The following video about Kateri was produced by Salt+Light television in Canada.
A Mohawk maiden walked in the forests and glens of America a century before there was a United States, and today she is known and revered throughout the world. She was a true child of the continental wilderness that was forged into a mighty nation, and she was also chosen to experience union in prayer and contemplation with Christ. This Mohawk maiden demonstrates the Divine Presence in human lives in a remarkable and historic manner, but she also serves as a bridge between the Catholic faith and the modern Native Americans of this continent.
Her name at birth was Tekakwitha, and she received the name Kateri, or Catherine, when she was received into the Church. She is also called the Lily of the Mohawks, the Mohawk Maid, the Pure and Tender Lily, and the Fairest Flower among True Men. Tekakwitha Circles, prayer groups, have been formed throughout the United States in her honor, and the Native Americans have rejoiced in her life because she embodies the best of Indian culture and traditions.
Her name at birth was Tekakwitha, and she received the name Kateri, or Catherine, when she was received into the Church.
The Mohawks were Native Americans who were part of the Ho-dac-no-sau-nee, the “People of the Longhouses,” the Five Nation Confederacy of the Iroquois. This great union of tribes brought security and prosperity to the people of the region and earned members of the confederacy praise. Scholars refer to them as “the Romans of the New World,” while their contemporaries called them “the Kinsmen of the Wolves,” having noted the loyalty of the members of the confederacy and their ability to adapt, defend and survive according to their own laws and aspirations.
The lands of the Iroquois stretched from the area just south of Lake Ontario, through the Finger Lakes, along the Mohawk River and into Appalachia. The valleys of the Hudson River welcomed the tribes, and vast stands of beech, birch, chestnuts, elms, maples, poplars and oak trees abounded. Firs and spruce grew in the higher elevations of the territory.
The Ho-dac-no-sau-nee shared this area, which was called Iroquoia, and the Mohawks resided in the region from the Hudson River, through Lake George, Lake Champlain, and the Richelieu River. The Mohawks erected large communities within their domain, called “Castles” and guarded the eastern “door” to Iroquoia; standing as a formidable foe to other Native Americans or to any white settlers who tried to invade their lands. In time, seeing the benefits of the Five Nation Confederacy, Benjamin Franklin brought various leaders of the American colonies to learn about the union from the Iroquois chiefs. The colonists learned the advantages and even the necessity of uniting in their efforts to be free of British domination and decided after speaking to the Iroquois that the time had come to stand side by side against tyranny.
The Five Nation Confederacy was unique on the American continent and a union that was lasting, being the vision of a great sage named Dekanawidah (Tekanawita), in c. 1570. Dekanawidah dreamed of the Kaianerekowa, the Tree of Great Peace, towering over a council of tribes, imparting courage, peace and wisdom. He confided this vision to a remarkable Mohawk warrior named Hiawatha, and together they spread the word about the achievements possible in unity. Hiawatha visited all of the tribes in the region, speaking eloquently about the bonds that could be forged, and about the vision. One by one the tribes listened to his magnificent orations and agreed to be part of Dekanawidaha’s vision for the future.
The Oneidas, the Ona-yotac-ka, the People of the Stone; the Onondagas, the O-nun-da-ga-o-no, the People on the Hill; the Cayugas, the Gue-u-gweh-o-no, the People of the Marshes; the Senecas, the Nun-da-wa-o-ne, the Great Hill People, and the Mohawks, the Ga-nac-a-ga-o-no, the Flint Processing People, agreed to the union. In time, the Tuscaroras also joined the confederacy. These tribes had a united population estimated at about 25,000, which meant that in times of peril or conflict they could field 3,000 or more warriors to defend their lands.
The Council of Fifty Sachems, or chiefs, met on special occasions at Onondaga, under the Tree of Great Peace, and when the first such gathering was held, an eagle perched in the tree and watched the proceedings, a profound omen for good. After the death of Hiawatha, only forty-nine sachems or chiefs met in the shade of the Kaianerekowa. Hiawatha’s place was left vacant out of reverence and respect.
It is interesting to note that the elder women of the tribes elected these sachems. These Indian matrons had known each chief from birth and could judge his ability to make decisions and his powers from experience. Indian women of Iroquoia were also trained to accept responsibility and to use their standing and rights for the service of the tribes.
