Finally A Saint!
December 23rd 2011 · 1 Comment
BY CASSANDRA HARRIS-LOCKWOOD
Kateri Tekakwitha, (pronounced Gu-da-ri’ Tu-ga-gwee’-ta) was born in 1656 to an Algonquin mother named Kahenta and Mohawk Chief Kenhorankwa, in the Mohawk fortified village of Canaouaga or Ossernenon near modern day Auriesville. Kahenta was a Christian who had been captured by the Mohawks after a battle.
A woman by the name of Anastasia, also a Christian, was a close friend of Kateri’s mother. Anastasia also cared deeply for Kateri but was careful not to disclose to the tribe the Christian teachings that she and the child’s mother shared with little Kateri. At an early age Kateri demonstrated a deep devotion and interest in Christ.
At the age of four a devastating smallpox epidemic took both of her parents and her infant brother. Kateri survived the illness but was left partially blind and carried the facial scars for the rest of her life.
At the time of her birth Kateri was given the ‘baby name’ of Ioragode which means Sunshine. In the Mohawk tradition, children at the age of four were given a second name. Tekakwitha is said to mean ‘move all that is before her.’ Another interpretation of the name is ‘she who bumps into things’ due to her blindness.
After the death of her parents, Kateri was sent to live with her Uncle Iowerano, Chief of the Turtle Clan, who was bitterly opposed to Christianity. It is said that Chief Iowerano distrusted Whitemen because of their treatment of Indians and because they were responsible for introducing smallpox and other deadly diseases into the Indian community.
Iowerano’s wife, Karitha, now Kateri’s stepmother, was a harsh and demanding woman.
At 8 years old, in accordance with Iroquois custom, Kateri was paired with a young boy whom her new family expected she would marry. It soon became clear that Kateri wanted to dedicate her life to God and rejected any thought of marriage.
Her Aunt Karitha resented the girl and burdened Kateri with chores and duties beyond her age. Kateri is said to have been a very quiet child, different from other children. She was very humble, was modest and was known to tend to the aged and sick from early on. She did not attend many tribal social functions or dances and did not participate in what would be considered pagan rituals and activities.
Anastasia continued to be a strong influence in the young girl’s life though living in separate villages. So at the time that the Jesuits or Black Robes, came to speak to all of the Mohawk chiefs to bargain a treaty with the French, they were aware of the special little girl when they met her.
It was Anastasia who suggested that instead of simply suffering her Aunt’s harsh treatment in silence that Kateri offer her pain and sorrow in sacrifice for the conversion of her people, which the young woman did.
Throughout her short life, she died at the age of 24, Kateri’s stepparents attempted time and time again to ‘marry her off’ resorting to trickery and severe punishments to force her into marriage. Kateri begged them to remain chaste and would run away deep into the woods to avoid marriage. Kateri’s rejection of marriage caused her stepparents great shame and her Aunt Karitha punished her with more severe work as a result.
During a visit by the Jesuits when her family was not present, Kateri spoke to the priests of her desire to be baptized. At the age of 18 she began instructions in the Catholic Faith in secret.
Historical records conflict as to the actual date, some sources indicate Easter Sunday April 5, 1676, other sources indicate the date was April 18 of the same year, considered to be her birthday. In any case, Kateri realized her dream to be a Catholic and was baptized by Fr. De Lamberville in the waters of the spring that still flows today in Fonda. Her Baptism did not come without bitter results.
Once joining the Catholic Church, Kateri was ridiculed and scorned by villagers. As a Christian, she requested relief from chores on Sundays. Her Aunt responded by calling her lazy and denying her food. Children were encouraged to throw stones at her, jeer her and call her names. She was held in contempt by her tribe. However, she attended Mass every Sunday and continued on with her quiet, devout and compassionate ways.
Kateri is said to have dropped to her knees and bowed her head in prayer when one man, frustrated by her refusal to accept him, drew his tomahawk to take her life. Her response so confounded him he dropped his hand and backed away.
It was another Native American Catholic, Oneida Chief Louis and his Huron companions, both missionaries, who mapped out a plan and helped her escape to the Christian village the Jesuits had established for converts. It was located on the banks of the St. Lawrence River not far from Montreal.
The long journey to Caughnawaga took three weeks and when they finally arrived, Kateri was reunited with the aged and beloved Anastasia. It was there Kateri stepped into the first church she had ever seen and attended Mass every day.
