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St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, also known as Lily of the Mohawks was born 1656 and died April 17, 1680

She is a Catholic saint who was an Algonquin–Mohawk laywoman. Born in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon, on the south side of the Mohawk River in present-day New York State, she contracted smallpox in an epidemic; her family died and her face was scarred. She converted to Catholicism at age nineteen, when she was renamed Kateri, and baptized in honor of Catherine of Siena. Refusing to marry, she left her village and moved for the remaining five years of her life to the Jesuit mission village of Kahnawake, south of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River in New France, now Canada.

Tekakwitha took a vow of perpetual virginity. Upon her death at the age of 24, witnesses said that minutes later her scars vanished and her face appeared radiant and beautiful. Known for her virtue of chastity and mortification of the flesh, as well as being shunned by some of her tribe for her religious conversion to Catholicism, she is the fourth Native American to be venerated in the Catholic Church and the first to be canonized.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha is often praised as the first Native American saint, but what is more remarkable is just how quickly she achieved sanctity. Normally sainthood is the process of twenty, thirty even forty years and yet, within four years of her baptism, St. Kateri had become a saint. What was the secret to sanctity that had St. Kateri found?

St. Kateri was born to a Christian mother of the Algonquin tribe and to a non-Christian father of the Mohawks. In 1660, when she was four, she tragically lost both of her parents and her little brother in a small pox epidemic. Although she survived smallpox herself, her eyesight was forever impaired and her face was scarred. She would later thank God for this, regarding it as a special grace that, receiving little attention, she was left to devote herself more freely to God.

Although St. Kateri’s mother had died before Kateri could be baptized, her good mother died ardently praying that God would provide for her child. St. Kateri was then raised by an uncle, the chief of the Turtle Clan, who was very wary of Christians and often opposed to them. However, there was some friendly contact with missionaries and at age 18 she started receiving instructions in the faith. Finally, her uncle reluctantly consented to her conversion and on Easter Sunday in 1676, she was baptized, taking the name Kateri, after St. Catherine of Siena.

Although her uncle allowed her to convert, St. Kateri still had to face the hostility of her own tribe and she suffered greatly from them. They simply could not understand why she refused to work on Sundays, but since she would not work on Sundays, she would not eat on Sundays. They would regularly hide all the food and leave her with nothing. Some would throw stones at her and insult her she would walk to the chapel. On one occasion, her uncle even sent a warrior to frighten her, as he pretended to attack her with a hatchet.

Eventually, St. Kateri began to fear for her life and fled to the mission of St. Francis Xavier, two hundred miles north, in Canada. Her village priest instructed her to deliver a letter for him, and when the missionaries at St. Francis Xavier opened it, the letter read, “I am sending you a treasure, guard it well!”

At the mission in Canada, her fellow Christians were devout, but St. Kateri soon distinguished herself by her great fervor, particularly in her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Her great love for the Blessed Sacrament was largely responsible for her swift rise to sanctity. St. Kateri attended two masses every day and she was always the first one at the chapel. Arriving at four in the morning, she would stand outside and pray until the chapel opened, even during the winter. She would visit the Blessed Sacrament several times per day and would always be the last one to leave at night.

The fruit of her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament led St. Kateri to have a great purity of heart. “Her chastity was the most beautiful flower in her crown,” said her first biographer, Fr. Claude Chauchetière (source #5). She preserved such extraordinary purity through constant mortification of the senses and through devotion to the Blessed Virgin. On the feast of the Annunciation in 1679, St. Kateri joyfully made a private vow of perpetual virginity and asked Mary to accept her as a daughter.

Only a year after making her vow, she became extremely ill, possibly having caught pneumonia. On April 17, during Holy Week, St. Kateri Tekakwitha passed away at age 23. Those who assisted at her death were privileged to witness a miracle, the first of many that would be attributed to her. Although St. Kateri’s face had been marked by smallpox her whole life, as her soul ascended to its heavenly glory, her skin became clear and radiant. With the apostle St. Paul, she could truly exclaim, “I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)