St. Kateri, ‘Lily of the Mohawks’

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By the Umatuna Si Yu’os

The first Native American to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656, in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon. Her mother, an Algonquin, was captured by the Mohawks and took a chief for her husband.

When Kateri was four, she contracted smallpox which scarred her skin. These scars were a source of humiliation for her childhood. She was usually seen wearing a blanket to hide her face. During the outbreak, her entire family died and Kateri was eventually raised by her uncle, the chief of a Mohawk clan.

She was known to be a skilled worker who was diligent and patient. When her adoptive parents proposed a suitor for her, she refused. She was punished by being given more work. Kateri remained quiet and diligent, and eventually, her adoptive parents were forced to accept that Kateri had no interest in marriage.

According to legend, Kateri was very devount and would put thorns on her sleeping mat. She prayed for the conversion of her fellow Mohawks.

When Kateri was 19, she converted to Catholicism and took a vow of chastity, pledging to marry on Jesus Christ. Her neighbors and adoptive parents were unsatisfied with her decision. Some of her neighbors started rumors of sorcery, and to avoid persecution, Kateri traveled to a Christian native community south of Montreal.

According to legend, Kateri was very devount and would put thorns on her sleeping mat. She prayed for the conversion of her fellow Mohawks. According to the Jesuit missionaries that served where she lived, Kateri often fasted and would taint her food to diminish the flavor when she would eat.

She was also very sickly. Her practices of burning herself, a self-mortification method common among the Mohawk, and her denial may not have helped her health. She died five years after her conversion to Catholicism when she fell ill and passed away at age 24 on April 17, 1680.

Her name, Kateri, is the Mohawk form of Catherine, which she took from St. Catherine of Siena for her baptism. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 21, 2012. She is the patroness of Native Americans, people in exile, and ecology and the environment.

Information and photo from catholic.org