WE CELEBRATE THE FEAST DAY OF ST. KATERI TEKAKWITHA ON TUESDAY, JULY 14!
It takes tremendous courage to step out into the unknown and embrace a God spoken of by strangers.
When Tekakwitha did just that, she sent shockwaves through her entire community. To some, she had done something beautiful and brave. To others, she had thrown her lot in with a people who had brought destruction to the Americas.
When the French came to the New World, some brought with them the Word of God… and some brought smallpox. Jesuit missionary outreach, which would ordinarily be fraught with suspicion and tension natural to a proposed shift in worship, was further distrusted with the spread of a disease that could only be attributed to the European strangers. It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the smallpox epidemic that ravaged native communities. People lost everything.
Tekakwitha was one of those people.
Tekakwitha was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin Christian woman. She heard about Jesus from her mother, who told her to keep God close to her, though this belief was not accepted in her community at large. But when she was still very young, smallpox swept through their village. Tekakwitha lost her mother, her father, and her brother. She was the only survivor of the disease in her family, and it left her with damaged eyesight and badly scarred. She was taken in by her aunt and uncle, who raised her. While she was under their care, she met a Catholic missionary, and he spoke with her about Jesus—the same Jesus her mother had known.
Tekakwitha met Christ, and she recognized him. She got to know him, and she loved him. And there was no turning back.
Against the wishes of her family, Tekakwitha was baptized, taking the name “Catherine,” which the Mohawk people pronounced “Gaderi,” or Kateri. When this conversion exposed her to derision in the community, she decided to make her way to Kahnawake, near Montréal, to live with other Indigenous converts. There she learned even more about the God she had fallen in love with, deepened her prayer life, and took a vow of virginity.
Although formidable in spirit, Kateri had been in weak health ever since surviving smallpox, and when she was about 24 she became gravely ill. In her final illness she was surrounded by her dearest, most faithful friends. Her last words before she died were “Jesus, I love you.” And upon her death, the scarring from the smallpox completely vanished from her face.
Kateri Tekakwitha would become the first Indigenous woman to be canonized.
Saint Kateri’s simple life of sincere bravery has left a legacy of faith amongst Indigenous communities in North America that is truly inspirational. Her story, witness, and prayers have brought together people of different tribes, traditions, and walks of life. And here at our convent, the Daughters of St Paul have one sister in particular who has been touched by the life of Saint Kateri in a special way.
Sister Marie James Hunt is a member of the Penobscot Nation. She shares that her mother, a devout Catholic, grew up on the Penobscot Nation Indian Reservation at Indian Island, Maine, in a very Catholic culture. The community had daily mass, Eucharistic Adoration, Eucharistic processions, and were taught by the Sisters of Mercy at school. Her mother cherished this faith that had been passed down to her, at great cost, by her ancestors. And she in turn passed it down to her children. Sr. Marie James fondly remembers her first pow-wow on the reservation when she was five years old. Each year, her family would travel to Maine, stopping along the way to make little pilgrimages to various Catholic sites, including Fonda, New York where St. Kateri was born, and Auriesville, New York where Saint Isaac Jogues and companions were martyred.
“My mother taught us about Saint Kateri when I was young,” recalls Sr. Marie James. “She said that in her house on the reservation, there was a statue of Saint Kateri on a little prayer altar. That statue was treasured and passed down in the family from generation to generation.” When it came time to choose a Confirmation saint, Sr. Marie James wrote to her bishop requesting to take Kateri’s name, despite the fact then-Venerable Kateri hadn’t yet been declared “Blessed” or “Saint.” The bishop granted her permission. Sr. Marie James explained, “The Catholic native Americans just knew she was a saint. The oral tradition taught us was that she was a very holy Indian girl who loved Jesus and lived a devout life. My mother talked about her so naturally, like she was a very holy family member we could talk to and pray to. I took this teaching to heart, and lived it. I would pray to Saint Kateri in my day-to-day living as if I was talking to a sister. I always felt her to be my spiritual sister. I prayed daily for her to be one day canonized as a saint.”
Sister Marie James remembers the day that prayer was answered.
“In December 2011, I was a Daughter of St Paul already, stationed in Los Angeles, and I received a text from one of our sisters in Rome that the announcement was made that Kateri would be canonized in 2012. I was ecstatic! We learned that a priest was organizing a pilgrimage trip for Native American Catholics to attend the Canonization. My mom and dad and I signed up, and attended with more than 600 pilgrims from the United States, and even more from Canada.”
Sister Marie James smiles as she remembers the people she met–people from tribes across North America, some of whom had been ministered to by Mother Katherine Drexel’s Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and others who could trace their faith back to their ancestors’ encounters with Jesuit missionaries just as she could.
“Being with these devout Catholic Native Americans on pilgrimage gave me a desire to continue to get to know them, to pray with them, and to be among them. It gave me the feeling of being family. Some of our tribes historically were at war with one another at one time. But being gathered together in prayer and sharing the same love and devotion for Saint Kateri, we felt she brought us all to such unity, in healing together, and helping one another. She calls us to unity, healing and hope.”
Sister Marie James recalls the tremendous impact Saint Kateri has had on the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people at different points in history.
“In World War II, the Navajo Code Talkers were Catholic. It was 1943 when they were discussing whether or not they should enter the war and cooperate with the government’s war efforts. They made a nine-day novena to Kateri Tekakwitha to guide them in their decision. On the ninth day, the pope declared her Venerable. And that was their sign.”
“Turn to Saint Kateri,” Sister Marie James encourages. “She’s the most powerful saint you could ever have as your friend. You can identify with her on so many levels. She suffered physically, emotionally and spiritually. She lost her family. She knows what it is to straddle two cultures. She loved Jesus. She died saying, “Jesus, I love you,” and telling the people around her to pray to her because she wanted to be able to help them from heaven. And she’s fulfilled that promise over and over.”
When asked how her own culture and faith inform each other in light of Kateri’s legacy, Sister Marie James replies:
“Both are integrated into my very DNA. It is simply who I am. What has become stronger in me is my deeper awareness and appreciation of my ancestors who gave their lives for the faith. I am a surviving descendent of martyrs, Catholic Native Americans who risked their lives to go to mass, and who gave up their lives in trying to defend their missionary priest, Fr. Sebastien Rale, SJ. They died while trying to protect their church, which was burned to the ground. This awareness has increased my gratitude for what we have in being able to participate in mass daily and pray in a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is awaiting us.”
May we all be inspired with such gratitude for the faith we have been gifted!