Kateri Tekakwitha , baptised as Catherine Tekakwitha and informally known as Lily of the Mohawks (1656 – April 17, 1680), was an Algonquin-Mohawk Catholic virgin and religious laywoman. Born in present-day New York, she survived smallpox and was orphaned as a child, then baptized as a Roman Catholic and settled for the last years of her life at the Jesuit mission village of Kahnawake, south of Montreal in New France.
Tekakwitha professed a vow of virginity until her death at the age of 24. Known for her virtue of chastity and corporal mortification of the flesh, as well as being shunned by her tribe for her religious conversion to Catholicism, she is the first Native American woman to be venerated in the Roman Catholic Church. She was beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1980. On February 18, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI announced at Saint Peter’s Basilica that Tekakwitha is scheduled to be formally canonized on October 21, 2012. Various miracles and supernatural events are attributed to her name after her death.
Kateri Tekakwitha (the name “Kateri” is derived from the French Catherine, her baptismal name) was born around 1656 in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon near present-day Auriesville, New York. She was the daughter of Kenneronkwa, a Mohawk chief, and Tagaskouita, a Roman Catholic Algonquin who had been adopted into the tribe after capture. Her mother Tagaskouita had been baptized and educated by French missionaries in Trois-Rivières, east of Montreal. Mohawk warriors captured her and took her to their homeland. She eventually married Kenneronkwa.
Kateri’s village was highly diverse, as the Mohawk were absorbing many captured natives of other tribes, particularly their competitors the Huron, to replace people who died from European diseases or warfare. She was most likely born into the Turtle Clan. (The Mohawk and other Iroquois had a matrilineal kinship system, in which children were born into the mother’s clan and took their status from her.) When she was young, her village moved to a different location. The Mohawk suffered from a smallpox epidemic from 1661 to 1663. Kateri’s brother and both her parents died, and she was left with scars and impaired eyesight. She was adopted by her maternal uncle, a chief of the Turtle Clan.
The Jesuits’ account of Kateri said that she was a modest girl who avoided social gatherings; she covered much of her head with a blanket because of the smallpox scars. They told that, as an orphan, she was under the care of uninterested relatives. However, this was probably not the case; the Jesuits wanted to present her as unique among the “pagan savages.” According to Mohawk practices, she was probably well taken care of by her clan, her mother and uncle’s extended family, with whom she lived in the longhouse. She became skilled at traditional women’s arts, which included making clothing and belts from animal skins; weaving mats, baskets and boxes from reeds and grasses;, and preparing food from game, crops and gathered produce. She took part in the women’s seasonal planting and intermittent weeding. She was pressured to consider marriage around age thirteen, but reportedly she refused.
Kateri grew up in a period of constant change as the Mohawk interacted with French and Dutch colonists. In the fur trade, the Mohawk originally traded with the Dutch, who had settled in Albany and Schenectady. The French traded with and were allied with the Huron. Trying to make inroads in Iroquois territory, the French attacked the Mohawk in present-day central New York in 1666, destroying several villages and their winter stores.
After the defeat by the French forces, the Mohawk were forced into a peace treaty that required them to accept Jesuit missionaries in their villages. While there, the Jesuits studied Mohawk and other native languages in order to reach the people. They spoke of Christianity in terms with which the Mohawk could identify. In his work on Tekakwitha, Darren Bonaparte (Mohawk) notes the parallels between some elements of Mohawk and Christian belief. For instance, the Jesuits used the word Karonhià:ke, the Mohawk name for Sky World, as the word for heaven in the Lord’s Prayer in Mohawk. “This was not just a linguistic shortcut, but a conceptual bridge from one cosmology to another.”
The Mohawk rebuilt on the south side of the Mohawk River at what they called Caughnawaga. In 1667, when Kateri was 11 years old, she met the Jesuits Jacques Fremin, Jacques Bruyas, and Jean Pierron, who had come to the village. Her uncle was against any contact with them because he did not want her to convert to Christianity. One of his older daughters had already left Caughnawaga to go to Kahnawake, the Catholic mission village near Montreal.