The birthplace of Kateri Tekakwitha was the Mohawk settlement at Ossernenon, the “Castle” that was located near modern Auriesville, New York. She was born c. 1656, the daughter of a Mohawk war chief of the Turtle Clan, named Kenhoronkwa, and Kahenta, a Christian Algonquin who had been taken captive. Kahenta, being an Algonquin captive, was honored by the role of being a full-fledged wife of Kenhoronkwa. Warriors did not have to formalize relationships with captives, but Kenhoronkwa married her in the Mohawk tradition, and she bore him a daughter and a son.
She was born circa 1656, the daughter of a Mohawk war chief of the Turtle Clan.
Kahenta could not practice her faith openly in the Mohawk domain, but she kept the memory of the valiant Jesuit martyrs of the area in her heart. St. Isaac Jogues had been cruelly slain by the Mohawks at Ossernenon just a decade earlier, and others had died proclaiming the Gospel to the tribes in the region. She probably sang Christian hymns to Tekakwitha as she carried her about in the elaborate Mohawk back-cradles, and she may even have prayed with her small daughter when they were alone.
In 1660, a terrible sickness – the white man’s smallpox – swept through the Mohawk settlement, coming perhaps from a nearby Dutch enclave. Many died because the Mohawks had never been exposed to smallpox and had no defense against the ravages of the disease. Chief Kenhoronkwa, Kahenta and their son were among the dead. Tekakwitha, desperately ill, was nursed by the Mohawk matrons and survived. Her sight was severely damaged, and her skin was scarred by the small pox, a grim reminder of the epidemic.
Iowerano, Tekakwitha’s uncle, adopted her when she was orphaned, and his family carried her away from the deadly encampment as the clan sought a place of refuge from so much suffering and death. Tekakwitha was taken to Caughnawaga, the site of the “Laughing Water,” near present-day Fonda, New York. There the efficient, compact life of the Mohawks was rebuilt with care as longhouses were renovated or rebuilt in the pristine wilderness.
Caughnawaga and other Mohawk “Castles” were elaborate compounds, covering several acres and surrounded by palisades with towers and decks for defensive positions in case of attack. Individual wooden longhouses composed the settlement, and these structures were formed by bending the trunks of sapling trees to create a rounded roof and to provide a secure foundation for the outer walls. Tied carefully together, these frames were covered in elm bark to protect the interiors and to keep the rain or snow from damaging the structures. The longhouses erected side by side or along one perimeter, were 400 or more feet long and about 22-25 feet wide. Smoke halls were built into the roofs for family cooking fires, and a central corridor was fashioned as a thoroughfare. Individual partitioned areas opened onto these central corridors and were allocated to individual families.
Corncribs, storehouses and racks for smoking the game brought in by the hunters were located alongside the longhouses. Farmlands were also cultivated, as the Mohawks depended on the “Three Sisters,” corn, squash and beans, as staples in their diets. They also grew tobacco for ceremonial purposes.
Elderly Mohawk matrons guided life in each of the tribal compounds. The male Mohawks were the Warriors of the Woodlands, guarding the homelands and providing rich larders of the local game, but they had little say in domestic affairs. The elder women also decided the fate of captives and took part in the ritual torture and slaying of such prisoners.
These matrons guarded Tekakwitha because she was a high ranking maiden and an orphan, traditionally considered someone to be given special attention and care. Tekakwitha, also called Tegarouita or Tegakhouita, meant “she who puts things in order,” or “she who advances or opens the way before her.” Tekakwitha’s aunts, Karitha and Arsone, dressed her in beautiful blouses and skirts made of cleaned skins and decorated with beads, quills, shells, stones and feathers.
She also attended the festivals of the seasons: the Maple Dance, the Strawberry Celebration, the Time of the Green Corn and the Harvesting. The New Year’s Jubilee lasted for seven days, preceded by the “Meeting of Repentance,” a ceremony in which every man, woman and child admitted to personal faults and promised greater service to others in the days to come.
