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Saint Kateri Tekakwitha , baptised as Catherine Tekakwitha and informally known as Lily of the Mohawks (1656 – April 17, 1680), is a Roman Catholic saint, who was an Algonquin–Mohawk virgin and religious laywoman. Born in Auriesville (now part of New York), she survived smallpox and was orphaned as a child, then baptized as a Roman Catholic and settled for the last years of her life at the Jesuit mission village of Kahnawake, south of Montreal in New France, now Canada.
Tekakwitha professed a vow of virginity until her death at the age of 24. Known for her virtue of chastity and corporal mortification of the flesh, as well as being shunned by her tribe for her religious conversion to Catholicism, she is the fourth Native American to be venerated in the Roman Catholic Church (after Juan Diego, the Mexican Indian of the Virgin of Guadalupe apparitions, and two other Oaxacan Indians). She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI at Saint Peter's Basilica on October 21, 2012. Various miracles and supernatural events are attributed to her intercession.
Kateri Tekakwitha (the name "Kateri" is derived from the French Catherine, her baptismal name) was born around 1656 in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon near present-day Auriesville, New York. She was the daughter of a Mohawk chief, and Tagaskouita, a Roman Catholic Algonquin who had been adopted into the tribe after capture. Her mother Tagaskouita had been baptized and educated by French missionaries in Trois-Rivières, east of Montreal. Mohawk warriors captured her and took her to their homeland. Tagaskouita eventually married Kenneronkwa.
Tekakwitha's village was highly diverse, as the Mohawk were absorbing many captured natives of other tribes, particularly their competitors the Huron, to replace people who died from European diseases or warfare. She was most likely born into the Turtle Clan. (The Mohawk and other Iroquois have amatrilineal kinship system, in which children are born into the mother's clan and take their status from her. However, since her mother was an Algonquin woman captured and brought into the Mohawk community, Tekakwitha was born into her father's clan.)
The Mohawks suffered a smallpox epidemic from 1661 to 1663. When Tekakwitha was around four years old, her baby brother and both her parents died of smallpox. She survived the disease, but was left with facial scars and impaired eyesight. She was adopted by her father's sister and her husband, a chief of the Turtle Clan. Shortly afterwards, the survivors of Ossernenon built a new village at the top of a hill, a mile or two west up the Mohawk River along its southern bank. They called their new village Caughnawaga ("at the wild water" in the Mohawk language).
The Jesuits’ account of Tekakwitha said that she was a modest girl who avoided social gatherings; she covered much of her head with a blanket because of the smallpox scars. They told that, as an orphan, she was under the care of uninterested relatives. According to Mohawk practices, she was probably well taken care of by her clan, her mother and uncle's extended family, with whom she lived in thelonghouse. She became skilled at traditional women’s arts, which included making clothing and belts from animal skins; weaving mats, baskets and boxes from reeds and grasses; and preparing food from game, crops and gathered produce. She took part in the women's seasonal planting and intermittent weeding. She was pressured to consider marriage around age thirteen, but she refused.
Tekakwitha grew up in a period of upheaval, as the Mohawk interacted with French and Dutch colonists. In the fur trade, the Mohawk originally traded with the Dutch, who had settled in Albany and Schenectady. The French traded with and were allied with the Huron. Trying to make inroads in Iroquois territory, the French attacked the Mohawk in present-day central New York in 1666. After driving the people from their homes, the French burned all three Mohawk villages, destroying the longhouses, wigwams and the women's corn and squash fields. Tekakwitha, now around ten years old, fled with her new family into a cold October forest.
After the defeat by the French forces, the Mohawk were forced into a peace treaty that required them to accept Jesuit missionaries in their villages. While there, the Jesuits studied Mohawk and other native languages in order to reach the people. They spoke of Christianity in terms with which the Mohawk could identify. In his work on Tekakwitha, Darren Bonaparte notes the parallels between some elements of Mohawk and Christian belief. For instance, the Jesuits used the word Karonhià:ke, the Mohawk name for Sky World, as the word for heaven in the Lord’s Prayer in Mohawk. "This was not just a linguistic shortcut, but a conceptual bridge from one cosmology to another."
The Mohawk crossed their river to rebuild Caughnawaga on the north bank, west of the present-day town of Fonda, New York. In 1667, when Tekakwitha was 11 years old, she met the Jesuits Jacques Frémin, Jacques Bruyas, and Jean Pierron, who had come to the village. Her uncle opposed any contact with them because he did not want her to convert to Christianity. One of his older daughters had already left Caughnawaga to go to the Iroquois Catholic mission village near Montreal.
