By Kelley Anne Mc Gee
Kateri Tekakwitha was the first Native American appointed to sainthood. Given the name Tekakwitha at birth she was also casually known as “Lilly of the Mohawks” by her tribal people.
Born in 1656 in Auriesville, New York, she was the daughter of a Mohawk Chief and a Roman Catholic Algonquin and learned to say the prayer the Hail Mary as a little girl from her mother.
When she was four-years-old a smallpox epidemic greatly affected the Mohawk village where she lived and her family did not survive the disease. Although she survived she was greatly scared by smallpox and it left her visually impaired. She was then adopted by a tribal uncle and two aunts.
As a young girl Kateri was shy and modest and kept herself mostly covered up, most likely because she was embarrassed by the scarring left on her face and body as a cruel reminder and result of once having smallpox.
Like many in her tribal clan she became skilled at traditional women’s arts such as making cloths and belts from animal skins, weaving mats, baskets and boxes from reeds and grasses, gathering produce and preparing food from game and crops. She also took part in seasonal planting and weeding.
She was pressured to marry at the age of 13, but refused. She was influenced by the Jesuits Missionaries she came in contact with and had long been interested in a life of religion instead. Although she wanted to convert to Christianity she was met with great resistance from her clan. After a few years passed and several failed attempts to marry her off, they finally gave up on her. Against their wishes she became a Christian and faced great resentment, ridicule, hostility and at times even cruelty for her faith.
At the age of 19 she was baptized Catherine and converted to Roman Catholicism at age 20. After a difficult time of not being accepted or wanted by her people, she joined a Jesuit Mission in Canada to further study religion. She continued to learn all she could about Catholicism and living a good Christian life.
She lived a life dedicated to prayer, doing penance and carrying out acts of kindness and good deeds. She was known to be religiously devout and pure, kind, sweet, smart and had a good sense of humor. She was especially gifted with teaching children and caring for the elderly and sick.
After a serious illness she died at the age of 24. Witnesses say shortly after her death all the scars she had from smallpox suddenly disappeared and she looked radiant and beautiful.
It’s said that several weeks after her passing three close associates of hers had visitations from her. Miracles such has curing those who were serious ill have also been attributed to Kateri. One of the most recent miracles occurred in 2006 when a young Native American boy was hospitalized suffering from a severe flesh-eating bacteria. From prayers by the boy’s family and classmates to Tekakwitha asking for her divine intercession and relics of hers such as a bone fragment placed again the sick boy’s body by a nun, his infection stopped its progression the next day.
Both America and Canada pay tribute to St. Kateri Tekakwitha by naming several places after her including schools and churches and have built several shrines in her honor that the public may visit.