Saint Kateri Tekakwitha: The Church’s first Native American Saint

When one thinks of sainthood and the saints that have gone before us, we often call to mind images of perfect Catholics: baptized at birth, growing up at their local church, becoming missionaries, etc. In some cases, these perceptions are very true. But what’s more interesting is the fact that a majority of saints were actually converts—people who came to discover the faith later in life, or after the intercession of another saint or religious figure. Saint Kateri Tekakwitha was one such saint. Born in 1656, St. Kateri was a member of the Mohawk clan and lived in the village of Ossernenon (northern New York state). At a young age, St. Kateri’s family contracted small pox, resulting in the deaths of both her parents and siblings. St. Kateri herself was not left unscathed, as she would carry smallpox scars with her until her death. This was often a source of embarrassment growing up, and St. Kateri would often hide her face behind a blanket or cloth to cover the numerous scars.

 

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After the death of her family, St. Kateri was adopted by her uncle, who was the chief of the Mohawk clan, and his wife. St. Kateri was described as a very patient and kind person, who was also a very skilled worker who contributed greatly to the clan. When St. Kateri reached the appropriate age, her aunt and uncle arranged marriages with several of the clan’s members, but each time St. Kateri refused. As she approached adulthood, St. Kateri befriended a local priest who instructed her on the Catechism, and at the age of 19 she converted to Catholicism, taking a vow of chastity and pledging to marry Christ alone. She was baptized under the name Catherine, for St. Catherine of Sienna. (Kateri is actually the Mohawk version of Catherine) The conversation upset her clan in several ways– not only was she still refusing to marry, but she was converting to a faith that many of the clan considered to be a product of sorcery. After this negative response from her clan, St. Kateri decided to move to a native Christian community in Montréal, Canada.

 

From there St. Kateri completely devoted her life to Christ. She would often partake in self-mortification, often in the form of fasting or burning herself. It was also rumored that she slept with thorns on her sleeping mat. She prayed often for the conversion of her Mohawk tribe, and prayed to Jesus and Mary consistently. Sadly, St. Kateri’s self-mortification led to her pre-mature death at the age of 24. After her death, it’s said that her facial scars disappeared, and that she appeared to three of her closest friends over the three days following her death. Since her death in 1680, St. Kateri has been credited with several miracles, including healing a boy with small pox in the 18th century, and the healing of a priest and nun shortly after. Once news of St. Kateri’s miracles circulated, people began gathering dirt from around her grave and wearing it in bags around their necks. One woman is known for saying that the relic saved her and her husband from disease. This continued for hundreds of years, but the miracle that would finally solidify St. Kateri’s sainthood took place in 2006 in Washington state. A young boy was suffering from an aggressive strand of flesh-eating bacteria. The boy’s parents had prayed to St. Kateri, and even enlisted the help of their friends and family to offer up intentions. One day, Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Catholic nun, came to visit the young boy and placed a bone fragment of St. Kateri on his skin. The next day the bacteria stopped spreading the boy began to recover.

 

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Saint Kateri was officially canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict EVI, after being beatified by Pope John Paul II. She was the first Native American to be recognized as a saint, and she is considered the patron saint of ecology and the environment.

Post written by Katie Karpinski

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