In the spring of 1675 at age eighteen, Kateri met the Jesuit Father Jacques de Lamberville and started studying the catechism with him.
Conversion and Kahnawake
Judging her ready for true conversion, Lamberville baptized Tekakwitha at the age of 20, on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1676. This is significant because, according to Jesuit policy, baptism was usually withheld for new converts until one was on his deathbed or until the missionaries could be certain that the convert would be committed.
After Catherine was baptized, she remained in Caughnawauga for only another 6 months. Some Mohawk opposed her conversion and accused her of sorcery and sexual promiscuity. Lamberville suggested that she go to the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake, located south of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River, where other native converts had gathered. Catherine joined them in 1677.
The historian Allan Greer notes that most of these early converts to Christianity were women. They lived in a way which they thought was integral to Christianity, dependent on charity. They devoted their bodies and souls to God and participated in mortification of the flesh. There were similar practices among Mohawk traditions, usually carried out by warriors. Despite opposition from the Jesuits, the women of the village continued to practice mortification, usually in groups, claiming it was needed to relieve their people of their past sins. The people of Kahnawake usually followed the directions of the Jesuits; at other times, they evaded their control. On the whole, they wanted to experience the sacred and spiritual life, and they were determined to do this with or without the Jesuits.
Tekakwitha was said to have put thorns on her sleeping mat and lay on them while praying for the conversion and forgiveness of her kinsmen. Piercing the body to draw blood was a traditional practice of the Mohawk and other Iroquois nations. She lived at Kahnawake the remaining two years of her life. She learned more about Christianity under her mentor Anastasia, who taught her about the practice of repenting for one’s sins. When the women learned of nuns and female convents, they wanted to form their own and created an informal association of devout women.
Father Cholonec wrote that Tekakwitha said,
“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”.
The Church considers that in 1679, with her decision on the Feast of the Annunciation, her conversion was truly completed and she became the “first virgin” among the Mohawk.
Mission du Sault St. Louis: Kahnawake
The Jesuits had founded Kahnawake for the religious conversion of the natives. When it began, the natives built longhouses for residences. They also built a longhouse to be used as a chapel by the Jesuits. As a missionary settlement, Kahnawake was at risk of being attacked by nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. (While it attracted other Iroquois, it was predominately Mohawk.)
After Catherine’s arrival, she shared the longhouse of her older sister and her husband. She would have known other people in the longhouse who had migrated from their former village of Gandaouagué (also spelled Caughnawaga). Her mother’s close friend, Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo, was clan matron of the longhouse. Anastasia and other Mohawk women introduced Tekakwitha to the regular practices of Christianity.
Chauchetière and Cholenec
Claude Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec were Jesuit priests who played important roles in Tekakwitha’s life. Both were based in New France and in Kahnawake. Chauchetière was the first to write a biography of Tekakwitha’s life, followed by Cholenec, in 1695 and 1696, respectively. Cholenec arrived in New France in 1672, before Chauchetière. Father Cholenec introduced whips, hair shirts and iron girdles, traditional items of Catholic mortification, to the converts at Kahnawake so they would adopt these rather than use Mohawk practices.
Both Chauchetière and Tekakwitha arrived in Kahnawake the same year, in 1677. He later wrote about having been very impressed by her, as he had not expected a native to be so pious. Chauchetière came to believe that Catherine Tekakwitha was a saint. Jesuits generally thought that the natives needed Christian guidance to be set on the right path. Chauchetière acknowledged that close contact with and deeper knowledge of the natives in Kahnawake changed some of his set notions about the people and about differences among human cultures. In his biography of her, he stressed her “charity, industry, purity, and fortitude.” In contrast, Cholenec stressed her virginity, perhaps to counter stereotypes of promiscuous Indian women.
The Jesuits wanted to guide natives and share their Catholic religion, but at this time, they did not provide for natives to be trained or ordained as clergy or religious. The most devout of the natives wanted full access to the religion and believed that some secrets were being held from them. As most converts to Catholicism were women, they comprised the majority of the devout.