Her devotion, grasp of the holy mysteries taught by the priests, her acts of charity and silent attention to the sick and suffering, caused the Jesuits to agree that she should receive her First Communion without the usual yearlong wait.
Kateri received her First Holy Communion on Christmas Day 1677 and was transformed. Fr. Cholenec, who prepared her for the sacrament, wrote in his diary, “From that day on, Kateri appeared different to us because she remained so full of God and of love for Him.” Kateri’s devotion and reverence caused parish members to vie for a place near her during services.
It was a visit to the Sisters of Notre Dame Convent in Montreal that Kateri finally understood her innate sense of brideship to her eternal Spouse. Despite continued advice and prodding from others in the village, including her beloved Anastasia, Kateri continued to resist marriage.
She approached Fr. Cholenec for understanding and inquired how to make a vow of virginity. On the Feast of the Annunciation in 1679 Kateri made her vow of perpetual virginity and offered herself to the Blessed Mother Mary to be accepted as her daughter.
On the path to her vows Kateri subjected herself to even harsher conditions and greater works of charity. Carrying wood for the sick and poor, attending Mass morning and night, walking barefoot in the snow, adding ashes to her food to deaden the taste and scourging her body to resemble her Savior, all suffered as an offering for the conversion of her people in the Mohawk Valley.
These hardships took their toll and the Lily of the Mohawks fell in and out of grave illness. Yet she continued to perform acts of penance for her people, laying her bed with thorn branches preventing her from restful sleep. When revealed to her Confessor she was ordered to cease those measures but the damage was done.
Kateri spent her last days racked with constant headaches and fever yet she spent her days praying the rosary. She was dying.
Fr. Cholenec brought communion to her bedside and villagers who had formed a procession behind him, one by one, passed by her bedside. She spoke to each one and promised never to forget them and that she would love and pray for them from Heaven.
The next day, Wednesday, April 17, 1680 in the afternoon the Indians and priests who were present heard her last whispered words, “Jesus! Mary! I love you.”
They remained in silent prayer after her death and suddenly Fr. Cholenec cried out in astonishment, “Look, her face, her face…The scars are gone!”
It was reported that within a few minutes of her death, the pock marks and scars had completely vanished and her face shone with radiant loveliness.
Catholics immediately became devoted to her and prayed for her intercession and many, including a priest who attended Kateri during her death, reported that she appeared to them. Many healing miracles have been attributed to her, especially for those who prayed at her tomb and those who have taken waters from the stream of her Baptism.
Carol Roth, Mohawk Language Instructor for the Akwesasne Reservation speaks on her devotion to the “Lily of the Mohawks.”
“Finally the Pope has made her a saint! It has just been a long time in coming. We have a group here in Akwasasne, a Kateri Circle that is devoted to her. We’ve been working many, many years, praying for this day.
“We have been having yearly pilgrimages for her for 75 years. They have taken place across the country and this year, the year of her canonization, the yearly conference this July, 2012 is going to be in Albany, very near to where she was born.
“Kateri was born in Fonda, near a site that they call ‘the Castle.’ It was once a fortified Mohawk encampment, near where her shrine is. But of course tribes moved around a lot back then. It is beautiful. We go three times a year for pilgrimages there.
“We were there in Washington State for a Kateri Conference at the Lummi Reservation in 2004 or 2005. It was wonderful. They fed us crab and fruit.
“It was there we met the little boy whose healing was the final miracle responsible for her being declared a Saint. We met his family, went to Mass with them and heard the story. The boy was dying from a flesh eating disease. The first pastor was there to document it.
“They prayed for the boy’s healing only to Kateri. All of a sudden the illness stopped. The little boy was at the Mass too. The people all said, “this may be the miracle we have been waiting for!”
“Other cases weren’t accepted. Healings have to be attributed only to the one Saint you are praying to in order to be given the credit. The parents prayed and the rest of the community all prayed with the parents.
“Thankfully the doctors agreed to document the healing. They could not explain it any other way. There were piles and piles of records and documents. The College of Cardinals are the ones to decide if it was first class healing. I heard a few months ago that they had accepted it and just waited for the Pope to declare her a saint.
“The annual festival comes back to the east coast this year. I would love to go to Rome for her Canonization. It would be just wonderful. I remember my mother always prayed for her sainthood. Her being declared a saint gives you more energy to do more do more things.”
By Mark Ziobro