Catherine Tekakwitha, Virgin

Catherine Tekakwitha, Virgin (1690)

Kateri, or Catherine, Tekakwitha, known as “the Lily of the Mohawks,” was born in 1656 at Ossernenon (modern-day Auriesville), New York (or, according to some authorities, the village of Gandaouge which lay on the south bank of the Mohawk River) and died on April 17, 1680 at Caughnawaga (Kanahwake or Sault St. Louis), an Indian reservation in what is now Quebec, Canada. Her mother was a Christian Algonquin; her father a Mohawk. When she was only four years old, her family fell victim to an outbreak of smallpox; her father, mother, and brother died of the disease and she was left scarred and partially blinded. Tekakwitha was adopted by her uncle, a chief of the Turtle Clan.

Tekakwitha had her first contact with Jesuit missionaries in 1667. Her uncle was opposed to religious conversion, however, and she was not baptized until 1676, a year after she met Fr. Jacques de Lamberville. She was baptized on Easter Sunday, April 18, and took the name “Catherine.” She must have been very devout, as Jesuit policy at the time was not to baptize natives unless there was no danger of back-sliding. After her baptism, Catherine did not remain in her village long, as she was accused of sorcery and sins of impurity. At Fr. de Lamberville’s suggestion, she left for the Christian village of Kanahwake (Sault St. Louis), where she spent the remainder of her short life.

At Kanahwake, Catherine and other native converts practiced corporal mortification to repent for their sins and those of their nation. The Jesuit missionaries had difficulty in regulating the pious women’s mortifications! And even here, there was pressure for Catherine to be married. Fr. Pierre Cholenec, whose advice she sought on the matter, records her as stating: “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.” Catherine made a vow of perpetual virginity on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), 1679. Her health, always poor, was made worse by the mortifications she practiced (but which she refused to give up), and she died in 1680. After her death, the scars which had so disfigured her face miraculously disappeared.

Kateri Tekakwitha was beatified on June 22, 1980 by Pope John Paul II. She is scheduled to be canonized on October 21, 2012. Her feast day is celebrated on July 14 (United States) or April 17, the date of her death (Canada).

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