In 1656, Kateri Tekakwitha was born Catherine Tekakwitha into an Iroquois tribe in a Mohawk village called Gahnaouagé. Gahnaouagé was located in what is today Northern New York State. Kateri’s mother was Algonquin, and had been baptized and educated among the French in Trois-Rivières. Before Kateri was born, Kateri’s mother was captured by the Iroquois and taken as a slave to Gahnaouagé. There she married Kateri’s father and gave birth to Kateri and Kateri’s brother.
Small pox claimed the lives of Kateri’s mother and brother. We do not know the fate of her father, though at the age of four, Kateri was orphaned, coming under the care of an uncle, a prominent Elder in the village, and some aunts. Kateri had also contracted the illness, but she survived. The lasting effects of this illness were a scarring on her face and a sensitivity to bright sunlight.
As a young girl, Kateri preferred work and solitude to the company of her peers. She seldom appeared in public, and when she did, she was busy at work, running errands for her aunts or doing housework. When the time came for her to be married, she evaded her aunts’ plans. As a result of her refusal to be married, she experienced alienation among the Iroquois and was severely ostracized.
Kateri’s first encounter with Catholicism was upon hearing Father Jacques de Lamberville’s religious instructions given to those in her village. In the autumn of 1676, Father Lamberville went on his rounds to the cabins of the village. Upon arriving at Kateri’s aunts’ cabin, he found that nobody was home. Nevertheless, he decided to enter. There, he found Kateri. Her virtuous character and pleasant disposition were immediately apparent to him. He resolved to baptize her. In the winter months, they prepared for the sacrament. Father Lamberville instructed Kateri and prayed with her. On Easter of that year, Kateri was baptized.
Kateri’s baptism was a transformative event, inspiring her to participate publically in communal services. Her attraction to the Christian life was evident in her virtuous demeanour. She embodied Christian virtues such as humility, devotion, gentleness, and charity. Father Lamberville was struck by Kateri’s progress and decided that the Iroquois Village would not be the best environment for her. In his view, it would be better for her to be moved to an environment where she could set down Catholic roots, an environment that would not corrupt her. Father Lamberville decided that the best fit would be the mission of St. Francois Xavier du Sault, which was across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal.
Kateri’s adopted older sister had preceded her to the Sault. Wanting Kateri to share in the great happiness of the community, she persuaded her husband and several others to bring Kateri. Her aunts gave her permission to go, but it is unlikely they could have secured her uncle’s blessing. Fortunately, he was away, trading with the English at Fort Orange. They left immediately. They had travelled part of the way before Kateri’s uncle overtook them. They hid Kateri and denied knowing their whereabouts. Kateri’s uncle left them, and the group managed to make their way to the Sault mission.
Kateri became a shining example within the Sault mission. She showed enthusiasm and dedication, setting out to perfect herself before God. She came to the Church every day at 4 a.m., attending the first mass at dawn and then the one for the native people at sun-rise. During the day she returned several times, interrupting her work. On Sundays and feast days, one could say that she was in the church all day long, because she left it only to take a meal. Every Saturday, she took Confession, examining the faults from the previous week. Before confession, she flogged her shoulders with large branches.
Her commitment to her work remained steadfast. In working for others, she practiced her humility, and in forcing her body to do long and painful work, she satisfied her desire for suffering. She found in her work many means of mortification. Kateri is known for her mortifications and penances. She could flog herself between one thousand and twelve hundred times in one session. She burned her legs with a fire-brand in the same way that the Iroquois burned their slaves. The most painful torment that Kateri endured was to take a piece of burning coal between her big and little toe. The next morning, Kateri awoke with no signs of having been burned on her foot. Two or three months before her death, Catherine sprinkled her bed with pine needles, lay down on top of them, having only a blanket over her body, and then rolled over the needles during the night. Her companion and instructrice Anastasia often spoke to Kateri of the torments of Hell and of the penances she had to practice in order to make amends with God for her people.
Kateri had a companion in Marie-Therese Tegaianguenta. Marie-Thérèse had lost her husband to starvation on a hunting expedition. The party with which she was travelling killed a woman and her children for food, to fend off certain death. Realizing her state of sin, Marie-Thérèse vowed to change her life and return to her Catholic faith. She moved to the Sault in 1677, and in 1678, she met Kateri.
It was due to the influence of her companion that Kateri became committed to remain a virgin. While her friend exhorted her to choose a husband from among the men in the community, Kateri remained insistent on remaining chaste. This was no doubt a difficult decision, as there was no precedent among native women of remaining unwed. Anastasia pressed Kateri on the matter, so that Kateri turned to her spiritual advisor for support. Her spiritual advisor, Father Pierre Cholenec, assured her that no matter what decision she made, she would have the support of him and the other missionaries. This brought great relief to Kateri, who from that moment on, experienced a state of grace, a great calm and peace in her soul, which strengthened her conviction of love for Christ. It was at the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 25, 1679, that Kateri renounced marriage forever, consecrating herself to Jesus Christ and Mary. On that day, Kateri Tekakwitha became the first Iroquois Virgin.
Kateri, still failing in health from a fever contracted the previous year, died during Holy Week on Wednesday, April 17th, 1680. Kateri is the second aboriginal saint, the first being St. Juan Diego who was canonized in 2002.