[Saint Kateri was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 21, 2012. This piece was written when she was yet a blessed.]
The Church says anyone can be a saint if he cooperates with the graces God gives him. And to prove it the Church gives us examples of saints, not as pictures to look at, but as people of heroic virtue to imitate. We would like to present a short sketch of the life of an American Indian who was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 22, 1980. We hope it will serve as an inspiration of courage and bravery to the boys and girls today that many of them will respond to God’s call to become saints.
In Ossernenon (Auriesville, N.Y.) ten years after the death of the Jesuit martyrs Isaac Jogues and John de Lalande, on the same soil that was blessed with the sprinkling of their holy blood, a lily sprung forth, the lily of the Mohawks, America’s first native American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha.
Her mother Kahenta was an Algonquin converted by the Black Robes and taken captive during the savage Iroquois invasions.
She was taken to wife by a Mohawk chief thus escaping torture and death.
In 1656 they brought into the world Tekakwitha (“one who puts things in order”). The pure crisp forest air seemed to blow enchantingly upon this happy family for about four years when in the providence of God, smallpox left Tekakwitha an orphan, scar-faced and partially blind. Though Kahenta was Catholic, Tekakwitha had never been baptized. To make things worse she was left with some aunts and a chief who was her uncle, all of whom hated the Black Robes and their beliefs. Tekakwitha loved solitude, first because of her eyesight, but also she sensed the dissolute life among the Mohawks was wrong. When she was about ten, the French, with a force of soldiers 600 strong, came and humbled the hitherto bold and treacherous Iroquois.
A peace treaty was signed which gave the Black Robes freedom to preach the faith in the Mohawk villages.
Poor Tekakwitha’s heart burned with desire to learn all she could and be baptized. But this was almost impossible because of the bigotry of her uncle. Her life, however, ran along much like that of all the Indian girls cheerfully doing their many chores. You could see Tekakwitha sometimes with the others down at the stream fetching water, laughing and talking like any group of girls. But whenever a bank of braves would appear with their pelts from a hunt to lay them at the feet of a young squaw to ask marriage, Tekakwitha would disappear.
For awhile she was only able to catch bits and pieces of the faith whenever the missionaries were around. The light shone in the darkness and she comprehended it. Her desires were fulfilled in 1675 when Father de Lamberville, S.J. arrived at her cabin one day while she was nursing a wound on her foot. Tekakwitha unburdened her long tortured soul and heart to him. She asked for instruction and baptism.
Because of the unpredictable and immoral life led by most Mohawks, baptism was usually held off for two years. However in Tekakwitha’s case a month proved her faith and purity solid. On Easter Sunday April 5, 1676 Tekakwitha, twenty-one years a child of the forest, was made a Child of God through baptism. She was given the name Kateri (Catherine). Many were the crosses she would have to carry till the end of her short life.
Kateri’s relatives wanted her to marry. But she wanted to give herself to Jesus, body and soul, as a virgin.
Once a brave threatened to kill Kateri if she refused him. She refused, but he, in awe of her spiritual strength, left defeated. Children and sometimes drunken men used to chase her and pelt her with stones calling her “the Christian.” Her own relatives treated her as a slave. Once they even spread lies against her chastity just to get the priests to dislike her. Through all this Kateri kept her interior peace knowing as she looked past the towering pines into the soft blue sky, that God and his holy Mother were pleased with sending her these crosses and that is all she cared. Father de Lamberville, however, thought it wise for Kateri to escape from her uncle up to the Indian mission in Canada.
The opportunity for doing so and the exciting escape up the three hundred mile trail to the mission we are forced to pass over, just mentioning that it occurred on July 14, 1677.
When she arrived at the mission in the autumn, Kateri fell completely in love with God. Because she realized God created us to know, love, and serve him in this world and be happy with him forever in Heaven, the faith she possessed was firm and simple as it was childlike.
Father Cholonec, S.J., the confessor of Kateri, was impressed with all he saw and heard of her. He allowed her to receive her First Holy Communion the Christmas day after she arrived.
