Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Wikimedia Commons

The Flowering of a New Life

Montreal, 17th century. An eleven-year-old Iroquois girl struck by the Christian proposal of the permanent mission in her village. From Baptism to testimony to death. Declared a blessed in 1980 by Pope John Paul II, her cause is currently in progress.
Dino D'agata

The towns of Auriesville and Fonda blend into the verdant hillsides of rural New York State, in and around where the New York State Thruway heads north to Montreal after it crosses Route 90 West toward Buffalo. Upon visiting the Shrine of the North American Martyrs, it seems that what transpired there in the 17th century between the Iroquois and eight French missionary priests is today all but hidden, eclipsed by modern concerns whose oblivious stance toward things Christian leaves the small area where the martyrdom of Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf took place off to the side somewhere both geographically and historically. It is as if you stumble upon the area the way you stumble upon a person or group of people who are mysteriously different, and if you are reasonable, it soon becomes evident that what happened in this place had both a historical and a transcendent significance that are far greater than would appear from how this obscure area is all but forgotten.

It is against this backdrop that we come to Blessed Kateri (Katharine) Tekakwitha, for, although she did not personally know Jogues and de Brebeuf and their men, her life in Christ was born from their followers who had left the beauty and comfort of France to witness the human glory of Christ among the natives of the New World. It was near Montreal, in 1666, when Kateri, at the age of 11, first met these men and was so struck by a different humanity that she was instantly drawn to Christianity, and three years later, when a permanent mission was begun in her village, she began preparation for Baptism. Immediately, the proposal of the missionaries became something humanly appealing to her to the degree that she would forsake popularity and acceptance among her tribe because of it. Responding to this eagerness to know Christ in the sign He had chosen for that place (that is, in the missionary order of Jesuits sent there), Fathers James de Lamberville, Peter Chauchetière, and Cholenec did all that they could to assist her in the graces God had bestowed upon her. It did not take Kateri any time at all to see that the proposal these men were making to her humanity was something that would allow it to flourish in a way that normal Indian life would not.

Solitude and work
From the time she was a child, even before encountering the French missionaries, Kateri was known for her virtuous character. In addition, she was not in any way attracted to what an Iroquois woman should have been attracted to namely, marriage to an Iroquois man who would provide security for her. Instead, from childhood on, she was known for a love of both solitude and work. Her friends and relatives plagued her about marrying, and her fellow villagers persecuted her because of her reluctance. Even before she was baptized, in fact, she showed an esteem for virginity and a real scrupulousness already signs, perhaps, of the magnitude of the task for which that mysterious Presence had chosen her.

Fathers Cholenec and Chauchetière, two of the missionaries who were eyewitnesses of her life as well as the official biographers, along with Fr James de Lamberville, the priest who was chiefly responsible for the Mission of St Peter, immediately understood her exceptional virtuousness and felt that this could be amply built upon by the graces that would come to her through the Church's sacraments. Striking, however, is the fact that, like all of the Church's saints, Kateri Tekakwitha's life took root and flowered within various companionships that the Lord deemed useful for various stages of her life.

Seed of grace
To begin with, she was born to an Algonquin mother who was devoutly Christian, and when her mother, father (a Mohawk), and younger brother passed away in a smallpox epidemic that left Kateri's face so scarred that she often covered it with a blanket, the woman who came to bear the most influence on her was Anastasia Tegonhatsihongo, another Catholic woman who had been a friend of her mother’s and whose friendship was to influence her until her death. One has the sense that, from beyond, her mother had sent this woman to keep the seed of grace alive in Kateri so that her daughter would follow her on the path to destiny by encountering and living in Jesus Christ. Anastasia became a second mother to her, and although Kateri lived with her older sister, who did all she could to force Kateri into the common life of a married Indian woman, it was Anastasia’s great faith and her solicitude toward Kateri that the Lord used to keep her on the path.

Although from the time of her early childhood Kateri had shown a disdain for anything immodest with regard to women's dress (this could have been due to the influence of both her mother and Anastasia) and a hatred of anything that led one to impurity, in 1676, concerned that the sexual promiscuity and pagan lifestyle among the unbaptized Iroquois would work against Kateri’s ardor, Fr James de Lamberville removed her from the Mission of Saint Peter, located in what is now the town of Fonda, and brought her to the Mission of Saint Francis Xavier in Sault Saint Louis, close to Montreal, where he believed a faith like hers would flourish. It was here, in this mission known for a faith so great among the Indian converts that its fervor was often compared to that of the early Church, that Kateri was encouraged to become friends with Mary Theresa Tegaiaguenta, another convert who had been baptized by the missionaries. Mary Theresa became a peer companion to her at the behest of her spiritual director, since he felt that after her Baptism, Mary Theresa had grown lukewarm and Kateri's friendship would be a spur to her faith, and vice versa. (Kateri had actually complained to the priests that they hadn't told her about mortifications and penances from the outset.) The two of them were known for going off into the woods and assisting one another in arduous mortifications and penances, some of which were cause for reprimand once her spiritual director became aware of them.

