Today, the Catholic Church in the United States commemorates Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha “The Lily of the Mohawks.” Born in what is now upstate New York in 1656, she was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin Christian mother. Four years later, smallpox killed her family and left her with a scarred face and weakened eyesight. She was adopted by her uncle, the new chief, and eventually became especially talented at sewing beautiful beadwork.
In 1676, at age 20, she was baptized by French Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, and was given the name Kateri after St. Catherine of Alexandria. While her uncle tolerated her new religion, in July 1677 the hostility of her aunts and others in the village caused her to flee – a two-months’ journey through 200 miles of wilderness - to the safety of a Native American Christian settlement near Montreal. There, on Christmas 1677, she received her First Holy Communion. On March 25, 1679, she made a vow of chastity. While she continued to do beadwork, she cared for the children of the community, tended the sick, and spent much time in prayer, becoming known for her spirituality and austerity of life. Kateri wanted to start a convent for native American sisters, but the poor health which plagued her throughout her life led to her death at the age of 24, on April 17, 1680. Her grave quickly became a pilgrimage site for Native American Christians and French colonists and a purported place of miracles.
Two centuries later, in 1884, the cause of her canonization was opened; and, in 1943, “Servant of God” Kateri Tekakwiktha was proclaimed “Venerable.” In 1980, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha became the first Native American (and also the first lay American) to be beatified. She is a patron of environmentalists, exiles, and people who have lost parents, are in exile, or are ridiculed for their piety. The Tekakwitha Conference, an international association of Native American Catholics and those in ministry with them, is named after her.
At the Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica on February 18 (at which I was privileged to be present) Pope Benedict XVI announced that Blessed Kateri will be canonized a saint on October 21 - during the forthcoming Year of Faith and the October Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.