In the summer of 1669, several hundred Mohican warriors, advancing from the east, launched a dawn attack on Caughnawaga. Rousing quickly to the defense, Mohawk villagers fought off the invaders, who kept Caughnawaga under siege for three days. Tekakwitha, now around 13 years old, joined other girls to help priest Jean Pierron tend to the wounded, bury the dead and carry food and water to the defending warriors on the palisades.
When reinforcements arrived from other Mohawk villages, the defenders drove the Mohican warriors into retreat. The victorious Mohawks then pursued the Mohicans and attacked them in the forest, killing over 80 and capturing several others. Returning to Caughnawaga amidst widespread celebration, the victors tortured the captive Mohicans—thirteen men and four women—for two afternoons in succession, planning to execute them on the third. Pierron, now tending to the captives, implored the torturers to stop, but they paid him no heed. Pierron then instructed the captives in Catholic doctrine as best he could and baptized them before they died under torture.
Later in 1669, the Iroquois Feast of the Dead, held every ten years, was convened at Caughnawaga. Some Oneidas came, along with Onondagas led by their famous sachem Garakontié. Tekakwitha's parents, along with others who had died in the previous decade, were to be carefully exhumed, so that their souls could be released to wander to the spirit land to the west.
Father Pierron, in a bold and provocative speech, attacked the beliefs and logic of the Feast of the Dead. The assembled Iroquois, upset over his remarks, ordered him to be silent. But Pierron continued, exhorting the Iroquois to give up their “superstitious” rites. Still pressured, Pierron departed from the Feast but returned along with the Onondaga sachem Garakontié. Under Garakontié's protection Pierron finished his speech. He demanded that, to secure continued friendship with the French, the Iroquois give up their Feast of the Dead, their faith in dreams as a guide to action, and the worship of their war god. At length, the assembled Iroquois relented. Exchanging gifts with priest Pierron, they promised to give up the customs and rituals he had denounced. Garakontié himself later became a Christian.
In 1671, Mohawk chief Ganeagowa, who had led his warriors to victory against the Mohicans, returned from a long hunting trip in the north to announce he had become a Christian. Traveling through the forests along the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River, he had discovered a Catholic Iroquois village set up by Jesuits a few years earlier at La Prairie, southeast of Montreal. There he made friendly contact with priest Jacques Frémin, who had served as a missionary in Mohawk country. Influenced by the Catholic faith of the Iroquois villagers and of his own wife Satékon, Ganeagowa received instruction for several months from Father Frémin, who then accepted him into the Church.
By the time Tekakwitha turned 17 around 1673, her adoptive mother (her father's sister) and aunt (uncle's sister) had become concerned over her lack of interest in young men as romantic partners or potential husbands. They tried to arrange her marriage to a young Mohawk man. Tekakwitha fled the cabin after the young man had entered and sat down beside her. For this bold rebuff of their marriage scheme, Tekakwitha's aunts punished her with ridicule, threats, and harsh workloads. While submitting to their work demands, Tekakwitha stayed firm in her resistance to marriage. Eventually, her aunts gave up their attempts to get her to marry.
In the spring of 1675 at age eighteen, Tekakwitha met the Jesuit Father Jacques de Lamberville and started studying the catechism with him.
Judging her ready for true conversion, Lamberville baptized Tekakwitha at the age of 20, on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1676. This is significant because, according to Jesuit policy, baptism was usually withheld for new converts until one was on his deathbed or until the missionaries could be certain that the convert would be committed.
After Catherine was baptized, she remained in Caughnawauga for only another 6 months. Some Mohawks opposed her conversion and accused her of sorcery and sexual promiscuity. Lamberville suggested that she go to the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake, located south of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River, where other native converts had gathered. Catherine joined them in 1677.
The historian Allan Greer notes that most of these early converts to Christianity were women. They lived in a way which they thought was integral to Christianity, dependent on charity. They devoted their bodies and souls to God and participated in mortification of the flesh. There were similar practices among Mohawk traditions, usually carried out by warriors. Despite opposition from the Jesuits, the women of the village continued to practice mortification, usually in groups, claiming it was needed to relieve their people of their past sins. The people of Kahnawake usually followed the directions of the Jesuits; at other times, they evaded their control. On the whole, they wanted to experience the sacred and spiritual life, and they were determined to do this with or without the Jesuits.
