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St. Kateri Tekakwitha
Lily of the Mohawks (entered heaven on 17 April 1680)
Sometimes I get so frustrated, being this far away from you and your cousins. How I wish I could be there with you, encouraging you, guiding you, teaching you the way of holiness! But God has decided I can be of more use here in this inhumanly drab cubicle-prison. And he knows best. He has the big picture in mind, but we only see little pieces. So I have to go on trusting him, more and more each day. And I recommend the same to you. I know you too are a bit frustrated these days, but don’t fear! Trust in the Lord! He knows what he’s up to, and he is watching over you. That’s what I think of whenever I contemplate the example of Saint Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks, the first beatified Native American, one of the brightest stars ever to shine forth from the great North American continent.
Kateri was born in what is today the town of Auriesville, in upstate New York. Her father was a Mohawk chief, and her mother (who had been taken prisoner after an inter-tribal battle) was an Algonquin Christian. When she was just five years old, Kateri’s parents and baby brother died in smallpox epidemic that decimated the tribe. She caught the disease, but survived, though it left her face scarred and her eyesight severely weakened. Her mother’s dying wish was that Kateri might some day be baptized.
Her uncle had adopted Kateri when he took over as chief and relocated the tribe across the Mohawk River. She was a hardworking girl, very productive. With the other women of the tribe she spent her days in the fields, or in the longhouse keeping the household in order, making baskets, doing beadwork and embroidery, and cooking. Her industry was exceeded only by her kindness and gentleness. Her Uncle was dissatisfied in only one thing: the girl had no desire to marry. He and the other relatives were determined to overcome this reluctance.
But God had other plans. When she was a teenager some French missionaries visited the village. The Chief extended them a proper but nival welcome. As she served the men of God, Kateri became fascinated by them. When she saw them at their prayers (notably their rosary) she was reminded of her mother, and her mothers dying wish. Eventually they set up a little chapel in the village and traveled through regularly. She was drawn to the faith, longed to visit the chapel and receive baptism… but her uncle forbade her; she wasn’t even permitted to speak to the missionaries.
One day when she was 19 Fr Jacques de Lamberville stopped by her longhouse while the Chief was out. She immediately fell on her knees and asked to become a Christian. The priest was deeply impressed with her sincerity and piety. Somehow, he obtained permission from her guardian, and on Easter Sunday, 1676 the Mohawk maiden was baptized and given the name Kateri (Catherine).
Her devotion grew quickly, and the abuse she suffered from other members of the tribe gave her a chance to grow just as quickly in holiness. They used to fling mud and sticks at her as she went to and from the chapel. They mocked her: “There goes the Christian…” On Sundays they would give her no food, since she refused to work on the Lord’s Day. Once a drunken warrior burst into the longhouse where she was working quietly with a club, threatening to beat her to death unless she denounced Christ. She answered, “You may take my life, but not my faith,” and bowed her head waiting for the fatal blow. But it never came. Her indomitable courage unnerved the assailant.
Eventually the abuse became unbearable (they tried to force her to marry, tricking and deceiving her) and she decided to flee to the nearest Catholic settlement, more than 200 miles away through the wilderness. Two missionaries accompanied her and guided her to her new home, where she would receive her first Holy Communion, be inspired to make a vow of virginity, serve the community through work, prayer, and penance, and spend her last months tormented by horrible sickness as her life ebbed away. Through it all her constant companion was the Rosary.
She passed away with the following words on her lips: “Jesus, Mary, I love you!” She was only 24 years old. Only a few minutes after her death, while the priest was still kneeling beside her in prayer, her scarred features were suddenly and quietly transformed into the radiant face of a beautiful young Indian woman. It was the first miracle wrought by God for his especially beloved Mohawk daughter, and it wouldn’t be the last.
God knows what he’s up too. If only we knew how to trust him! Saint Kateri did. May her prayers win us her wisdom.
Your loving uncle,