In the frigid predawn darkness, a lone figure stood immobile in the snow: a young woman, oblivious to the cold, oblivious to the hour, alone with her God. She was just twenty-four years old, and her fragile health was failing. But her health had never been good, so why mind that now? What were these present sufferings compared to the life that awaited her?
All was preparation, training. All was taking her where she longed to go— to heaven, the home where she would dwell eternally with God, whose Son had suffered so terribly for her.
“All” was two-and-a-half years of voluntary penances and “mortifications of the flesh.” Long, cold hours in prayer. Long, tedious hours tending the sick and elderly. A solemn promise of perpetual virginity and the hardship that followed. This young woman considered it a joy, for such things tested her faith and developed the steadfastness she was sure would make her perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
She had almost no one to teach her or guide her in her own language. It seems impossible that a saint should arise from such circumstances! And yet what is impossible for men is possible for God.
The Seed Grows Quietly. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656. Her father was a war chief among the Mohawk Indians; her mother was an Algonquin who had been captured in a raid. Kateri’s mother was also a baptized Catholic who was known for her kindness, patience, gentleness, and self-control.
It is reasonable to imagine that she spoke to Kateri about God and her faith. What is more natural for a mother than to sing songs about Jesus and the saints to the baby in her arms or to teach her toddler simple prayers of the faith? Surely, in the early years of Kateri’s life, her mother sowed the seeds that matured into the desire to live wholeheartedly for God.
Kateri was born about forty miles west of modern-day Albany and lived there until she was about four or five, when a smallpox epidemic decimated her village. Although Kateri survived, the disease left her face badly scarred, her eyesight considerably diminished, and her health permanently weakened. It left her an orphan, too, and so Kateri’s uncle—himself a chief in the clan—and his wife took her in and raised her as their own.
By all accounts, Kateri was an intelligent and good-natured child, talented at decorating clothes and other articles with beads and quills arranged in beautiful, intricate designs. As the daughter of a war chief and the adopted daughter of another chief, Kateri also enjoyed significant status within her Mohawk clan. The fact that she was likeable and industrious also made her a desirable young woman as she reached the age for marriage. Without obstinacy or “final words,” though, Kateri deflected all discussion of the subject—an inexplicable stance that struck her family and village, in the words of one biographer, as “alien, strange, and perhaps dangerous to the Mohawk way of life.”
Whatever she was experiencing, though, Kateri was Mohawk. Courageous. Determined. Resilient. She was also particularly reserved, preferring to remain quietly in the longhouse rather than take part in village gossip and activities. So although Jesuit missionaries lived in her village throughout her teen years, Kateri seems to have had little to do with them. Others converted, in what was something of a Catholic revival among the Mohawk. But whether through consideration for her position as a chief’s daughter or regard for her uncle’s unwillingness to embrace this new religion, whether through her own natural timidity or a far-seeing insight about the repercussions of converting, Kateri remained aloof.
Leaving Home. When Kateri was about eighteen, Jesuit Fr. Jacques de Lamberville visited her as she sat in her longhouse, recovering from a foot injury. Exactly what and how much was said is hard to know, but the priest seems to have recognized in Kateri a fruitful prayer life and some understanding of the faith.
Perhaps Kateri had absorbed some teaching by listening to discussions among her fellow Mohawk. Perhaps what was said resonated deep within her heart, where her mother’s words still echoed faintly. But Kateri surprised Fr. de Lamberville by asking to become a Christian, and he advised her to “continue in her prayers and in learning about the faith.” In actual fact, however, she was fairly advanced along that road, and after about two years, an unusually short time, Kateri was baptized, on Easter Sunday 1676.
No one objected, and there was less trouble over her conversion than she had feared—at least initially. Kateri’s uncle seems to have tolerated the missionaries’ efforts and the villagers’ acceptance of Christianity for years, but as conversion increasingly resulted in exodus to Catholic missions in Canada, his tolerance waned. Christianity, it seemed to him, was tearing apart the fabric of Mohawk society.
