10 More Amazing Things You Should Know About St. Kateri Tekakwitha
St. Kateri Tekakwitha is one of the most amazing saints of North America, but most people have yet to meet the real St. Kateri Tekakwitha or the path of holiness she traveled.
Most Catholics have an incomplete picture or understanding of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, her life and times. But understanding the real St. Kateri as a fully Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Catholic woman from the Mohawk nation, the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka, is key to unlocking the secrets of her holiness and evangelization that all Catholics, especially the laity, need to discover today.
Plus, rediscovering St. Kateri will open the door to encountering saints and martyrs she personally knew — people who are not yet canonized, but may inspire you to become a saint in our modern day or propose them for sainthood. And together, their lives give an important witness to how all Catholics need community, with men and women to encourage each other to live each day growing in deeper love and fellowship with Jesus Christ.
Make sure to read Part One (“10 Amazing Things You Should Know About St. Kateri Tekakwitha”) before going on. Here are 10 more amazing facts about St. Kateri Tekakwitha, starting with number 11:
11. St. Kateri Joined an Elite Community of Saints — Then Took It to A New Level
St. Kateri Tekakwitha was so exemplary in how she lived her faith that she was soon admitted to an intentional community, a sort of spiritual dynamo within Kahnawake, called the Holy Family Confraternity. The members would encourage each other to become saints by carrying out the works of the Gospel in 15 different ways. They would meet every Sunday in the afternoon, and also pray a special form of the Rosary.
St. Kateri’s own intense personal sanctity drew around her a close-knit group of “excellent women” who were also known as “Kateri’s band.” Her closest friend was a young widow named Wari Teres (Marie Therese). At one time they had contemplated forming their own contemplative monastic community on an island. There were contemporary Native Catholic women who had become religious sisters, but St. Kateri was looking for something along their own cultural lines. Their Jesuit confessor did not think the idea at the time was either prudent or practical, but St. Kateri’s band proved to be a spiritual force at Kahnawake long after she died.
St. Kateri’s motto and constant pursuit in Kahnawake was, “Who will teach me what is most agreeable to God, so that I may do it?”
12. St. Kateri Probably Didn’t Look Like How You (or Most Pictures) Show Her
Most modern Catholic depictions of St. Kateri come nowhere close to picturing her as a 17th-century Mohawk woman. Depictions of St. Kateri in entirely buckskin clothes with braided hair resemble aspects more commonly associated with Native nations from the American Plains and West. They do not really illustrate what St. Kateri looked like in her time.
Some images serve as important translations of St. Kateri’s image across different Native American cultures. But outside these Native contexts, artists (or popular writers) risk superimposing their own ideas of St. Kateri with their depictions when they have no reference to her actual culture and identity. It is critically important for writers and artists to depict the reality of St. Kateri as a Haudenosaunee Catholic woman of the Mohawk nation in order to listen to the saint and her lessons.
By St. Kateri’s time, Haudenosaunee men and women wore mainly cloth garments, and they adapted outfits to the situation just as we do today. Women’s dress had an emphasis on bright colors and beadwork designs. Also in St. Kateri’s Mohawk culture at the time, unmarried adult women left their hair unbraided. One detail peculiar to St. Kateri is that while it was popular to wear a traditional red shawl around her shoulders, she preferred to wear a Marian blue shawl over her head that would help shield her damaged eyes and face.
The original St. Kateri painting by Father Chauchtiere resembles closest St. Kateri’s actual appearance in life, and is closest to traditional regalia worn by Mohawk women today that one sees in dances and other cultural events. An accurate modern religious depiction is the icon of St. Kateri Tekakwitha composed by Canadian iconographer Andre Prevost.
