Kateri Tekakwitha was born of an Algonquin Christian mother, who had been captured by the Iroquois in her teens and then married one of their chiefs. Although her husband was pagan, Kateri’s mother was determined to bring her daughter up in her Christian faith. However, when Kateri was four years old, smallpox tore through her village, taking with it the lives of both Kateri’s parents and that of her newly born brother. She herself suffered from the disease, and though she survived, it damaged her face and her eyesight permanently. She was adopted by her uncle and aunt, who were to be Kateri’s guardians throughout the rest of her life in the village.
Later on in her childhood, three priests finally made it to her village and visited for a few days. The thought of meeting the people she vaguely recalled her mother speak of sent excitement thrilling through her. During the priests’ short stay, the seed of hope and love for this new Faith—her mother’s faith—was planted within her breast.
Later, another priest returned, this time to start a mission and build a chapel within the church. Though her pagan uncle disapproved of the Jesuit’s faith, Kateri watches the other people of her village be baptized and grow in the Catholic Faith, and her longing for that same faith and the purity it contained increased.
By the time she was eighteen, she could wait no longer, and laid before the priest her request for baptism. The village priest was a little wary of this, knowing her uncle’s stand on Catholicism and Kateri’s delicate health and fearing she would suffer greatly under even the slightest molestation for her faith. He asked her to wait a year. So Kateri waited a full year. Her director, seeing that she was willing to accept her faith, even with its risk of persecution, baptized Kateri in the village church, giving her the Christian name ‘Catherine.’
Her spiritual director’s fears were soon realized. Kateri’s tribe grew suddenly hostile to her, accosting her while she was at her work, taunting her, and starving her when she refused to work in the fields on Sundays. Her director urged her to leave and go to one of the Christian Canadian missions. Several times she refused, not wanting to leave her aged relatives on their own. But as the hostilities increased, she was forced to take up his offer last minute, and flee concealed in a fellow convert’s canoe. Her infuriated uncle pursued her for some distance, but finally gave up his fruitless chase and returned to his village, allowing Kateri continue in her journey unmolested.
Free to finally pursue the thing she loved most, Kateri cheerfully made the two hundred mile journey by canoe to the Canadian mission. That canoe must have felt to her like a ferry floating her to an island of dreams! Here was a place where she could love her Lord in peace! Here she could walk to mass without being attacked, rest on Sundays without criticism, pray without protest! She received her first holy communion that Christmas, and joined the Congregation of the Holy family soon afterwards. The following year, on the feast of the Annunciation, she was finally able to do one of the things closest to her pure soul: she made a solemn vow of virginity in the mission church.
All flowers, no matter how beautiful in their time, must eventually fade. Kateri’s health, never steady throughout her life, gradually began to decline. As the mission priest perceived that the end was near, he offered Kateri Extreme Unction, but she refused, telling him to wait until the following day. Kateri knew it was safe to do this, for she knew not only the day of her death, but the exact hour as well! The following day, after receiving the last sacraments of the church, the other women in the Congregation of the Holy Family wanted to sit beside her until her death, but they had other work to attend to as well. Kateri assured them that she would be there until all the women had returned. Sure enough, the moment the last woman in the Congregation knelt beside her, Kateri began her transition to the next life. With the words, “Jesus… Mary” on her lips, she gave up her spirit, offering to God another pure white lily for His garden.
After here death, her face, scarred from the smallpox all her life, suddenly became remarkably beautiful. So remarkable was this transformation that the men who designed her coffin made it so that her face could be seen until the very last moment, when it was laid in the ground..
Even to this day, many pilgrims flock to her grave. And all who sweep their reverent gazes across her tombstone read:
The fairest flower that ever bloomed
among the red men
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us!