In honor of Native American Heritage Month and a reminder of the power of Christian unity, please allow me to introduce you to Kateri.
Written and presented to the Young Ladies Institute, Antoinette #193, a Catholic Women’s Organization
Called the “Lily of the Mohawks”, and the “Genevieve of New France” Kateri was a virgin of the Mohawk tribe, born around 1656, in the present state of New York, and died in Canada, south of Montreal, on April 17, 1680. Her mother was a Christian Algonquin, captured by the Iroquois, saved from captivity by the Mohawk chief, to whom she bore a daughter, Kateri, and a son. Kateri’s father, mother, and brother all died from smallpox when she was four years old. Before her death, Kateri’s mother prayed her daughter might grow up a Christian. Her uncle, also a Mohawk chief, and her aunts adopted her. Her uncle hated Christianity.
Smallpox marred Kateri’s face and impaired her eyesight. Her eyes became so sensitive to light that she covered her head with a blanket when she went out. Despite the disfiguration and her shy nature, her family was committed to arranging a marriage for her.
Jesuits missionaries first introduced Kateri to Christianity. It lodged itself within her heart, though she did not ask for baptism either because of her natural reserve or her uncle’s command not to. She followed a path of Christian virtue in a society that surrounded her with war, torture and debauchery. She, who was so timid and obedient, resisted all efforts to induce her to marry, though at great risk to herself. Indignant, her family heaped more chores upon her which she bore with patience. What role did a woman have outside of marriage? What value did a woman have without a husband?
Fr. Jacques de Lamberville arrived years later to take charge of the mission, which included the Turtle clan to which Kateri belonged. Kateri was 19, and she eagerly requested baptism. After a year of preparation, Kateri received the sacrament with all due solemnity befitting the daughter of a chief. She was named after Catherine of Siena, translated to Kateri. Christ would be her spouse. What other identity is there than to belong to God?
Kateri found her consolation in God though relatives mocked her devotions and twice daily trips to the chapel. They sent boys to throw stones at her, drunken men to threaten her.
The time came when her uncle would no longer protect her. Her life was in danger. One day, a young Indian man rushed upon her with a tomahawk. Her natural timidity and the strength of faith mingled in her heart. She bowed her head and sat motionless. Shocked at her peace, the man stopped. Spellbound, he dropped the tomahawk and crept away.
Worn out in loneliness and reproach, Kateri confided to the priest that she must leave. He interceded for her to an Iroquois Warrior Chief and Christian who agreed to help her to escape to the Saint Francis Xavier Mission in Caughnawaga, 200 miles away.
Safe in the mission, Kateri devoured the lessons of her faith and the practice of virtue. Her prayers deepened as she spent nights in prayer before the altar. Common to the times, Kateri exercised her zeal for the Lord through extreme asceticism and mortification. When she visited Montreal and witnessed the lives of sisters vowed to perpetual virginity, she committed herself to dedicate her life as a bride of Christ. Even in the environment of Christian fellowship, Kateri found herself at odds with those who counseled her to marry.
Listening to the Spirit, she allowed grace to become the force of her life and found the strength to resist the external force and values around her.
Kateri died four years after her baptism. Her last reported words are, “Jesus, I love you,” Fifteen minutes after her death, the priest at her side reported her disfigured face became miraculously beautiful and fair, a reflection of the state of her soul.
Devotion to her by her people began immediately after her death. She is the first Native American to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 21, 2012, and named the patroness of ecology and the environment, people in exile and Native Americans. John Paul II called her a “sweet, frail yet strong figure of a young woman,” reminding us that Christ’s death and resurrection turned our understanding of strength on its head. Christ’s strength is made perfect in weakness, and no physical deformity can stop a person from living a life of meaning, grace, and power.