13. Even St. Kateri’s New Life Among Saints Had Its Thorns
Even though St. Kateri found a wonderful community in which to fully live out her faith as a Mohawk Catholic woman, she still experienced some pretty painful sorrows in her community. No community in the Church, no matter how committed to holiness, is free from this. One woman made a rash judgment and accused St. Kateri of seducing her husband on a hunting trip based on the fact that her husband seemed fond of St. Kateri and once fell asleep exhausted on the wrong mat, which was next to St. Kateri. St. Kateri (as well as the woman’s husband) denied it, but the accusation was damaging because she had been falsely accused before back in the Mohawk heartland. St. Kateri never retaliated against the woman (who later realized her error of rash judgement and repented), but she refused to go on any more hunting trips.
Eventually, one of the Jesuit priests, would ask St. Kateri again on her deathbed — a painful experience, but which the Jesuit did because a deathbed testimony would settle any possible doubts raised by future detractors. The lesson for us is that even life in a garden of saints has its thorns.
14. St. Kateri Found A Way to Embrace Consecrated Virginity through Her Culture
Coming to Kahnawake did not mean St. Kateri escaped the issue of her family members wanting her to set her up with a nice Catholic young man to marry and raise a family. St. Kateri and her adopted mother and spiritual mentor Kahahstatsi (Anastasia) Tegonhatsiongo, who both knew St. Kateri’s mother and thought St. Kateri would make a great wife, mother, perhaps even a kind of clan mother at Kahnawake. And like the relatives back home, she didn’t want St. Kateri to end up completely destitute and unsupported later in life.
St. Kateri, however, finally takes a stand but finds the words to say what she wants to do: she intends that Jesus Christ will be her spouse and nobody else. She makes her consecration of virginity on March 25, 1679, but her rationale is in matrimonial terms, something the Second Vatican Council will echo when the ancient order of consecrated virginity is more intentionally re-established. In this way, St. Kateri finally expresses that she is not rejecting the Mohawk traditional values of marriage and family. While she will not live them out in an earthly sense, she will live out those values in a spiritual sense in her union with Jesus.
15. Preparing for Martyrdom Is Key to Understanding St. Kateri’s Extreme Penitential Life
For St. Kateri, the animating driving force of her life was love for Jesus Christ, which she practiced with works of love, almsgiving, and fasting. But fasting includes the ascetical life, and St. Kateri’s approach far exceeded what the Jesuits anticipated or were comfortable with when they introduced the concept of physically disciplining the body. Much of these penances St. Kateri kept hidden and practiced with her close friends, such as Wari Teres, since the Jesuits were concerned about her health, which was weak to begin with. But after a tip off from Wari Teres that St. Kateri was lying on a bed of thorns, the Jesuit father finally tells St. Kateri to stop out of obedience, but it was too late to save her life.
St. Kateri’s bodily disciplines were extreme by even Kahnawake’s standards. As practiced, the bodily self-punishments reflected an asceticism formed by 17th-century Western Catholic theology that placed a heavy emphasis on God becoming man in order to suffer and die to free people from sin. This theology historically could go to extremes when not balanced by Eastern Catholic theology that emphasized the Incarnation as part of the divine plan all along. Another intention seems to be reparation: St. Kateri taking on her own body the punishments due to sin that otherwise might fall on the Mohawk nation, the people back in the heartland whom she loved.
But St. Kateri’s asceticism appears to have incorporated traditional Mohawk ascetical practices designed to prepare a Mohawk person to display their orenda (sometimes translated as “greatness of spirit”) in the face of extreme pain, such as when undergoing ritual torture and death at the hands of one’s enemies. St. Kateri knew that breaking down under severe torture by screaming or pleading for mercy could forever discredit a captured person as weak — she had witnessed this in her own village with captured Mahicans who tried to wage war on the Mohawk. St. Kateri appears to have expressed concern about her own ability to endure martyrdom, and she did not want her own weakness to confirm them in the belief that the Catholic faith was the wrong path for the Mohawk nation.
Ritual torture afforded the captive to demonstrate their orenda by their resistance to pain and give a final testimony, such as St. John de Brebeuf had certainly learned from the Wendat Catholic martyrs. That would also be the ultimate proof of the credibility of the Catholic faith to all the Haudenosaunee of the Five Nations.
