Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680)
She is the first Native American to be beatified. She was the daughter of Kahenta (Flower of the Prairie), a native Algonquin taken on a raid to New York. Her father was a Mohawk chief, Kenhornkwa (Beloved). The family lived in Osserneon, what is now Auerieville, New York. Kateri had a brother named Otsikehta. When she was four years old, her parents and brother died from a small pox epidemic. Although she survived the epidemic, she was left with her face permanently disfigured and her vision impaired. Kateri was adopted by her uncle and two aunts. She lived a secluded life, doing house chores and remaining indoors most of the time because her inability to tolerate bright sunlight.
The first missionaries arrived at the request of the Mohawks, who wanted the “Black Robes”, the Jesuits. Upon arrival they were assigned to stay in the same dwelling in which she was living with her family. After three days they left to visit other Mohawk settlements with no apparent affect on Kateri. Upon the arrival of other Jesuit missionaries, the Mohawks converted to Catholicism and moved from the village to a mission with other Christians. When she made known her desire for baptism, her uncle opposed. Finally he consented but with the stipulation that she would remain in the village after baptism.
A two-year instruction period was the rule, but an exception was made for her because of her reputation of integrity. She was baptized on Easter, April 5, 1676 and given the name Catherine (Kateri in Iroquois). Everyone rejoiced with her. However, the rejoicing disappeared because Kateri attempted to keep Sunday Holy by not working. People judged her as lazy. Others ridiculed her strong devotion to Mary and the rosary. Her celibate lifestyle caused intense hostility. Her aunts attempted to trick her into marrying a young warrior. Her uncle urged others to molest her. One aunt attempted to destroy her reputation by insisting there was an incestuous relationship between her and her uncle. A young man attempted to kill her with a tomahawk. Teasing, insults, mockery and harsh treatment were common in her daily life. Despite this she remained cheerful to everyone.
Kateri decided to leave the village upon hearing about the life of a catechist, who came to the village and lived on a mission. While her uncle was away, a few men helped her to escape. When he returned, he left with a loaded gun in pursuit of his niece. He gave up the chase and returned home.
Kateri arrived at the mission in the autumn of 1677. She resided with a friend of her mother, Anastasia and with direction from a Jesuit missionary, her spiritual life continued to develop. That Christmas, over 18 months after her baptism, she made her first Communion. Everyone who knew her, thought her deserving of becoming a member of an organization, Confraternity of the Holy Family, reserved for outstanding Catholics. On Easter Sunday, she entered the confraternity and received Communion, the second time in her life.
Prayer became important to Kateri. Early writings disclose that at 4:00am each morning, no matter the weather, she was in church and remained several hours in prayer. Although Kateri lived an ordinary life, she wanted to dedicate herself to God. She was permitted to make a vow of perpetual virginity on Mar. 25th, 1679. A deep friendship was developed with a widow, Marie Therese. They became spiritual companions, encouraged one another in prayer and penance, and conversed about God and spiritual matters.
Kateri became seriously ill during Holy Week of 1680. It was customary for persons who desired to receive viaticum to be brought to church: however, because of her holiness, viaticum was brought to her. She died Wednesday, April 17th, 1680 at the age of 24. Those who saw her after her death described a beautiful change in her features in that her facial disfigurement disappeared entirely.
She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980 and has the distinction of being the first Native American beatified by the Catholic Church.
Her name Tekakwitha has been interpreted, “that which or who puts things in order” or “one who advances and who casts something before her”. As Kateri, she became known as a lily among thorns, the Lily of Mohawks, and “The Most Beautiful Flower that ever bloomed for the Indians.”