Tekakwitha learned domestic duties while growing up in Caughnawaga, particularly the decoration of articles of clothing. Her impaired vision did not interfere with this close work, and her decorations were prized. She was considered sweet tempered and a willing worker, and she learned new domestic skills as she grew older. The question of marriage also entered into her conversations with her aunts, and Tekakwitha shied from the subject. The Mohawk matrons considered this reaction a sign of her modesty and shyness and were patient. Marriage was the normal and accepted way of life, and the women believed that she would adjust in time to the inevitable.
These caring women had no way of knowing that Tekakwitha was beginning to glimpse another dimension of the human journey through life, an aspect of existence well beyond their experiences. In 1670, a Catholic mission had been opened at Caughnawaga as a result of a treaty with the French. Three Jesuits from Canada, at that time called New France, started the mission among the Mohawks, and upon their arrival they did encounter the blessed maiden. Iowerano was acting as host during the visit of the priests, despite his misgivings about their presence, and Tekakwitha served her uncle’s guests and attended the welcoming ceremonies. When asked later about their impressions of the young woman, one remarked that she had demonstrated a sweet docility.
Father John Pierron was the first pastor in the Mohawk “Castle” mission when it was officially opened. He artistically designed scenes and symbols to illustrate the Catholic faith for teaching the Mohawks and moved from “point to point,” using these depictions to demonstrate the journey of a human being in life and in death. The Mohawks were impressed with the tenets of the faith shown to them because they agreed with their traditions in many ways.
Father Pierron was succeeded in the mission by a very gifted linguist, Father Francis Boniface, another Jesuit, who learned to converse in the Mohawk tongue and then translated prayers and devotions to make them accessible to the people. Soon a mission choir was formed, and many Mohawks attended the liturgical services because they appreciated the artistry of the music. Tekakwitha did not take an active part in the Catholic services, but she watched and listened.
The feast of Christmas was celebrated with all sorts of elaborate decorations in the mission chapel and a complete manger scene, including a Christ Child. The Mohawks were entranced by the Prince of Peace and flocked to the chapel. Tekakwitha was probably there often, opening to Christ’s love. Without formal guidance, she experienced that love and was already seeking ways in which to give praise in the Divine Presence. She prayed and meditated on what she had learned while performing her duties in the longhouse or in the silent forest.
Father Boniface converted thirty adult Mohawks, and he learned to trust another convert, a Mohawk chief named Kryn, called the “Great Mohawk” by the clans. Kryn resided at the Catholic enclave at the Sault Mission on the St. Lawrence River, which had become the haven for converts to the faith. The converts at Caughnawaga decided to join Kryn after their baptisms and moved there to live in peace as Christians. This exodus alarmed Iowerano, who realized that the Christians who deserted the Mohawk compounds for the new way of life would in time decimate the nation and lead to the destruction of all that the clans had forged over the centuries. Iowerano watched in dismay as Father Boniface led the converts north to their haven. The priest returned to his mission after the journey, but he died suddenly on December 17, 1674.
His successor was Father Jacques de Lamberville, another veteran Jesuit and the priest who was given the grace to recognize the virtues and spiritual gifts of Tekakwitha. The Mohawks called him “Dawn of Day.” He was a profound scholar as well as a missionary, and he had a brother, Jean, also in the Society of Jesus, who spent decades with the Iroquois.
Father Lamberville did not know Tekakwitha when he first arrived, but one day after becoming settled in the mission, he passed the longhouse of her clan and felt compelled to look inside. He did not expect anyone to be there because most duties took the Mohawks out of doors during the day, but he discovered Tekakwitha sitting with two young Mohawk women. She had injured her foot in some fashion and was resting.
Quite unexpectedly, Tekakwitha ignored the presence of the other young women and began speaking to Father de Lamberville of her Christian mother and of her own knowledge of the Catholic faith, gleaned from listening to the sermons and the liturgies. She then asked for the privilege of being baptized in the Church.