Kateri couldn’t read or write but she rapidly advanced in perfection by doing the will of others, especially Father Cholonec. For a while, however, she took it upon herself to mortify her flesh so that her spirit could take flight to God. Among many penances, she once branded herself a slave of Jesus. Her confessor eventually made her mitigate these self-inflicted austerities. Then the cross came from the outside again. Some Indians thought she should marry; others, seeing her often retire to a private prayer spot in the forest, spread rumors against her chastity. Kateri endured it all with patience, knowing in good time God would make the truth manifest.
She always wanted to be a Bride of Christ and on March 25, 1679 with Father Cholonec’s permission she did so, consecrating herself entirely to Jesus and His sweet mother Mary. Never was she seen without her rosary. She knew that Mary was the only gate God chose to enter the world by, and that she is the only gate through which to enter Heaven. In her child-like faith she knew that Jesus being God gave us God for our Father and being man gave us Mary for our mother. These truths were the treasure that filled her soul with delight.
Her deep devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament kept her hours at the altar talking with Him as a child would with his dearest friend.
This chaste lily, which grew up among thousands, had bloomed and her goodness attracted all those in the mission. Many lukewarm souls were made fervent; many fallen away got back on the right path of salvation. But flowers don’t last long in this world, especially when God wants to transplant them to adorn His throne. For the last year of her life, Kateri’s health had completely broken down from her austerities and a sickness which gave her severe pains in head and stomach for the last two months of her life, The pain was so great she was not able to move an inch. She had never lost her peace or patience, knowing that the end was drawing near when she would see her Spouse and His Blessed Mother face to face and be happy with Them forever. On Wednesday of Holy Week, April 17, 1680, Kateri spoke her last words: “Jesus and Mary.” Then her speech failed and after a half hour of agony she died as if falling into a sweet sleep. Her face, disfigured by austerities and sickness, was instantly made fresh and beautiful by God as a sign of her glory in Heaven. Kateri was twenty-four years old when she died. Unbaptized till she was twenty-one, surrounded by paganism, yet in a short space she fulfilled a long time.
Now Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is looking down from Heaven upon America and calling us all to follow her example in the midst of this new paganism, so that one day we will meet face to face in Heaven forever.
By Eliza Allen Starr
The sweet-briar rose of summer glades
We lay upon another shrine; *
The lily of the Mohawk woods,
O dusky maiden! shall be thine.
One pendent flower, upon a stem
With leaves enfolded, pearly white;
Itself, its eaves, its very stalk
Like frost-work set in summer light.
Though swaying to the lightest breeze,
No fibre gives it earthly hold;
A miracle of beauty, seen
Upspringing from the forest mould. **
And thus, in innocence of soul,
A Mohawk maiden, orphaned, shy,
Grew up within a cabin’s shade,
Almost apart from human eye.
Left at her birth to warlike kin,
A stranger to all gentle care,
Death gave to her an unseen shield-
Her Christian mother’s dying prayer.
The April airs, though long delayed,
Are not so welcome to the fir,
Nor through the wind-flower’s slender stem
So swift a sense of gladness stir,
As Heaven’s full message, sent, at length,
Through Christian teachers to the maid;
Which found her, waiting still, within
A Mohawk cabin’s humble shade.
Thenceforth the Bread, thenceforth the Wine
“Which springs forth virgins” was her food
“Oh! who will show me,” still she cried,
“The perfect way, the highest good?”
As new-fledged eagles seek the sun,
Her soul to joys mysterious soared;
the Sovereign Beauty claimed His spouse;
She loved where she had first adored.
The lonely cross which marks her grave,
The Old World’s pilgrim oft has stayed;
The wandering hunter, from the lakes,
Still pauses here to ask her aid.
The foaming torrents hoarsely chant
Her virgin praises, year by year;
And Indian maidens love to bring
Their griefs their joys, their wishes, here.
Then, let the rose of summer glades
Be laid upon another shrine;
The lily of the Mohawk woods;
O dusky maiden! shall be thine.
* Saint Rose of Lima
** Monotropa; called “Indian Pipe.”