Tekakwitha was said to have put thorns on her sleeping mat and to have lain on them while praying for the conversion and forgiveness of her kinsmen. Piercing the body to draw blood was a traditional practice of the Mohawk and other Iroquois nations. She lived at Kahnawake the remaining two years of her life. She learned more about Christianity under her mentor Anastasia, who taught her about the practice of repenting for one’s sins. When the women learned of nuns and female convents, they wanted to form their own and created an informal association of devout women.
Father Cholonec wrote that Tekakwitha said,
“I have deliberated enough. For a long time my decision on what I will do has been made. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen Him for husband and He alone will take me for wife”.
The Church considers that in 1679, with her decision on the Feast of the Annunciation, her conversion was truly completed and she became the “first virgin” among the Mohawk.
The Jesuits had founded Kahnawake for the religious conversion of the natives. When it began, the natives built longhouses for residences. They also built a longhouse to be used as a chapel by the Jesuits. As a missionary settlement, Kahnawake was at risk of being attacked by nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. (While it attracted other Iroquois, it was predominately Mohawks.)
After Catherine's arrival, she shared the longhouse of her older sister and her husband. She would have known other people in the longhouse who had migrated from their former village of Gandaouagué (also spelled Caughnawaga). Her mother’s close friend, Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo, was clan matron of the longhouse. Anastasia and other Mohawk women introduced Tekakwitha to the regular practices of Christianity.
Claude Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec were Jesuit priests who played important roles in Tekakwitha’s life. Both were based in New France and in Kahnawake. Chauchetière was the first to write a biography of Tekakwitha’s life, followed by Cholenec, in 1695 and 1696, respectively. Cholenec arrived in New France in 1672, before Chauchetière. Father Cholenec introduced whips, hair shirts and iron girdles, traditional items of Catholic mortification, to the converts at Kahnawake so they would adopt these rather than use Mohawk practices.
Both Chauchetière and Tekakwitha arrived in Kahnawake the same year, in 1677. He later wrote about having been very impressed by her, as he had not expected a native to be so pious. Chauchetière came to believe that Catherine Tekakwitha was a saint. Jesuits generally thought that the natives needed Christian guidance to be set on the right path. Chauchetière acknowledged that close contact with and deeper knowledge of the natives in Kahnawake changed some of his set notions about the people and about differences among human cultures. In his biography of her, he stressed her "charity, industry, purity, and fortitude." In contrast, Cholenec stressed her virginity, perhaps to counter stereotypes of promiscuous Indian women.
The Jesuits wanted to guide natives and share their Catholic religion, but at this time, they did not provide for natives to be trained or ordained as clergy or religious. The most devout of the natives wanted full access to the religion and believed that some secrets were being held from them. As most converts to Catholicism were women, they comprised the majority of the devout.
Tekakwitha met Marie-Thérèse Tegaiaguenta for the first time in the spring of 1678. Aspiring to devotion, they began to practice mutual flagellation in secret. Cholenec wrote that Catherine could flog herself between one thousand and twelve hundred blows in one session. Tekakwitha's dedication to ritual mortification became more intense and consuming over the remainder of her life; she included prolonged fasting, flogging, cutting, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and burning herself with hot coals.
Her spiritual directors became concerned that Tekakwitha's mortifications were impacting her health and encouraged her to lighten them on occasion. At one time when her health was particularly poor, Fr. Cholonec suggested to Tekakwitha that she retire to the wilderness with her relations who were engaging in the winter hunt. This was to restore her strength, given that diet and the air in the forest was more conducive to health than life in the village. Fr. Cholonec reported that Tekakwitha said in reply:
"It is true, my Father, that my body is served most luxuriously in the forest, but the soul languishes there, and is not able to satisfy its hunger. On the contrary, in the village the body suffers; I am contented that it should be so, but the soul finds its delight in being near to Jesus Christ. Well then, I will willingly abandon this miserable body to hunger and suffering, provided that my soul may have its ordinary nourishment.
Marie Skarichions told Catherine and Marie-Thérèse about nuns, female religious, and their role in the Catholic religion. Through their mutual quest, the two women had a strong "spiritual friendship," as described by the Jesuits. The two women influenced a circle of associates. When they asked the Jesuits for permission to form a group of native disciples, they were told they were too "young in faith" for such a group.The women continued to practice together, including mortification of the flesh. Marie-Thérèse eventually left the group, supposedly due to personal issues. Catherine tried to reintegrate her into the group until her death. She had often given her guidance. Examples recorded by the priests were the following:
Around the period of Holy Week 1680, friends noted that Tekakwitha was failing. When people knew she had but a few hours left, villagers gathered together, accompanied by the priests Chauchetière and Cholenec. Cholenec provided the last rites. Catherine Tekakwitha died on Wednesday in the Holy Week, April 17, 1680, at around 15:00 (3 PM), at the age of 23 or 24, in the arms of her friend Marie-Therèse. Chauchetière reports her final words were, "Jesus, I love you."