Tekakwitha met Marie-Thérèse Tegaiaguenta for the first time in the spring of 1678. Aspiring to devotion, they began to practice mutual flagellation in secret. Cholenec wrote that Catherine could flog herself between one thousand and twelve hundred blows in one session. Tekakwitha’s dedication to ritual mortification became more intense and consuming over the remainder of her life; she included prolonged fasting, flogging, cutting, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and burning herself with hot coals. Marie Skarichions told Catherine and Marie-Thérèse about nuns, female religious, and their role in the Catholic religion. Through their mutual quest, the two women had a strong “spiritual friendship,” as described by the Jesuits.
The two women influenced a circle of associates. When they asked the Jesuits for permission to form a group of native disciples, they were told they were too “young in faith” for such a group. The women continued to practice together, including mortification of the flesh. Marie-Thérèse eventually left the group, supposedly due to personal issues. Catherine tried to reintegrate her into the group until her death. She had often given her guidance. Examples recorded by the priests were the following:
- “Take courage, despite the words of those who have no faith.”
- “Be assured that you are pleasing in the sight of God and that I shall help you when I am with Him.”
- “Never give up mortification.”
Death and appearances
Around the period of Holy Week 1679, friends noted that Tekakwitha was failing. When people knew she had but a few hours left, villagers gathered together, accompanied by the priests Chauchetière and Cholenec. Cholenec provided the last rites. Catherine Tekakwitha died on April 17, 1680 at the age of 24, in the arms of her friend Marie-Therèse. Chauchetière reports her final words were, “I will love you in heaven.”
After her death, the people noticed a physical change. Cholenec later wrote, “This face, so marked and swarthy, suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful and so white that I observed it immediately.”Tekakwitha is said to have appeared before three individuals in the weeks after her death; Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo (her mentor), Marie-Therèse Tegaiaguenta (her companion) and Father Chauchetière. Anastasia said that, while crying over the death of her daughter, she looked up to see Catherine “kneeling at the foot” of her mattress, “holding a wooden cross that shone like the sun”. Marie-Thérèse reported that she was awakened at night by a knocking on her wall, and a voice asked if she were awake, adding, “I’ve come to say good-bye; I’m on my way to heaven.” Marie-Thérèse went outside but saw no one; she heard a voice murmur, “Adieu, Adieu, go tell the father that I’m going to heaven.” Chauchetière reported seeing Catherine at her grave; he said she appeared in “baroque splendour; for 2 hours he gazed upon her” and “her face lifted toward heaven as if in ecstasy.”
Chauchetière had a chapel built near her gravesite. By 1684, pilgrimages had begun to honour her there. The Jesuits turned her bones to dust and set the ashes within the “newly rebuilt mission chapel.” This symbolized her presence on earth. Her physical remains were sometimes used as relics for healing. Chauchetière and Cholenec wrote accounts of her life.
Tekakwitha’s grave stone reads:
Ownkeonweke Katsitsiio Teonsitsianekaron
Because of Tekakwitha’s notable path to chastity, she is often referred to as a lily, a traditional symbol of purity among Roman Catholics and one often used for the Virgin Mary. Religious images of Tekakwitha are often decorated with a lily and cross, with feathers or turtle as cultural accessories. Colloquial terms for Tekakwitha are The Lily of the Mohawks (most notable), the Mohawk Maiden, the Pure and Tender Lily, the Flower among True Men, the Lily of Purity and The New Star of the New World. Her tribal neighbors referred to her as “the fairest flower that ever bloomed among the redmen.”‘Her virtues are considered an ecumenical bridge between Mohawk and European cultures.
For some time after her death, Tekakwitha was considered an honorary yet unofficial patroness of Montreal, Canada, and Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Fifty years after her death, a convent for Native American nuns opened in Mexico. They have prayed for her and support her canonization.