Her announcement astonished her companions, of course, and Father de Lamberville was also taken aback. He did not discourage Tekakwitha, but he did not offer much support either, preferring to stay objective and dispassionate about the prospect of her conversion. To begin with, she was the daughter of one chief and the ward of another. Such a maiden could not be accepted for baptism without care and prudence or the mission would suffer the wrath of the entire Mohawk nation. He urged patience and said that she would have to attend the catechetical classes leading to baptism, despite her obvious knowledge and her rank. It was evident that she was already well informed about the faith, and the priest was beginning to suspect that she was spiritually mature beyond her years. Her phrases and her radiance when she discussed matters of the soul demonstrated the fact that Tekakwitha had encountered Christ in the Mohawk settlement. She agreed to his requirements amiably, and her companions sped away to announce the astonishing news.
When the elder women heard about Tekakwitha attending Christian classes, they did not oppose the idea. Such sessions would bring her into contact with others and perhaps lead her to appreciate the warmth and vitality of the people around her, especially those of her own age. Her refusals concerning recent marriage offers had caused considerable upset, and the elder matrons had treated her harshly as a result of her stubborn refusal to do what they considered normal. Tekakwitha had submitted meekly and without anger to their severe treatment, and she had won their respect for her strength and resolve. She represented the finest attributes in being willing to suffer for what she believed was right, and the elder women admired her for showing courage. They did not intend to allow her to live alone all of her life, certainly, but they were willing to wait and see what developed naturally.
Iowerano also talked to Tekakwitha about her intended conversion. He did not forbid her to undergo the lessons or the baptism, but he cautioned her about her standing and the decorum that must be kept. The Christian Mohawks seemed to share an affectionate unity that made them quite unique, and Iowerano did not want to see Tekakwitha forgetting her rank or obligations to the clan in the rush of enthusiasm.
Father de Lamberville was actually more troubled about Tekakwitha’s conversion than the Mohawks were. Additional conversations with her had made it quite obvious that she was a soul with many gifts and graces, and encountering such individuals can challenge any missionary or pastor. Such mystically advanced souls need guidance, but they are clearly chosen by God to spiritual heights unknown by most humans and drawn to a lifestyle that few humans understand. The really astonishing aspect of the entire matter was the fact that Tekakwitha was a child of the American wilderness, not a cloistered nun or recluse. Encountering such a mystic in the wilds was perplexing and called for caution and prayerful considerations. Only time would prove the stability and authenticity of Tekakwitha’s spiritual abilities, Father de Lamberville realized, and he intended using the days and weeks of her catechetical schooling to investigate every aspect of her life. Only then would he be able to determine the depths of her soul and the will of God in her life.
Tekakwitha attended the classes and services with the other Mohawk converts and remained serene and silent, and Father de Lamberville did speak to the elder women, inquiring about her character. Everyone agreed that Tekakwitha was gentle, kindly, obedient and prudent in her dealings with others. The matrons complained about her refusal of marriage offers, but there was no scandal or gossip attached to her name. Within weeks, Father de Lamberville recognized the fact that Tekakwitha was a radiant vessel of grace, led by the Holy Spirit to union with God.
Tekakwitha became Kateri Tekakwitha on Easter Sunday, 1676. Named after St. Catherine of Siena, the great mystic of Italy, she was baptized in the presence of a large number of Mohawks. They attended the service out of curiosity or concern, and they witnessed the sudden expression of joy that transfigured Kateri during the ceremony.
The persecution of Kateri Tekakwitha started almost immediately after her baptism. Totally immersed in meditation, she spent her days and nights in prayer, a practice that irritated her Mohawk family and companions. The festivals and gatherings did not draw her from her prayers, and some matrons began to complain that she no longer paid enough attention to perform her duties with care. She became known as the “Christian,” a name directed at her with scorn. Even the small children of the settlement followed her about and made fun of her because she was different, perhaps even a bit mad by their standards. More menacing was a confrontation with a young Mohawk warrior who promised that if she did not give up her Christian ways he would kill her.
Father de Lamberville saw the rising anger among the Mohawks and worried, but Kateri Tekakwitha did not complain. Actually, when he asked her about her humiliations and confrontations, she dismissed them as inconsequential when compared to the sufferings of Christ. Kateri Tekakwitha’s aunt then came to him to accuse the young mystic of an incestuous relationship with Iowerano having come to this conclusion because of a minor incident. Father de Lamberville was horrified at such insane slander and forbade the woman to ever discuss it again. Privately he prayed for guidance, hoping that he could find a way to free Kateri Tekakwitha of the torment.
