Kateri Tekakwitha was a young Mohawk woman who lived in the 1600s. The story of her conversion to Christianity, her courage in the face of suffering and her extraordinary holiness are an inspiration to all Christians.
Many private miracles have been centered around Blessed Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, and the holy grounds at the National Shrine of Blessed Tekakwitha located in Fonda, New York.
The shrine was founded in honor of Kateri, for it was here that she was baptized on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1676, and lived her teenage years.
Kateri was born in 1656 of an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief in the Mohawk fortified village of Canaouaga or Ossernenon (modern day Auriesville) in upstate New York. When she was only 4 years old her parents and brother died of smallpox. Kateri survived the disease, but it left her face badly scarred and her eyesight impaired. Because of her poor vision, Kateri was named “Tekakwitha,” which means “she who bumps into things.”
Kateri was taken in by her uncle who was bitterly opposed to Christianity.
When she was 8 years old, Kateri’s foster family, in accordance with Iroquois custom, paired her with a young boy whom they expected she would marry. However, Kateri wanted to dedicate her life to God. Her uncle distrusted the settlers because of the way they treated the Indians and because they brought smallpox and other deadly diseases into the Indian community.
When Kateri was 10, in 1666, a war party composed of French soldiers and hostile Indians from Canada destroyed the Mohawk strongholds on the south bank of the Mohawk River, including Ossernenon. The surviving Mohawks moved to the north side of the river and built their fortified village about half a mile west of the present village of Fonda. Kateri lived there at the site of the present shrine for her next 10 years.
When Kateri was 18 years of age, she began instructions in the Catholic faith in secret. Her uncle finally relented and gave his consent for Kateri to become a Christian, provided that she did not try to leave the Indian village. For joining the Catholic Church, Kateri was ridiculed and scorned by villagers. She was subjected to unfair accusations and her life was threatened.
Nearly two years after her baptism in Fonda she escaped to the Mission of St. Francis Xavier, a settlement of Christian Indians in Canada. The village in Canada was named Caughnawaga (Kahnawake). Here she was known for her gentleness, kindness, and good humor. On Christmas Day 1677 Kateri made her First Holy Communion and on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1679 made a vow of perpetual virginity. She also offered herself to the Blessed Mother Mary to accept her as a daughter.
During her time in Canada, Kateri taught prayers to children and worked with the elderly and sick. She would often go to Mass both at dawn and sunset. She was known for her great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Cross of Christ.
During the last years of her life, Kateri endured great suffering from a serious illness. She died on April 17th, 1680, shortly before her 24th birthday, and was buried in Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada.
Kateri’s final words were. . . “Jesus — Mary — I love you.”
Witnesses reported that within a few minutes of her death, the pock marks from smallpox completely vanished and her face shone with radiant loveliness.
Before her death, Kateri promised her friends that she would continue to love and pray for them in heaven. Both Native Americans and settlers immediately began praying for her heavenly intercession. Several people, including a priest who attended Kateri during her last illness, reported that Kateri had appeared to them, and many healing miracles were attributed to her.
Fifty years after Kateri’s death the first convent for Indian nuns was established in Mexico. They prayed daily for sainthood for Kateri.