The process for Tekakwitha’s canonization was initiated by United States Catholics in 1884, followed by Canadian Catholics. In January 3, 1943, Pope Pius XII declared her venerable. She was beatified as Catherine Tekakwitha on June 22, 1980 by Pope John Paul II.
On December 19, 2011, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints certified a second miracle through her intercession, signed by Pope Benedict XVI, which paved the way for pending canonization. On February 18, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI decreed that Tekakwitha be canonized. Speaking in Latin, he used the form “Catharina Tekakwitha”; the official booklet of the ceremony referred to her in English and Italian, as “Kateri Tekakwitha”. She is the first Native American/First Nations woman to qualify for Sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. She is scheduled for canonization in October 2012.
Tekakwitha is featured in three national shrines in the United States: the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, New York; the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York; and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
A statue of Tekakwitha is installed outside the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec, Canada. Another is installed at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Tekakwitha has been featured in recently created religious works. In 2007, the Grand Retablo, a 40-foot high work by Spanish artisans, was installed behind the main altar of the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, California. It features Catherine Tekakwitha , Junipero Serra, St. Joseph, and Francis of Assisi.
A bronze statue of Blessed Kateri kneeling in prayer was installed in 2008, created by artist Cynthia Hitschler, along the devotional walkway leading to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Crosse, Wisconsin. Another life-size statue of Blessed Kateri is located at the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston, New York. A bronze figure of Kateri is included on the bronze front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
Joseph Kellogg was a Protestant child captured by Natives in the eighteenth century and eventually returned to his home. Twelve months later, he caught smallpox. The Jesuits helped treat him, but he was not recovering. They had relics from Tekakwitha’s grave, but did not want to use them on a non-Catholic. One Jesuit told Kellogg that, if he would confess and embody a Roman Catholic, help would come to him. Joseph did so. The Jesuit gave him a piece of decayed wood from Catherine’s coffin, which is said to have made him heal. The historian Greer takes this account to mean that Tekakwitha was known in 18th-century New France, and she was already perceived to have healing abilities.
Other alleged miracles were attributed to Catherine: Father Rémy recovered his hearing and a nun in Montreal was cured by using items formerly belonging to Catherine. In those times, such incidents were evidence that Catherine was possibly a saint. Sainthood is symbolized by events following the death of a person that show the rejection of death. It is also represented by a duality of pain and a neutralisation of the other’s pain (all shown by her reputed miracles in New France). Father Chauchetière told settlers in La Prairie to pray to Catherine for intercession with illnesses. His words and Catherine’s fame were said to reach even Jesuits in China and their converts.
As people believed in her healing powers, some collected earth from her gravesite and wore it in bags as a relic. One woman said she was saved from pneumonia (“grande maladie du rhume”), and gave the pendant to her husband, who was healed from his disease.
Tradition holds that Tekakwitha’s smallpox scars vanished at the time of her death in 1680. Pope Pius XII in 1943 declared this an authentic miracle. Pilgrims to her funeral reported healings.
On December 19, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI approved the second miracle needed for Blessed Kateri’s canonization. The authorized miracle dates from 2006, when a young boy in Washington state survived a severe flesh-eating bacterium. Doctors had been unable to stop the progress of the disease by surgery and advised his parents he was likely to die. As the boy is half Lummi Indian, the parents said they prayed through Tekakwitha for divine intercession, as did their family and friends, and an extended network contacted through their son’s classmates. The boy had received his Last Rites from a Roman Catholic priest before the miracle of the disease stopping its progression took place.
The historian K. I. Koppedrayer has suggested that the Catholic Church fathers’ hagiography of Tekakwitha reflected “some of the trials and rewards of the European presence in the New World.” Based on accounts from two Jesuit priests who knew her, at least 300 books have been published in more than 20 languages on the life of Kateri Tekakwitha.
In addition, Tekakwitha has been featured in novels:
- Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (1966)
- William Vollman, Fathers and Crows (1992), second novel of the Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes series, includes her as a character, together with French colonists and priests.