Kateri was deeply attached to her village and longhouse and remained there for about two years after entering the Church. But when jeers and mistreatment escalated to serious threats and interfered with her ability to practice her faith, Kateri made the agonizing decision to move to Canada, where she had relatives living at a Catholic mission near Montreal.
A “Sacred Fire.” At the mission, Kateri immediately faced another round of pressure to consider marriage, but her resistance remained firm. Freed from the constraints she had suffered in her uncle’s village, Kateri began to burn with new zeal and love for Jesus.
First to the church in the morning, she was also the last to leave it. She paused during her day to return there for more time in God’s presence, praying “very little with her tongue, but a great deal with her eyes and her heart.” She learned more in a week than other catechumens learned in several years, according to one biographer.
It wasn’t enough for Kateri, who banded together with about a dozen other Indian women to pursue consecrated lives. To one of the Jesuit missionaries at the mission, they seemed like “the Ladies of Charity in France,” as they performed “acts of charity toward their neighbors,” gave “care for the poor and the sick” in secret, “running away to escape notice” and “giving as alms anything [the sick] need.” The priest singled out Kateri, observing that “the most menial chores were exalted by the fervent spirit in which she did them.” Indeed, Kateri pursued everything she was taught with an ardent intensity. Her zeal burned white-hot, as the Holy Spirit led her in the way of mercy, steadfast love, and a humble walk with her God.
Kateri Tekakwitha was faithful and diligent in pursuing what she knew. She strove for excellence—to practice the faith perfectly, to be a good example to the community, and to plunge herself deeper into the life of God—and she pursued her goal with a steady, passionate commitment. But her health was frail, and in the winter of 1680, Kateri became bedridden. Other Indians in the mission visited her frequently, asking for counsel and guidance. Invariably, wrote one of the missionaries, they “came away with the sense of being warmed by a ‘sacred fire’ that radiated through her eyes, her gestures, and the words she spoke.” On April 17, 1680, at the age of twenty-four, Kateri Tekakwitha died.
A Myriad of Miracles. Had the story ended there, we might never have heard of Kateri Tekakwitha. But as two Jesuit missionaries and a fellow Mohawk who had attended her death looked on, Kateri’s face, horribly pockmarked during her life, became “in a moment” so beautiful that Fr. Pierre Cholonec cried out. The other priest concurred: Kateri’s face became “more beautiful than when [she was] living.” In an act resonant of “well done, good and faithful servant,” it seems that God reached out and smoothed over the marks of disease and suffering that Kateri bore in life.
Then the miracles began. Within two years, a “regional cult” had grown up around Kateri, and relics from her life—even the dirt from her gravesite—were being used to effect cures. Over the next thirty years, Kateri became known as a “restorer of health” among Indians and settlers alike in the Montreal area. Fr. Cholonec wrote: “Cures . . . became so frequent we stopped recording them. Not a month, and hardly a week, passed” without a cure. The healing is usually of “the soul as well as the body,” he noted, “even if [one does] not ask for it.”
The formal process for canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha began in 1932. It was difficult, though, after almost three hundred years, to verify the miracles initially attributed to her. But in 1980, Pope John Paul II decreed that her many unverified miracles should be considered the same as one certified miracle. And then in 2006, a modern miracle occurred through her intercession.
Five-year-old Jacob Finkbonner of Ferndale, Washington, had split his lip on a basketball court and become infected with a flesh-eating bacterium. Doctors struggled unsuccessfully for months to control the infection that was destroying his face and upper body. Jake, they told his parents, was going to die.
His parents and classmates began praying, asking for the intercession of the one whose own face had been disfigured in life. A relic of Kateri was placed on Jake’s pillow. That very day, Jake began to improve, stunning all of the medical personnel attending his case. Eight weeks later, he left the hospital.
For five years, the Church rigorously investigated his recovery. Finally, in December 2011, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Jake’s recovery was indeed a miracle obtained through the blessed Mohawk’s intercession. Kateri Tekakwitha is being canonized on October 21, 2012.
Ann Bottenhorn has been a contributor to The Word Among Us for some thirty years.