Kateri Teckakwitha was the daughter of a Mohawk warrior. She was born near the town of Auriesville, New York, in the year 1656. Her mother died of smallpox when Kateri was four years old. The disease also attacked Kateri, leaving her weakened, scarred, and partially blind. She was adopted by her two aunts and an uncle, and from 1666 to 1677 lived in Caughnawaga (in present day Fonda in New York State). Kateri grew into a young woman with a sweet, shy personality. She helped her aunts work in the fields where they tended to the corn, beans, and squash, and took care of the traditional longhouse in which they lived. She went to the neighboring forest to pick the roots needed to prepare medicines and dye. She collected firewood in the forest and water from a stream. Despite her poor vision, she also became very skilled at beadwork.
When she was eighteen, Father de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary, came to Caughnawaga and established a chapel there. She vaguely remembered her mother’s whispered prayers, and was fascinated by the new stories she heard about Jesus Christ. She then decided to be baptized ‘Kateri’ (Katherine) at the age of twenty. This incurred great hostility from many of her tribe, so that she then migrated to ‘The Village of the Praying Indians’ at Kahnawake, across the St Laurence River from Montreal. There she lived a life dedicated to prayer, penitential practices, and care for the sick and aged. Every morning, even in bitterest winter, she stood before the chapel door until it opened at four, and she remained there until after the last Mass. She was devoted to the Eucharist and to Jesus crucified.
Her motto became, ‘Who can tell me what is most pleasing to God that I may do it?’ When the winter hunting season took Kateri and her community away from the village, she made her own little chapel in the woods by carving a Cross on a tree and spent time in prayer there, kneeling in the snow. Kateri loved the Rosary and carried it around her neck always. She died on 17 April 1680 at the age of twenty-four.
Kateri became known as the ‘Lily of the Mohawks’. She was declared venerable by the Catholic Church in 1943, beatified in 1980, and canonized in 2012. Hundreds of thousands have visited shrines to Kateri erected at Caughnawaga and at her birthplace at Auriesville, New York. Pilgrimages at these sites continue today.
St Kateri Teckakwitha is the first Native American to be declared a Saint. She is honored as the Patron of people who love nature, work in ecology, and work to preserve the natural and human environments.