I can remember when I was a boy in grade school at Mother of Perpetual Help grade school in Milwaukee when Sister first introduced us to Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Native American whose cause for sainthood was being promoted. The stories the sisters told us were fascinating.
Tekakwitha is the name the girl was given by her tribe. It translates to "She who bumps into things." Kateri is the Christian name the girl took at the time of her baptism. It was chosen in honor of St. Catherine of Siena.
The Mohawk suffered a severe epidemic of smallpox from 1861 to 1863. Kateri’s mother, father and baby brother all perished of the disease. She survived but suffered severe facial scars and very poor eyesight. She was adopted by her aunt and uncle and grew up in the long house with her adopted parents. She was taught the usual skills expected of women: bead work, weaving, making clothes from skins, etc. She often covered her head with a blanket to hide the scars on her face. She was offered in marriage when she was thirteen years old, but she refused the union.
She first met the Jesuit missionaries when she was eleven years old. Her uncle and adopted father did not favor the association. Her relatives continued to pressure her into marriage, but she consistently refused the offers. Eventually the women of the tribe began to ridicule her, but they no longer presented suitors for her.
When she was eighteen years old, she approached one of the Jesuit missionaries and asked to be baptized. She studied the catechism with the Jesuits and was baptized on Easter Sunday the next year. Now she came in for additional ridicule. She decided to move to the Jesuit mission where she lived with other Catholic converts. When the women of the group heard about nuns, they decided that they wanted to set up their own convent and set up an informal association of pious and devout women. Sometime later, Kateri told the Jesuit missionaries: “I have deliberated enough. For a long time my decision on what I will do has been made. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen Him for husband and He alone will take me for wife.” From that time forward, she was considered a virgin. From that time forward she was known for her life of penance, charity, industry and fortitude.
In 1680 her health began a noticeable decline. She died during Holy Week of that year. After her death, the scars on her face seemed to disappear. She who had been ridiculed and shunned because of her looks and her faith appeared beautiful in death.
In 1980 she was beatified by Pope John Paul II. In 2012 she was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. She was born just eleven years after the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues and his companions. Called the “Lily of the Mohawks,” she is the patroness of ecologists, ecology, the environment, environmentalism, environmentalists, those who have lost parents, people in exile, people ridiculed for their piety, Native Americans, and several Roman Catholic diocesan sees.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator