Tekakwitha, Kateri (1656–1680)

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Tekakwitha, Kateri (1656–1680)

Mohawk who was the first native woman to be beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. Name variations: Tagaskouita; Tegakwitha; also known as Lily of the Mohawks, The Genevieve of New France, La Bonne Catherine, Katherine or Catherine Tekakwitha. Pronunciation: KAT-e-ree Tek-a-QUEE-ta. Born in 1656 at Ossernenon (now Auriesville, New York); died on April 17, 1680, at Caughnawaga, New France (near Montreal, Quebec, Canada); first child of Kenhoronkwa (a Mohawk chief) and Kahenta; given no formal education; never married; no children.

On June 22, 1980, to the sounds of prayers in the Mohawk language, Pope John Paul II formally beatified a young native woman, Kateri Tekakwitha. She was the first native to be accorded this distinction, which in most cases leads to eventual canonization as a saint. The process of Kateri's beatification was unusual in that it occurred in a relatively short period of time. A joint Canadian-United States effort to have her candidacy accepted was launched as recently as 1939, and she passed the first stage, being named venerable, only four years later. The process was then delayed because Church authorities would accept only one of the two alleged miracles attributed to her. In 1979, however, the Vatican agreed to suspend this requirement and allowed Kateri to be beatified on the basis of numerous favors reputedly granted to those who had sought her intercession through prayer.

Kateri Tekakwitha was born sometime in 1656 at Ossernenon, a Mohawk settlement situated near the site of the present-day town of Auriesville, New York. Her father Kenhoronkwa was a prominent warrior and chief among the Mohawks. The latter formed the most easterly nation of the extensive Iroquois federation and were greatly feared because of their frequent raids north into New France (the name given to much of modern-day Quebec and Ontario). They were inveterate enemies of the French settlers in the region as well as the settlers' native allies the Hurons and the Algonquins. It was during one of these raids that Kateri's mother, an Algonquin called Kahenta , had been taken prisoner (probably by Kenhoronkwa himself) and forcefully taken to Ossernenon.

Kahenta had previously been converted to Christianity by the Jesuit priests at the small mission they had established at Trois-Rivières, New France. Like other Algonquin and Huron captives at Ossernenon, Kahenta was permitted to continue practicing her religious faith on condition that her rituals were conducted in private and that she made no attempt to convert other Mohawks. At that time, few Mohawks were Christians. The few that were had been inspired by the example of Father Isaac Jogues, a French Jesuit murdered near Ossernenon in 1646. There is some dispute in the sources regarding the extent of Kenhoronkwa's role in this atrocity. Whatever the truth, it is known that he refused to allow another Jesuit Father Lemoyne (who made several missions to the Mohawks' Christian captives between 1653 and 1658) to baptize his infant daughter.

When Kateri was about four years old, a devastating smallpox epidemic swept through the Mohawk nation. Within the space of three days, her father, mother, and infant brother all died, and Kateri did not fully escape the effects of the disease. The smallpox virus left her with both a severely disfigured face and very poor eyesight. It was perhaps the latter consequence which gave rise to her being called by the name Tekakwitha. A native child was normally endowed with a name that indicated something about the character or nature of that individual and, in the Mohawk dialect, "Tekakwitha" means "one who approaches, moving something before her." Given her poor eyesight, it is feasible to suggest that her name indicates something about her childhood need for some kind of walking aid.

Following her parents' deaths, Kateri was sent to live with her uncle (whose name has not been recorded) at Gandawagué about five miles from Ossernenon. Little is known about her life at Gandawagué. Her later Jesuit biographers suggested (on what basis it is not clear) that she was a shy, modest but attentive child who was instructed by her aunts in all the basic skills required of a native woman. In 1664, when she was about eight years of age, Kateri was given by her uncle in a juvenile betrothal. Such an arrangement, among the Mohawks, was one method of allying two families together but did not necessarily imply any future settlement between Kateri and her "husband."

Francis Xavier de Charlevoix">

[Kateri was] the new star of the new world.

Francis Xavier de Charlevoix

In the autumn of 1666, the authorities in New France, tired of the constant raids by the Mohawks, sent a small expeditionary force under the command of Prouville de Tracy to subdue them. De Tracy besieged their main encampment at Tionnontogen and, when the Mohawks retreated without any serious resistance, went on to burn their other main settlements, including Ossernenon and Gandawagué. In July of the following year, a peace treaty was signed which included a provision that required the Mohawks to accept the presence of three Jesuit missionaries in their community. When Fathers Frémin, Bruyas, and Pierron arrived in September 1667 at a rebuilt Gandawagué, they were briefly accommodated in Kateri's uncle's lodge. Despite her young age, she was assigned the duty of furnishing the Jesuits' needs during their stay.

In his History of New France (published in 1732), another Jesuit priest, Father Francis Xavier de Charlevoix, suggested that the missionaries were so impressed by Kateri's piety that they made a special effort to instruct her in Catholic ritual. This story may be apocryphal because, over the next eight years, she gave no recorded, outward sign of wishing to embrace Catholicism. What is known is that during this period, Father Pierron, who had remained alone in charge of the Mohawk mission at Gandawagué, gradually managed to convert and baptize about half of the natives in the settlement. His task was complicated by occasional outbursts of anti-Christian sentiment (especially from young Mohawk warriors) and by the constant threat of raids on Gandawagué by another native group, the Mohegans. In response to one particularly ferocious raid in the summer of 1669, Kateri and her aunts moved to a safer site close to her former home at Caughnawaga. It was at this moment that her relatives made plans for her to marry.

Up until this time Kateri had always been submissive to the wishes of her family. When they informed her of their plans, however, she was appalled and stubbornly rejected any discussion of the idea (later in life she was to tell one of her spiritual advisors, Father Cholenec, "I hate marriage and am horrified at it"). Her family was deeply insulted by her refusal. Less, it must be stressed, because of her show of youthful rebellion, but, rather because of the effects her choice had on their lives due to the structure of Mohawk society. The Mohawk community was organized on particular matrilinear lines which meant that a bridegroom would become part of his new wife's family. For her aunts and uncle, a new young and strong husband for Kateri would have represented an economic guarantee against the vicissitudes of their old age.

In 1671, Father Pierron left Caughnawaga to take up a new appointment at the St. François Xavier mission located at the Saint-Louis (Lachine) rapids not far from Montreal. This mission, which had been founded some 30 years previously, was at that time one of the most important native Christian communities in North America. Although organized under the overall direction of Jesuit priests, the mission was effectively supervised by two native leaders; Togouiroui (also known as Kryn) and Louis Garonhiagué (known as Hot Ashes or Hot Powder—so-called because of his notoriously volatile temper). At some unknown date, an adopted sister of Kateri's had gone to live at the mission. This event, along with the increasingly numerous defections by other Mohawks to St. François Xavier from Caughnawaga and Gandawagué, greatly angered both Kateri's uncle and other native leaders.

In the summer of 1675, Father Jacques De Lamberville, who later became known among the Iroquois as the "Divine Man," arrived at Caughnawaga. Shortly after his arrival, Kateri revealed to him her desire to be baptized into the Catholic faith. Much to the opposition of her family and other members of the community, she was formally received into the Church on Easter day 1676 and given the name by which she is now popularly known, Kateri (Katherine).

Following Kateri's baptism, both her family and neighbors exerted a strong pressure that was designed to force her to recant her beliefs. Father Lamberville could do little to oppose this campaign and so, early the following year, advised Kateri to leave and travel to the St. François Xavier mission. By coincidence, Hot Ashes happened to be on a visit to Caughnawaga, and he readily agreed to assist in her flight. Following a hazardous journey, during which Kateri's uncle furiously pursued his niece threatening to kill her if he could, she arrived at the mission in the fall of 1677.

At the St. François Xavier mission, Kateri found refuge with Anastasia Tegonhatsihongo , an Algonquin native and a previous friend of her mother. Kateri and Anastasia quickly established a close rapport and their relationship was cemented by their mutual enthusiasm and devotion to the Catholic religion.