The Christian Indians
As St Paul wrote, “Where sin abounds, there is an abundance of grace.” While on the one hand there was an abundance of drunkenness and promiscuity among the Indians, on the other, the humility and pure simplicity with which many of the Christian Indians were known for mortifying themselves in order to atone for their own sins and those of their pagan brethren is highly moving: often they would do such things as strip to the waist and stand knee-deep in snow, barefoot, reciting the rosary, or in the middle of winter would cut a hole through the ice on a lake and wade into the sub-freezing water in order to do the same. Kateri would literally stop at nothing to physically demonstrate her love for Christ and the Blessed Mother in any way possible, and this was the motivating factor behind why she took upon herself such harsh acts of mortification as placing a burning coal between her toes (although it is to be noted that the following day there was virtually no sign of the burn on her foot, as witnessed by the priests) and sleeping, as she had once heard St Aloysius Gonzaga had done, on a bed of thorns. She had planned to do this secretly throughout her life until she died. When it caused her already frail health to take a turn for the worse, Mary Theresa suspected she had taken on something that might have been excessive, and asked her, “Do you know that you offend God by undertaking this sort of excess without the permission of your confessor?” In the official positio of her cause, Fr Cholenec writes, “The shadow of the sin was capable of making her disclose this rare act, which, without this apprehension, she would have kept secret her whole life. She sought me immediately and approached me with these words: ‘Oh! Father, I have sinned.’ Then she told me the whole affair, and although in my heart I admired her, I pretended to be displeased and reprimanded her for her imprudence, and in order to prevent her from renewing it, I commanded her to throw these thorns into the fire, which she did with great submission.” Her acts were motivated by a twofold desire: to make a perpetual offering of her soul to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, and of her body to Jesus Crucified, in gratitude for all that He had given her in choosing her for Baptism and dying for her. When she had heard about the mortifications of great saints, she had spoken to Fr Cholenec in irritation at why he had not told her about these practices. It is important to note here, however, that Kateri was a simple woman who had grown up in the wilderness and thus, her acts of penance and mortification were those of a virtual child who would go to any means to demonstrate her love.

The gift of prayer
Fr Cholenec also speaks of her gift for prayer, saying, “Through such eagerness to unite herself to God in her prayers, she attained, without any other teacher than the Holy Ghost, a sublime gift of prayer, together with such heavenly sweetness, that she often passed several hours at a time in these intimate communications with her God.” She did not do this, however, to the exclusion of the realities and duties of her life, and in fact had a sense that all of reality was the place where He could be sought and found. Fr Cholenec goes on to say, “In attaching herself to God she attached herself to work, as to a very proper means of being united with Him, as well as in order to preserve during the entire day the good inspirations she had received in the morning at the foot of the altar.” Discussing this in connection to Kateri's relationship with Anastasia, Fr Cholenec goes on to write, “For this reason, she formed a great friendship with the good Anastasia… She made it a rule to avoid all other company and to go with her alone, whether to the woods or to the fields. They went together, therefore, and since they had only one purpose, namely, to seek for God, they not only offered Him their work, but they also held pious conversations while performing their tasks, Anastasia speaking to Katharine only of God…. Thus Katharine sanctified her work by spiritual conferences.”

As was the custom among the Mohawks, the time following Christmas was dedicated to going to the woods for the hunt. Although Kateri later complained that time in the woods meant time away from the things through which she felt she could connect with the Lordmost importantly, the Eucharistshe was determined to prove to her people that the virtue she cultivated could be cultivated there also, and thus went with the firm intent of living the memory of Christ even in these trying circumstances. Again, Fr Cholenec writes, “She advanced visibly, and profiting by everything, drew from all things both motives and means to grow in grace and holiness, and to attach herself more and more to Our Lord. In the opinion of a very judicious person who knew her, she already lived the unitive life. In fact, she tasted all the sweetness of that blessed state without having passed through preparatory stages.”

Illness and Death
Like the remarkableness of her life, Kateri Tekakwitha's death is ample evidence to us of the exceptionality of this saint's yes to Christ. On Wednesday of Holy Week in her twenty-fourth year, at three o'clock in the afternoon, she left this world after having suffered for a year from an illness that “left her with a slow fever and a severe pain in her stomach.” The priest who had been charged with caring for the mission's sick commented on how she constantly smiled throughout her illness, and how, even as she was dying, she was a sign of something extraordinary for the faithful as well as for the unbaptized of the village. Another woman, twenty-two years old, had requested the previous day to go to the woods to do some penance in order to obtain a happy death for her, and Fr Cholenec had granted this. The young Indian maiden performed penance for fifteen minutes, and returned to him bleeding. As soon as she heard about it, Katharine requested that the young girl come to her bedside, and when she did, she took the young girl's arm, pressed it, and said, “I know what I am saying, my sister; I know where you come from and what you have done. Go, take courage; be assured that you are pleasing in the sight of God, and that I shall help you when I am with Him.”

Such was her confidence in the faithfulness of that Presence that she had fallen in love with in the twenty-four-year span of her life. Within fifteen minutes after her death, those who witnessed it attest to the fact that her face took on an extraordinary beauty, such that one of two French settlers who had been passing the lodge and had been mysteriously drawn into it moments after she had died, said, “There is a young woman who sleeps peacefully.”

Within six days after her death, she appeared to a devout fellow Indian who had done her a great favor during her life, and this was only the beginning of several apparitions and cures at her behest. In the words of Fr Cholenec, regarding one of these, “But God spoke even more clearly of the sanctity and merit of Katharine, His spouse, by authentic proofs, by the many graces which He has already granted and continues to grant to all kinds of people through her intercession.”

Declared a venerable in 1943, Kateri Tekakwitha was later declared a blessed by Pope John Paul II on June 22, 1980. Her cause is currently in progress, and she continues to be popularly regarded as a wonder worker when implored for favors. Needless to say, just as God Himself took on human flesh in order to show us that He is both the path to our destiny and our destiny itself, and further, to show us that the flesh is the means through which we work toward and obtain this destiny, the separation between the true meaning of this world and the physical realities of it that we can see, feel, and touch, is a separation that the life of a saint, the life of Kateri Tekakwitha, renders virtually non-existent.