On October 21, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized five individuals, thus adding five new saints to the roster of intermediaries on which Catholics can call in time of need. One of these, Kateri Tekakwitha, became the first indigenous North American to be honored in this way.
Kateri Tekakwitha’s story commemorates the struggles of a young Mohawk woman who lived during a time of rapid and often violent change in the far northern reaches of what is now New York state.
Reportedly, she was born of a Mohawk father and Huron mother in around 1656 in the area around present day Auriesville, NY. The Mohawks were part of a larger Confederacy called the Great League of Peace, or Haudenosaunee (whites say ‘Iroquois’, but that’s what their enemies called them).
The Huron belonged to the Algonquin people, economic and political rivals of the Great League. During conflict the two sides would often raid each other to replace lost members. Possibly Kateri’s father had lost a wife and took a Huron woman in return.
According to the story, Kateri’s mother had been exposed to Catholicism through contact with the French. When Kateri was quite young, the village was struck with smallpox and everyone in her immediate family, father, mother and younger brother died. She survived, but was rendered terribly scarred and partially blind.
As an orphan she was then raised by relatives of her father. At some point she desired to follow in her mother’s footsteps and sought out Jesuit priests to assist her in conversion. Her remaining family rejected her and the Catholic church became her home. She was known for her commitment to virginity, chastity and for subjecting herself to rather harsh physical disciplines.
Upon baptism she was given the name Kateri (a version of Catherine). She died very young at the age of 24 having endured much suffering in a very short life.
Kateri lived in the space between three conflicted and often warring peoples. Did she choose her mother’s faith out of loyalty or because she wanted to prevent herself from being similarly taken against her will? Did she thus see the church as a place of safety where she might find some measure of peace in the face of such choices and losses?
Her story is, in many ways, a microcosm of the kind of battleground that New York would become in later years, first as a proving ground for the French and English as they pitched their colonial battles through native proxies, like the Mohawk and Huron, to be followed by the Anglo-Dutch conflicts and finally, the War of Independence. The Empire State indeed.
In all of it, her image, christened as the ‘Lily of the Mohawks,’ has remained that of a healing presence, a young scarred woman who had known heartbreak and suffering, but desired only to be healed and heal others; a missionary tool for the Jesuits no doubt, but a person in her own right nevertheless.
A Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha is located in Legrangeville, NY and a shrine site has been dedicated to her in Fonda, NY. Additionally, she is considered one of the patron saints of Montreal and a protecting saint of Catholics in Canada. Saint Kateri has been designated a patron of the natural world and stewardship of the environment.