It was the normal practice among native converts to spend several years at the mission in spiritual training before being formally allowed to receive communion. The priests were so impressed by Kateri's evident piety and devotion to the faith, however, that they made a special decision to allow her to take communion on Christmas day 1677. This unusual distinction was complemented, a few months later, by her reception into the Confrérie de la Sainte-Famille, a pious and long-established association whose membership was almost invariably reserved for those who had been long adherents of the faith.

Throughout their relationship, the only recorded disruption between Kateri and Anastasia came when the latter pressed her friend to consider, once again, the prospect of marriage. Like Kateri's family earlier, Anastasia's motives in this regard were strictly practical. Two women living together alone in a hunter-gatherer society would have experienced on-going

difficulties in providing those basic necessities required in order to survive. Despite her economic situation and the urgent entreaties of her friend, Kateri refused to even consider such a proposal. Marriage, for Kateri, was an institution that could only serve to distract and divert her from her principal duties in life, fidelity and obedience to the teachings of her spiritual advisors.

It was during this period that Kateri became aware of the life and work of Marguerite Bourgeoys . Marguerite, the founder of a sect of nuns in Montreal, the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, carried out a variety of nursing and other charitable functions. Her example inspired Kateri to consider founding a new order of nuns that would be composed exclusively of native women dedicated to a contemplative life. Despite Kateri's enthusiasm for this project, Father Lamberville (who was now stationed at the St. François Xavier mission) strongly advised her to reexamine the feasibility of her idea. In the mid-18th century, the Catholic Church in New France was neither willing nor able to take such a radical step and sanction the formation of a native order of nuns.

Despite this disappointment, Kateri persevered in the commitment to her faith. Although she was not permitted to become a nun, Lamberville and his superiors allowed her, in March 1679, to take a vow of perpetual chastity (one of the single most important professions which a nun is required to make). Following this affirmation, Kateri assumed a rigorously penitential lifestyle. She submitted herself to a variety of painful mortifications (flagellation, fasting, sleep deprivation and so forth). Although she was advised by the Jesuits to modify this painful regime, Kateri consistently refused to yield. It was because of this commitment that she soon became a figure of veneration among her fellow natives, Jesuit priests, and local French settlers. Inevitably, however, this strict lifestyle took a heavy toll on her already weak constitution.

Kateri, who was still only in her early 20s, gradually became so ill that she could no longer walk the short distance from her home to the local church. During her last months, she was racked by endless fevers and suffered constant pain. Eventually her health gave out completely and, as she lay dying, her small home became filled by her friends and neighbors who had come to revere her devotion. Kateri's last act was to exhort these visitors to follow the principles of Christian virtue.

Following her death, on April 17, 1680, Father Cholonec, one of her closest advisors, reported that her face, so severely marked in the past by the effects of the smallpox virus, had miraculously become "beautiful." In the years that followed, numerous intercessions and miracles were recorded by the faithful devotees at her shrine (Kateri's remains were buried in the small chapel of the St. François Xavier mission).

A short time later, Father Chauchetière painted a picture of Kateri (which for many years was displayed in the Church of St. Mary's, in Albany, New York). Chauchetière had a special interest in carrying out this project. Shortly after her death, he had found himself trapped by a violent storm in the church at St. François Xavier. As the walls of the church collapsed around him, Chauchetière, according to his own testimony, addressed a prayer to Kateri and managed to survive the danger. Thus began the cult of Kateri Tekakwitha.


Béchard, Henri. L'Héroique Indienne Kateri Tekakwitha. Montreal: Editions Fides, 1967.

Buehrle, Marie Cecelia. Kateri of the Mohawks. NY: All Saints Press, 1962.

Jodoin, Rachel. Kateri Tekakwitha. Outremount, Quebec: Lidec, 1983.

Martini, Teri. Treasure of the Mohawks. NY: St. Anthony Guild, 1962.

Walworth, Ellen. The Lily of the Mohawks, 1656–1680. Buffalo: Peter Paul and Brother, 1893.

suggested reading:

Anderson, Karen. Chain Her by One Foot. NY: Routledge, 1991.

Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Long House. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada