Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
“Kateri was a child of nature. Her sainthood will raise the minds and hearts of those who love nature and work in ecology.”
+ Bishop Stanislaus Brzana, Bishop of Ogdensburg, New York
Kateri Tekakwitha is popularly known as the patroness saint of Native Americans, First Nations Peoples, integral ecology, and traditional ecological knowledge.
Saint Kateri was born in 1656 and lived much of her life around the site of the present-day Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York.
Saint Kateri and the Indigenous Peoples had, and have, an extensive knowledge of the natural world, acquired over thousands of years of direct contact with nature. Saint Kateri is an eyewitness of the land before it would be drastically altered and damaged.
Kateri’s baptismal name is “Catherine,” which in the Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”) language is “Kateri.” Kateri’s Haudenosaunee name, “Tekakwitha,” can be translated as “One who places things in order” or “To put all into place.” Other translations include, “she pushes with her hands” and “one who walks groping for her way” (because of her faulty eyesight).
Kateri was born in 1656 at the Kanienkehaka (“Mohawk”) village of Ossernenon, which is near the present-day Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York.
Kateri’s father was a Kanienkehaka chief and her mother was an Algonquin Catholic. At the age of four, smallpox attacked Kateri’s village, taking the lives of her parents and baby brother, and leaving Kateri an orphan. Although forever weakened, scarred, and partially blind, Kateri survived. Kateri was adopted by her two aunts and her uncle, also a Kanienkehaka chief.
The brightness of the sun bothered Kateri’s eyes. She would often cover her head with a blanket, and would feel her way around as she walked.
After the smallpox outbreak subsided, Kateri and her people abandoned their village and built a new settlement called Caughnawaga, some five miles away, on the north bank of the Mohawk River, in the area of the present-day Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York.
In many ways, Kateri’s life was the same as other young Indigenous girls. It entailed days filled with chores, spending happy times with other girls, and planning for her future. Kateri grew into a young woman with a gentle, loving 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. She went to the neighboring forest to pick the roots needed to prepare medicines and dye. She collected firewood in the forest and water from a stream. Despite her poor vision, Kateri became very skilled at beadwork.
The Indigenous worldview then and now involves relationships built on reciprocity, respect, gratitude, and responsibility that extends to the natural world. It is a worldview of giving thanks daily for life and the world around us.
Kateri and the Haudenosaunee people had a deep connection with the fields, forests, rivers, and wildlife of their homeland. In Kateri’s time, and for thousands of years before then, the Haudenosaunee people carefully managed the natural world for food, shelter, and clothing. With the use of controlled fire, they managed the land for the benefit of people and all of nature, for which there was no separation. They hunted, fished, farmed, gathered, harvested, and traded for their material and spiritual needs, keenly aware of the rhythms of nature inscribed by our Creator.
Kateri may have had fond memories of her prayerful Catholic mother and the stories of faith that her mother shared with her in early childhood. These would have remained indelibly impressed upon her mind and heart and were to give shape and direction to her life’s destiny.
Kateri often went to the woods alone to speak to God and to listen to him in her heart and in the voice of nature.
When Kateri was eighteen years old, Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary, came to Caughnawaga and established a chapel. Kateri was fascinated by the stories she heard about Jesus Christ. She wanted to learn more about him and to become a Christian. Father de Lamberville asked her uncle to allow Kateri to attend religious instructions. The following Easter of 1676, twenty-year-old Kateri was baptized. Today, Saint Kateri’s Spring, located at the Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, NY, still flows with the sacred water used to baptize Kateri.
Not everyone in Kateri’s village accepted her choice to fully embrace Jesus, which for her meant refusing the marriage that had been planned for her. Kateri became a village outcast. Some members of her family refused her food on Sundays because she would not work. She suffered bullying, as some children would taunt her and throw stones. She was threatened by some with torture or death if she did not renounce her religion. Because of increasing hostility from some of her people, and because she wanted to be free to devote her life completely to Jesus, in July of 1677, Kateri left her village and traveled more than 200 miles through woods and rivers to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis, near Montreal. Kateri’s journey through the wilderness took more than two months. At the mission, Kateri lived with other Indigenous Catholics.
Because of her virtue, determination, and faith, Kateri was allowed to receive her First Holy Communion on Christmas Day in 1677. Although unable to read and write, Kateri led a life of prayer and penitential practices. She taught the young and helped those in the village who were poor or sick. People referred to her as the “Holy Woman.” Kateri spoke words of kindness to everyone she encountered.