The answer to Father de Lamberville’s prayers arrived at Caughnawaga in the person of a prominent and beloved Oneida chief named Garonhiague but called “Hot Cinders.” The chief was an ardent Christian, and he brought two Christian companions to the settlement, one reportedly a relative of Kateri Tekakwitha on her mother’s side. ”Hot Cinders,” who had been given that name by the French because of his fiery, explosive personality, now attended two Masses each day and was calm and wise in his dealings with one and all. Father de Lamberville discussed the situation with the Oneida chief, who watched Kateri Tekakwitha and understood that she had to be taken to the Sault Mission haven in the north.
When “Hot Cinders” and his companions left Caughnawaga in two canoes, the Mohawk maiden was with them, and soon the word spread of her disappearance throughout the longhouses. Iowerano was informed, and he picked up his rifle and started out in pursuit. He did not find Kateri Tekakwitha because “Hot Cinders” had placed her in the care of the two Christian warriors, and they managed to divert Iowerano and to begin their journey in earnest.
Moving up the Hudson River to Lake George, and then into Lake Champlain, they entered the Richelieu River and made their way to safety. The mission of St. Francis Xavier de Sault was their goal. That mission had been entrusted to the Jesuits in 1680 by King Louis XIV of France, who had provided the site at Sault (French for rapids) near La Prairie de Madeleine. The Portage River emptied into the mighty St. Lawrence there, and the mission stood on a wide plateau. Some 120 to 150 Christian Indians resided there, surrounded by forests, streams, Lake Paul and verdant pastures.
The actual mission was surrounded by a stockade to fend off hostile attackers, but the cabins of the Christian Native Americans were erected outside of the enclave so that their traditional ways could be followed with ease. The Catholic faith was no an alien aspect of the lives of these Christians but the focus of their energies and labors within the framework of their heritage. These Indian converts were not asked to assume the ways of the whites as part of their conversions but were encouraged to sanctify the tribal customs in Christ. Such an approach by the Jesuit priests resulted in whole individuals, who were able to use their own strengths and virtues as foundations for their beliefs. The Christian Indians at Sault were respected by the whites of the region for their piety and distinct communal spirit. The whites in neighboring areas asked for permission to take part in the liturgies, discovering a unique spiritual benefit from such encounters.
Kateri Tekakwitha was now in the midst of these devout converts, and she had arrived with a letter addressed to the resident missionaries Father de Lamberville had sent the letter with her. It read simply: “I send you a treasure, guard it well.”
If the Sault Mission priests were confused by the cryptic message, they discovered the truth of the words quickly enough. Kateri Tekakwitha was unlike anyone they had ever met. She was offered a place in the residence of a group called her “relatives” in the records. There she met Anastasia, a woman who had known her mother years before, and there she began her spiritual consummation in Christ.
Like the other members of her family and clan, Kateri Tekakwitha was able to continue the routines of her Mohawk people in Sault Mission, with the Christian liturgies and sacraments available every day. She maintained her steadfast hours of prayer and meditation, and she also continued to perform her daily tasks with care. These chores or duties were part of her holiness, because she sanctified each one with love and dedication. Nothing great or small was performed unless it was done for Christ. The tasks were part of her life, but they were altered by her intentions and by her awareness that such menial activities could bring her closer to God. Actually, she had practiced the same spiritually mature awareness in Caughnawaga, but her enrapt appearance, her unbending focus on the divine had alarmed her family and companions. They could not possibly understand what the Church teaches as the Little Way: the day- to-day sanctification of normal, average obligations by dedicating them solely to Christ. Understanding that her existence was not involved in great deeds or adventures, Kateri Tekakwitha performed whatever duties came her way with heroic virtue instead. She did not seek relief, even when she was ill or exhausted. She bore the calumny heaped upon her and walked bravely on a path that others scorned because she had glimpsed the welcoming embrace of Christ.
She attended Mass each morning, praying as the Indian choirs accompanied the liturgy in harmonious chants. The Blessed Sacrament was available throughout the day for meditation, and Vespers were recited at three in the afternoon. The Brotherhood of the Holy Family, an association of truly devout men, assisted everyone at the Masses and watched throughout the year for lapses, errors or a return to pagan ways among the Indians of the mission. There had been similar associations among the Mohawks and other tribes, called the Keepers of the Faith. Kateri Tekakwitha was invited to enter the Brotherhood of the Faith, a truly rare honor, because the members had recognized that she was a vessel of grace and of purity.
