For the fourth year in a row now, I’ve managed to miss out on a summer trip I’ve wanted to take: a visit to the National Shrine of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in upstate New York, followed by a personal pilgrimage to the saint’s grave at St. Francis Xavier Mission near Montreal. Work, home repairs and, this year, COVID-19 have all conspired to keep me from heading north to honor a saint whom I count as one of my favorites.
Canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, Kateri (whose feast falls on July 14) is the first Native American in the U.S. and Canada to be declared a saint. Born in 1656 at Ossernenon (now Auriesville), New York to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief, Kateri lost her parents and brother to smallpox when she was only four. Her own face was badly scarred by the disease, and her eyesight was also damaged, earning her the Mohawk name Tekakwitha, “she who bumps into things.”
Kateri’s mother had been a Christian, but the orphaned girl found herself placed with an uncle who despised the faith. Despite her relatives’ insistence, she refused from a young age to marry. In 1676, she embraced Catholicism, receiving her baptism from Jesuit missionaries and taking the name Catherine (modified as “Kateri”). After more than a year of harassment and persecution from her relatives and fellow villagers, she fled to the St. Francis Xavier Mission, assisted by three fellow indigenous Christians.
Once there, the pious, hardworking young girl blossomed in her faith; hence her posthumous nickname “Lily of the Mohawks.” She took a private vow of perpetual chastity in 1679, and practiced severe self-mortifications while remaining cheerful and charitable. A year later, she died, having barely reached her 24th birthday. Father Pierre Cholenec, who ministered to Kateri and later chronicled her brief life, noted that the young woman’s smallpox scars disappeared after her passing, leaving her beautiful.
Such radiance had always marked her spirit, even as her flesh had been marred by illness. Kateri was able to endure great isolation and loneliness without becoming harsh or bitter. At her canonization, Pope Benedict XVI observed that “Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help.”
In Kateri’s world, culture wars were fought in blood, not on social media platforms — yet her courageous battle to live out her faith was won not through defiance but surrender. Her words reveal the vision, greater than mere physical eyesight, that guided her: “I am not my own; I have given myself to Jesus. He must be my only love.”
Whether we’re married, single, ordained or professed, Kateri’s declaration is, deep down, the cry of own hearts, especially as we grope our way through a bewildering stretch of human history. By fully entrusting her wounded body and soul to Christ, Kateri found a healing that transcended the passing comforts of this life, and gave her a home and a family and an identity that can never be taken away.
I’m not sure when I’ll finally have the chance to see where Kateri walked on this earth, but if I can follow her example, I do believe she will lead me to the One who is the true destination of all our journeys.
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