Catherine Tekakwitha (1656-1680), Mohawk convert to Catholicism, sometimes know as “The Lily of the Mohawks,” was born either at the Mohawk “castle” (village) of the Turtle clan, Ossernenon, on the south side of the Mohawk River near present-day Auriesville, N.Y., or at neighboring castle of Kaghnuwage (Gandaouaga). Her name is also found as Tegakwita, Tegah-Kouita, or Tegakouita.
One of the oldest portraits of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha by father Claude Chauchetière around 1696
Her mother, a Christian Algonquin who had been taken captive at Three Rivers, Canada, by a raiding band of Mohawks, escaped slavery or death through marriage to a native warrior. Two children were born of this union, Tekakwitha and a brother. A smallpox epidemic of about 1660 carried away both parents and the boy. The orphaned Tekakwitha recovered, but her eyesight was badly impaired and her face remained pockmarked. Adopted by her paternal uncle, she learned the usages and practices of the Mohawks.
Repeated forays for the Mohawk warriors against the French and their Indian allies culminated the French counterinvasion in 1666, which devastated the Mohawk country, forcing the inhabitants of Kaghnuwage to build a new village, Caughnawaga (Gandaougue), a half-mile to the west of present Fonda, N.Y.
The Mohawks sued for peace, which the French granted on condition that the Mohawks permit Jesuit missionaries to preach the Gospel in their villages. Three missionaries arrived in 1667. They were accommodated for three days at Caughnawaga in the longhouse of Tekakwitha’s uncle, the “foremost captain” in the village, before setting out to visit the other Mokawk villages.
In 1669 preparations were made for the construction of a chapel, dedicated to St. Peter, in Caughnawaga. Despite the opposition of her uncle, Tekakwitha, during 1675, requested to be instructed in the Christian faith, and on Easter Sunday, Apr. 18, 1676, she received baptism in St. Peter’s chapel and was given the name Catherine (rendered in the Mohawk tongue as Kateri)
Many Mohawks, however, opposed the missionary effort, and Tekakwitha was subjected to threats and maltreatment because of her new faith. She was stoned for refusing to work in the corn fields on the Sabbath. She therefore determined to join a group of Christian Mohawks who had migrated to the mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault St. Louis (Lachine Rapids) in Canada, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.
In 1677, three Christian natives from that mission visited relatives at Caughnawaga, one of them a relative of Tekakwitha. Taking advantage of the temporary absence of her uncle, she left the Mohawk village and returned with the visitors to Sault St. Louis.
It was at Sault St. Louis that the religious and public life of Tekakwitha developed to such a degree that she was revered by all as a saintly woman. Contemporary biographies attest that this Indian maiden exercised every virtue in an extraordinary degree. Her love of God was manifested in frequent prayer and by daily visits to the mission chapel. By exterior conduct she revealed that he mind and heart centered upon God, seeing to do always what would be more pleasing to Him.
Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha at the shrine to her in Fonda, New York
To the astonishment of the missionaries, Tekakwitha determined not to marry and confirmed that resolve by a vow of virginity will full knowledge that she would become dependent upon others for her support. She practiced charity toward all without exception, prudence in recognizing that prayer and labor each had its appropriate time, voluntary fastings and penances.
She died at Sault St. Louis at the age of twenty-four and was buried east of where the Portage River empties into the St. Lawrence. Spontaneous reverence caused Christian Indians and neighboring French inhabitants of Montreal to visit the grave of Tekakwitha, where they sought her intercession with God for themselves. This reverence, continued through generations, induced the Catholic Church to authorize in 1932, an investigation of the “Cause of Catherine Tekakwitha” for possible beautification and canonization.
Much of the information in this posting is from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971