The Indians at Sault Mission who had converted to Catholicism had recognized a genuine need for personal penance. Some practiced harsh physical punishments, and Kateri Tekakwitha joined them for a time, injuring her health. She understood, finally, she was not like the others, and the priests and Native Americans at Sault Mission recognized that rather quickly. Quite simply, everyone came to the conclusion that they were living with a saint. She existed only for the love of God, giving praise, thanksgiving and devotion to the Most Blessed Trinity, imploring the Blessed Virgin Mary to make her worthy of her gifts and graces.
Kateri Tekakwitha went on one annual winter hunt expedition, but it caused yet another woman to suspect that the Mohawk maiden was seeking a husband, and the devotions carried out in the wilderness could not replace the Real Presence in the mission church. Returning to Sault, Kateri Tekakwitha met Marie Teresa Tagaigenta, who had lived through horrors on the trails in the past and had finally come to her senses and repented a wasted life.
Kateri Tekakwitha also visited the growing city of Montreal, Ville Marie, and there she discovered women religious, those devout nuns who cared for others in hospitals and schools and lived only for Christ. Upon her return to Sault Mission, she asked the priest if she could enter such a convent. He laughed at the idea, being unable to envision Indian women in the cloister. Kateri Tekakwitha accepted the unintended ridicule but then asked if she could take a vow of perpetual virginity, and the priest could not laugh at that ambition. On March 25, 1679, Kateri Tekakwitha vowed to live as a Bride of Christ, as a virgin forever. She was seen kneeling motionless and oblivious to everything else when she had received the vow. Also, that solemn commitment set the seal upon her life, and many suspected that she would not remain on the earth much longer.
Their sorrowful predictions were correct. Kateri Tekakwitha began to fail in health in the following year, and she was forced to remain in her cot outside of the mission enclave. Priests and Indians visited her all day long, and the Brotherhood of the Faith stood guard at all hours.Â Their treasure was being taken away, they knew, and they had to find ways in which they could honor her fleeting presence. The priests also brought Communion to her bedside, something that they normally did not do, being cautious with the Blessed Sacrament. They then administered the viaticum as her death approached. Accustomed to wearing well-worn, shabby clothes, Kateri Tekakwitha expressed a desire to be clad in fine apparel when she received Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and a beautiful outfit was brought to her so that she could greet her Bridegroom in earthly splendor.
She knew the hour of her death and waited patiently, as docile as she had been when the first missionaries saw her in her uncle’s home, and her last words on earth were: Iesos konoronkwa, “Jesus, I love you.”Â Kateri Tekakwitha died on Wednesday of Holy Week, April 17, 1680, and the mission community was devastated with sorrow as they watched her close her eyes and slip away from them. Then her body took on a lustrous radiance and the scars disappeared from her face as the mourners watched in astonishment.
Two French trappers came on the scene at that instant, and seeing the crowds gathered, went inside and discovered a beautiful maiden shining on the simple cot. Kneeling, the two asked what lovely creature had some to the mission. The assembled Indians told them that it was Kateri Tekakwitha, and the Frenchmen vowed then to make her a magnificent coffin, which they did provide. Word went out from Sault Mission as well, and the runners who spread the news to Indians and whites alike, did not have to explain who had left the earth. They simply repeated the message that was understood by one and all: “The saint is dead!”
The principal relics of Kateri Tekakwitha are enshrined within a sealed marble tomb at Saint Francis Xavier Mission, now at Kahnawake, near Montreal, Canada. When the mission was moved, her remains were exhumed and moved as well. In the late 1800′s, a monument was erected over her original burial site. The Native Americans began their devotions to Kateri Tekakwitha almost at once, and novenas were recited and Masses celebrated. She appeared to mission members soon after her death, and within months favors were reported as a result of her intercession.
In 1942, Pope Pius XII declared her Venerable, and Pope John Paul II declared her Blessed on June 22, 1980. She was also named as a patroness of World Youth Day 2002.