“Mother, look at this cross; oh! how beautiful it is! It has been my whole happiness during my life, and I advise you also to make it yours.”
Saint Kateri was given the name Tekakwitha (she who bumps into things) when she was born in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon (Western New York state) in the year 1656. Her father was a Mohawk chief by the name of Kenneronkwa. Her mother, Kahenta, was an Algonquin woman who had been captured in a raid by Mohawk warriors in the French town of Trois-Rivieres. Kahenta had been baptized by the French missionaries of the town and given a formal French education. Tragedy struck Saint Kateri early in life when a smallpox epidemic ravaged the Mohawk between 1661 and 1663, claiming the lives of bother her baby brother and both parents. Now alone, Saint Kateri bore the scars both physically of the smallpox (she had several facial scars and reduced vision) and emotionally of having lost her family.
Saint Kateri was brought in by her father's sister and her husband (who was the chief of the Turtle Clan) and began to live in a new village named Caughnawaga (at the wild water) north of her home town. As she grew here she became very skilled at making clothes from animal skins, weaving baskets and mats and preparing food but was known to be very shy and often covered her head with a blanket to hide her smallpox scars. At the age of only 10 she found herself without a home again when French soldiers, allied with the Huron in a fierce war for control over the fur trade, attacked their home village and drove Saint Kateri and her new family into the wilderness. A peace treaty between the French and the Mohawk was soon reached, allowing them to return to the town to rebuild.
A portion of this treaty required Mohawk villages to accept Jesuit missionaries into the towns. Saint Kateri met with the missionaries Jacques Fremin, Jacques Bruyas and jean Pierron in 1667 when they first moved into the rebuilt town. Her Uncle forbade her from any contact with them as he feared they would persuade her to convert to Christianity. The upheaval in the world around them though would prevent her uncle from enforcing this separation. In 1669 the town was attacked and laid siege by several hundred Mohican warriors. Saint Kateri joined with other girls in the town and helped Father Jean Pierron render aid to the wounded, bring water and food to the Mohawk defenders and to help bury the fallen.
Her uncle and aunt soon began to persuade Saint Kateri to accept a marriage proposal, as it was custom in the tribe to marry at 13. Once they had found a young Mohawk suitor perfect for her and began the process of her accepting but Saint Kateri fled in the night and hid in a nearby field. No amount of threats, humiliation or punishment from her aunts could persuade the young girl to accept the marriage proposal. At 18, while at home nursing an injured foot, she met with Father Jacques de Lamberville, a priest visiting the village. The two spoke at length before she told him, with several witnessing, that she had long desired to become a Christian. Father Lamberville began to instruct her in the catechism. On Easter Sunday, April 18, 1676, Saint Kateri was baptized. She chose the baptismal name Kateri (the Mohawk form of the name of Catherine - Saint Catherine of Siena). She left the village a year later to join other native converts at the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake.
For the next two years she learned about the Faith and repentance from her mentor Anastasia. Following an ancient traditional practice of the Mohawk, she put thorns on her sleeping mat before laying to draw blood as she prayed for the forgiveness of her relatives and their eventual conversion. When she began to learn about the consecrated religious life, she and a group of woman began to ask to form their own convent. One night, Saint Kateri said aloud:
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
With her decision to remain a virgin forever set on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1979, Saint Kateri became the first "Virgin" among the Mohawk people.
Father Claude Chauchetiere, who arrived in 1677, wrote that she was known for her charity, industry, purity and fortitude. He had arrived in New France believing that the native peoples were in dire need of Christian guidance for them to live moral lives but had his opinion totally and completely changed after living with Saint Kateri and the other natives in the town. Though Saint Kateri and her new sisters never were able to create their own formal convent, the group lived, ate and prayed together so that they could continually grow in their faith and knowledge together.
During Holy Week in 1680, the sisters began to notice Saint Kateri getting extremely sick. The community rushed to gather two Priests that knew her (Fathers Chauchetiere and Cholenec). Upon arrival and seeing her condition worsening, Father Cholenec performed her last rites. On Holy Wednesday, April 17th, 1680, Saint Kateri said aloud
"Jesus, Mary, I love you."
Saint Kateri died in the arms of her close friend Marie-Therese. Almost immediately, a physical change came over the Saint's body. Father Cholenec 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."
Following her death, her sisters testified that she appeared to them three times:
To Anastasia - while crying over the loss of Saint Kateri, the Saint suddenly appeared kneeling at the foot of her mattress holding a wooden cross that shone like the sun
To Marie -Therese - in the middle of the night she was awoken by a sudden knock on the wall. She heard aloud Saint Kateri's voice saying "I've come to say goodbye, I'm on my way to heaven".
To Father Chauchetiere - he saw her appear at her grave, her face lifted towards heaven as if in ecstasy
The process for her canonization formally began in 1884 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore but had been unofficially recognized since her death in Montreal Canada and by many of the Native American converts to Catholicism. Pope Pius XII declared her venerable on January 3, 1943 and Saint Pope John Paul II beatified her on June 22nd, 1980. The first of the miracles needed was from joseph Kellogg, a Protestant child captured by Native peoples in the 1700s. After being returned to his home, the child came down from a terrible case of smallpox. The Jesuit priests did everything they could with medicine to keep him alive but were seeing no effect as the boy's condition worsened. As a last resort, the Jesuit priests took a portion of decaying wood from Saint Kateri's coffin and told him if he would become Catholic help would surely come. Joseph slept with the relic touching him and miraculously was totally healed from the infection.
The second miracle was approved by Pope Benedict XVI when a boy fell ill from a several flesh-eating bacteria infection in Washington state. Jake Finkbonner, then five years old, had fallen while playing basketball and cut his lip against a piece of metal. Doctors attempted surgery and heavy rounds of antibiotics but were unable to stop the progression of the disease. Seeing that death would soon approach, they reached out a Catholic Priest who came to the hospital and performed the Anointing of the Sick on him. His parents, family and friends prayed to Saint Kateri for her intercession (the family was half Lummi Indian) and Sister Kateri Mitchell placed a relic (specifically a bone fragment) against the boy's body as they prayed. The next day, his infection stopped progressing and healing began.
On October 21st, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI formally canonized her. Saint Kateri was the first Native American woman of North America to be canonized a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Her feast day is celebrated on July 14th.