April 18, 2005

Kateri Tekakwitha, Mohawk (1656-1680)


Tegaquitha, “Lily of the Mohawks,” as she was popularly known, was the first recorded Native American Roman Catholic nun in North American. She was born in 1656 at Gandawague Castle near Fonda, New York, to a Mohawk father and a Christianized Algonquin mother of the Turtle clan. During her childhood, her parents and a younger brother died from smallpox, and she was left badly scarred and pockmarked orphan.

Never a pretty child, she was adopted by her uncle, a Mohawk chief, but left largely to herself. She was always a “loner” who was apparently quite religiously inclined, and at the age of ten became strongly influenced by Jesuit missionaries. Eventually on Easter Sunday, in 1635, she was baptized despite the strong opposition of her uncle and took the name Kateri (Catherine).

After this event, she was shunned by most of her tribe, especially when she refused to work in the fields on Sundays. In 1677 she escaped from her village and traveled the 200 miles by canoe to join a colony of Christian Native American at Sault St. Louis, not far from Montreal. Here, her life was one of deep asceticism and piety. She sought to establish a convent on Heron Island on the St Lawrence River, but her plans were rejected by Church authorities; as a result she abandoned the project and became a nun.

It was a time of piety at Sault St. Louis, and in her zeal to obtain complete penance, Kateri persuaded a friend to whip her, in the custom of the day-a practice which she followed every Sunday for a year. Although the savage whippings became too much for her body to withstand, she resolutely continued the practice. Refusing any aid, she persevered in this mortification until she died at the age of 24 on April 17, 1680 at the Ville Marie of St. Francis Xavier.

Tegaquitha was buried near La Prairie, Quebec. Her devotions and self-denial were so remarkable that many miraculous visions and cures were claimed in her name, and in 1884 she was proposed as a candidate fro canonization, and in 1932 her name was formally presented to the Vatican for consideration.

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