After her death, the people noticed a physical change. Cholenec later wrote, “This face, so marked and swarthy, suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful and so white that I observed it immediately.”Tekakwitha is said to have appeared before three individuals in the weeks after her death; Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo (her mentor), Marie-Therèse Tegaiaguenta (her companion) and Father Chauchetière. Anastasia said that, while crying over the death of her daughter, she looked up to see Catherine "kneeling at the foot" of her mattress, "holding a wooden cross that shone like the sun". Marie-Thérèse reported that she was awakened at night by a knocking on her wall, and a voice asked if she were awake, adding, "I’ve come to say good-bye; I’m on my way to heaven." Marie-Thérèse went outside but saw no one; she heard a voice murmur, "Adieu, Adieu, go tell the father that I’m going to heaven." Chauchetière reported seeing Catherine at her grave; he said she appeared in "baroque splendour; for 2 hours he gazed upon her" and "her face lifted toward heaven as if in ecstasy."
Chauchetière had a chapel built near her gravesite. By 1684, pilgrimages had begun to honour her there. The Jesuits turned her bones to dust and set the ashes within the "newly rebuilt mission chapel." This symbolized her presence on earth. Her physical remains were sometimes used as relics for healing.
Tekakwitha's grave stone reads:
Because of Tekakwitha's notable path to chastity, she is often referred to as a lily, a traditional symbol of purity among Roman Catholics and one often used for the Virgin Mary. Religious images of Tekakwitha are often decorated with a lily and cross, with feathers or turtle as cultural accessories. Colloquial terms for Tekakwitha are The Lily of the Mohawks (most notable), the Mohawk Maiden, the Pure and Tender Lily, the Flower among True Men, the Lily of Purity and The New Star of the New World. Her tribal neighbors referred to her as "the fairest flower that ever bloomed among the redmen."' Her virtues are considered an ecumenical bridge between Mohawk and European cultures.
For some time after her death, Tekakwitha was considered an honorary yet unofficial patroness of Montreal, Canada, andIndigenous peoples of the Americas. Fifty years after her death, a convent for Native American nuns opened in Mexico. They have prayed for her and support her canonization.
The process for Tekakwitha's canonization was initiated by United States Catholics at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, followed by Canadian Catholics. In January 3, 1943, Pope Pius XII declared her venerable. She was beatified as Catherine Tekakwitha on June 22, 1980, by Pope John Paul II.
On December 19, 2011, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints certified a second miracle through her intercession, signed by Pope Benedict XVI, which paved the way for pendingcanonization. On February 18, 2012, Pope Benedict XVIdecreed that Tekakwitha be canonized. Speaking in Latin, he used the form "Catharina Tekakwitha"; the official booklet of the ceremony referred to her in English and Italian, as "Kateri Tekakwitha". She was canonized on October 21, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. In the official canonization rite booklet, "Catherine" is used in the English and French biographies and "Kateri" in the translation of the rite itself. She is the first North American Native American woman to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.
Tekakwitha is featured in four national shrines in the United States: the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, New York; the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York; the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and The National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods, an open air sanctuary in Indian River, Michigan, was inspired by Kateri's habit of placing small wooden crossed throughout the woods. One statue on the grounds shows her cradling a cross in her arms, surrounded by turtles. 
A statue of Tekakwitha is installed outside the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec, Canada. Another is installed at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Tekakwitha has been featured in recently created religious works. In 2007, the Grand Retablo, a 40-foot-high work by Spanish artisans, was installed behind the main altar of theMission Basilica San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, California. It features Catherine Tekakwitha, Junipero Serra, St. Joseph, and Francis of Assisi.
A bronze statue of Kateri kneeling in prayer was installed in 2008, created by artist Cynthia Hitschler, along the devotional walkway leading to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Crosse, Wisconsin. Another life-size statue of Kateri is located at the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston, New York. A bronze figure of Kateri is included on the bronze front doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. The Maryknoll Sisters at 10 Pinesbridge Rd, Ossening, NY have had a statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha on their grounds since 1939. It was a gift of the family of Maryknoll Sister Mary Theodore Farley. The statue honors the Maryknoll Sisters' origins as a U.S. mission congregation.