Kateri’s motto became, “Who can tell me what is most pleasing to God that I may do it?” Kateri spent much of her time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, kneeling in 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 making a wooden cross and spending time there in prayer, kneeling in the snow. Kateri loved the Rosary and carried it with her always.
Often people would ask, “Kateri, tell us a story.” Kateri remembered everything she was told about the life of Jesus and his followers. People would listen for a long time. They enjoyed being with her because they felt the presence of God. One time a priest asked the people why they gathered around Kateri in church. They responded that they felt close to God when Kateri prayed. They said that her face changed when she was praying; it became full of beauty and peace, as if she were looking at God’s face.
On March 25, 1679, Kateri made a vow of perpetual virginity, meaning that she would remain unmarried and totally devoted to Jesus. Kateri hoped to start a convent for Native American sisters in Sault St. Louis, something she was not allowed to do.
Father Peter Cholenic said that Kateri was so filled with the spirit of God, and tasted such sweetness in its possession, that her entire exterior gave testimony of it; her eyes, her gestures, her words were filled with divine love. If one were with her, it did not take long to be touched by it, and to be warmed with this heavenly fire.
The love of Kateri for God was the source of her great love for the Holy Eucharist and Our Savior on the Cross. From the time she had any knowledge of this great Sacrament, she remained devoted to it and delighted in it until her death. Kateri would spend hours or even entire days in Eucharistic Adoration in the church, even during the coldest weather in Canada. In order to always keep the image of the Cross in mind, Kateri wore around her neck a small crucifix, frequently kissing it with feelings of gratitude.
Kateri’s health, which was never good, was deteriorating rapidly, likely due to her childhood illness and the penances she inflicted on herself. Father Cholonec encouraged Kateri to take better care of herself, but she continued with her “acts of love.”
Kateri died on April 17, 1680, at the age of 24. Her last words were, “Jesus, I love You.” Like the flower she was named for, the lily, Kateri’s life was short and beautiful. Moments after dying, her scarred face miraculously cleared and was made beautiful by God. This miracle was witnessed by two Jesuit priests and all the others able to fit into the room.
Kateri’s pious existence did not end with her physical death. Three people had visions of her in the week following her death. A chapel was built near her grave, and soon pilgrims began to visit, coming to thank God for this Holy Woman. There are many accounts of miracles attributed to Kateri’s intercession, which continues to the present day.
Kateri is known as the “Lily of the Mohawks” and the “Beautiful Flower Among True Men.” She is recognized for her heroic faith, virtue, and love of God and people, in the face of adversity, bullying, and rejection, as well as her close connection with the natural world around her.
Indigenous Catholics and others worked for many years to have Kateri canonized by the Catholic Church. The Church declared Kateri venerable in 1943. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 21, 2012, thus becoming the first female Native American and First Nations saint.
Saint Kateri recognized the inherent dignity of all people, and thus offers a bridge of peace between European and other immigrants and the Indigenous Peoples; between people and all of creation, and between people and God.
Saint Kateri’s feast day is celebrated on July 14th in the United States and on April 17th in Canada.
Pope John Paul II designated Kateri as a patroness for World Youth Day in 2002.
Saint Kateri’s tomb is located at the St. Francis Xavier Mission in the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, near Montreal, Quebec. Kateri is honored at the Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York, and at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, located near her birthplace, in Auriesville, New York.
Kateri’s name is often pronounced as kä’tu-rē. Her Haudenosaunee name, Tekakwitha, is often pronounced tek”u-kwith’u. Tekakwitha is occasionally spelled Tegakouita. The Haudenosaunee pronunciation of Kateri’s name is often described as Gah-Dah-LEE Degh-Agh-WEEdtha, Gah the lee Deh gah qwee tah, or Gaderi Dega’gwita.
“I am no longer my own. I have given myself entirely to Jesus Christ.”
+ Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
The Principle Virtues of Saint Kateri Tekawitha:
- Her Faith
- Her Hope
- Her Charity, Love of God
- Her Love of Her Neighbor
- Her Prudence
- Her Religion
- Her Devotion
- Her Penance
- Her Chastity
- Her Obedience
Father Claude Chauchetiere painted this portrait of Saint Kateri, a few years after her passing. He was one of two priests and others who witnessed Kateri’s death in 1680 at the age of 24.
Saint Kateri is venerated for her heroic faith, virtue, and love of Jesus, in the face of adversity and rejection.
Pope Francis has said that Catholics can learn a lot from Indigenous People and their love for the land.
Saint Kateri, pray for us. ❤️