.
Her uncle and aunts were not at all happy with this development. For one thing, she became even more separated from the rest of the tribe than before, refusing to take part in their religious rituals, or engage in their games or gatherings, preferring to spend her time praying or visiting the sick. For another, her reluctance to marry had turned into a flat refusal. When her aunts tried to trick her into a surprise marriage with a young Mohawk man, she ran out of the cabin and hid in the woods until he was gone. In retaliation, her aunts beat her, insulted her, spread wicked rumors about her, and piled on every menial, degrading, and tedious task they could think of on her in the hopes of making her relent, but Kateri accepted all this with humility and patience until, finally, they gave her up as a hopeless case.
When she was eighteen, the Jesuit Fr. Jacques de Lamberville arrived in her village to help catechize the Mohawks. She eagerly studied the catechism with him at every opportunity and looked forward excitedly to her Baptism, which Lamberville finally administered two years later, on Easter Sunday 1676.
After her baptism, however, the oppression she suffered grew even worse. She was ostracized, insulted, and accused of witchcraft and fornication (among other things). Fr. Lamberville, seeing how badly she was treated, and that she could no longer count on her uncle’s protection, suggested she flee to the Mission at Kahnawake, where most of the native converts had gathered. With the help of some people from the mission, she escaped into the night and settled at last in Kahnawake.
There, she dedicated the short time she had left (she was always a sickly person; her battle with Smallpox also damaged her immune system) to prayer and ministering to her fellow Indians. Every day, even in winter, she spent hours at a time in the chapel before her beloved spouse, praying and offering all her sufferings and mortifications for the conversion of her people.
After only four short years at the mission, at the age of twenty-four, she finally was united with her beloved spouse on April 17th, 1680. A few minutes after she died, her heavily scarred face changed; its marks vanished, and she suddenly became luminously beautiful.
St. Kateri’s life was marked throughout with suffering, just as her face was marked with the disease that took her family. Yet, in the midst of all her sorrows, she found solace and comfort in Jesus and never doubted that He loved her, so that her suffering was transformed from something terrible into something wonderful, just as her face was transformed and became beautiful upon her death. She reminds us that our sufferings have a purpose, and that Jesus can transform even the worst circumstances into something beautiful if we will but give him the chance.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Pray for Us.
Vive Christus Rex!