St. Kateri Tekakwitha: Lily of the Mohawks

Kateri Tekakwitha bio

Growing up, I remember packing my sit-upon and mess kit to attend Camp Sacagawea as a camper, and later, as a counselor each year through high school. My grandfather whittled Native American figurines out of bars of soap for my cousins and I on summer visits. Names like Mahtomedi, Minnehaha, Minnetonka, Kawishiwi, and Winnibigoshish are part of my geography. As part of J-term at my environmental high school, we rafted a portion of the Lewis and Clark (and Sacagawea) expedition through North Dakota and Montana. We grew up with an awareness of and a deep sense of respect for the Native American people.

Tradition and Influence

I’ve been thinking some about this influence recently. My daughters have discovered a story series about a Nez Perce girl growing up in the 1700s. Both girls are mesmerized by the life and rituals described in these stories. We listen to the stories on audio collection. I’ve been listening closely, too. The depiction of family, spirituality, adventures, and courage, are compelling.

Imagine the excitement then, when our family drove through a part of the Mille Lacs Indian reservation in Northern Minnesota recently. It is a unique experience. Billboards advertising snowmobiling, fishing, colleges that promote language preservation, casinos, museums and historical markers, road signs in a foreign and beautiful tongue, all surrounded by forests and lakes. It is a unique place. Certainly it is not one without its own, difficult story.

This is an interesting parallel to the life of St. Kateri ,whom we honor today. Set apart, beautiful, and part of a complex story.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Kateri was born to a Christian mother and a Mohawk chief. Her parents and brother died during the smallpox epidemic. She lost a great deal of her eyesight and scars covered her face.

Because of her scarring, Tekakwitha wore head coverings and avoided social gatherings. The name ‘Tekakwitha’ is translated to “she who bumps into things.” “Kateri” is Mohawk for her Baptismal name, St. Catherine of Siena.

She was viewed with much suspicion by her extended family and tribe after her conversion. Under the advisement of a Jesuit priest, Tekakwitha fled to a Jesuit mission in Canada where she was able to live her faith more completely.

Tekakwitha is remembered for her deep piety and acts of suffering, which she would offer on her behalf or that of others. She died at the age of 24. At her canonization, Pope Benedict XVI declared Kateri Tekakwitha a model for young people in 2012.

Modeling Her Spirit

We all probably know a piece of a story like this. A single mom advocating for a co-worker’s well-deserved raise. A retired neighbor earning a high school or college diploma they didn’t have the opportunity to earn earlier. The parents of a special needs child, creating individual learning plans each year. A quiet force. Someone who finds themselves in circumstances that are less than ideal. Rather than being defined by them, they instinctively seek to make a more fitting and fruitful situation.

This was the life of Kateri Tekakwitha. Remembering her mother’s devotion to God, she sought out opportunities for herself to grow in faith after her family died. This was at her own risk, given the period in history and the suspicious relationship between missionaries and Mohawks. She was ostracized. She walked hundreds of miles with limited vision to a community of believers with whom she could safely practice her Faith.

Sent Into the Wilderness

Several years ago, I heard a mesmerizing story-teller speak. Her grasp on the stories and the way she delivered them still can give me goosebumps. They were stories she’d collected from all over the world, and Scripture, too. One of my favorite prompts that she shared that day was something like this:

After years and years of slavery, in service to Herod, the Israelites are led to freedom by Moses. He parted the sea, led them across it and into a giant desert. They had no supplies and they didn’t know how long they’d be gone. They only hoped it would be better than where they’d been. With all these thoughts swirling in your heads, I’d like to ask…Who would you go into the wilderness for?

Because in every sense, Kateri’s life and conversion were invitations for her to go into the wilderness. In reflecting on Kateri today, it is an important question for us, too.

For whom would you go into the wilderness? Are you being invited into the wilderness?

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Katie Cassady is a wife and mom to two little girls in Denver, CO. Steeped in Theological Reflection, beekeeping, and motherhood, she is appreciative of any and all wisdom she can glean from those living intentional lives of faith. Find out more about her, here.

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