One very important point of perspective for the modern reader. The Mohawk nation, nor any of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee, did not have any unique monopoly on torture and cruel forms of execution. They should not be looked at as any worse than their European or American counterparts at that time or even later. In England, many Catholic martyrs met their fate convicted for “high treason” through a process of public hanging (until near death), drawing (slow disembowelment while alive), beheading, and finally quartering, whereupon one’s body was hacked into four parts and posted in prominent places. Crowds enjoying the spectacle would sometimes take parts of the bodies as trophies. The English killed a lot of people in this and other cruel ways up to the end of the 18th century. As did plenty of European-Americans and Europeans — all baptized and self-professed Christians — with their own horrific examples of torture and killing through the 20th century.
North American martyrdom accounts tend not to have this kind of self-aware perspective. It’s important to remind us that we all have a shared humanity, that is capable of great good and great evil in any time and place, which Jesus Christ came to redeem.
16. St. Kateri’s Path of Martyrdom, Not War, Helped Salve Mohawk Divisions
While St. Kateri did not suffer martyrdom herself, her own witness (and her prayers) had a galvanizing effect on the Haudenosaunee Catholics of Kahnawake to go even deeper in their commitment to the Catholic faith. And it would prove critical to the survival of Kahnawake, and the conversion of many Haudenosaunee people to the Catholic faith. In 1687, Kahnawake’s Haudenosaunee had opted to join their French allies in an invasion of the Seneca nation (“the Western Door” of the Five Nations).
The expedition was a debacle for the Haudenosaunee Catholics. They realized the expedition’s leader, Marquis de Denonville, was not a faithful Catholic, but a barbarian who betrayed and condemned to slavery the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s government leaders, the 50 Sachems that came under a flag of truce to a peace conference. Some Haudenosaunee Catholics defected to the Seneca, some refused to fight, and some felt they had no choice but to go on. The Seneca nation’s capital was sacked in the invasion — and disastrously, so were surrounding villages of Seneca Catholics. The blowback was tremendous as Kahnawake’s Catholics ended up branded as traitors who forfeited the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s protection.
In the ensuing decade, four of the Haudenosaunee Catholics of Kahnawake would meet a martyr’s death — three of them, Stephen Tegananokoa (who had preached to St. Kateri before her conversion), Frances Gonannhatenha, and Marguerite Garongouas, would be killed at Onondaga, the capital of the Five Nations Confederacy. Another, Stephen Haonhouentsiontaouet, was killed by relatives while attempting to leave the Mohawk heartland again for Kahnawake. However, in all these cases, the martyrs extended forgiveness and reconciliation toward their family members, and invited those who killed them to follow Jesus Christ and join the believers at Kahnawake. Which many actually did. For a long time, the martyrs were venerated in Kahnawake, and in theory could be canonized today if the bishops of New York and Quebec province with the Jesuits take up the cause.
St. Kateri’s way of martyrdom achieved what warfare could not: the possibility of peace with their relatives. Kahnawake eventually would become the seat of the Seven Nations Confederacy (made up of Catholic Haudenosaunee, Algonquin, Abenaki, and Wendat villages along the St. Lawrence river) and Kahnawake’s Mohawk would at the same time also identify as part of the Five Nations Confederacy. Mohawk warriors would seek to de-conflict themselves from fighting between their respective allies, and Mohawk families would move back and forth between the heartland and the northern frontier. In many ways, St. Kateri’s prayers would be answered for her people. But those traumatic incidents with the French had a lasting legacy: the majority who remained in the Mohawk heartland turned toward England as their ally, and many would embrace Christianity as Mohawk Anglicans.
17. St. Kateri’s Apparitions and Prophetic Dreams Make a Huge Statement
After a painful illness that left her bedridden in the longhouse, St. Kateri died on Holy Wednesday, repeating softly her last words “Iesos, Wari” [“Jesus, Mary” in Kanien’kehá] as she passed away. She was buried in the traditional manner of her people. And the Haudenosaunee Catholics of Kahnawake rendered her the greatest judgment they could for a person: “She died as she lived. That is, a saint.”
What happens next was incredible: St. Kateri appeared in visions to some of the people she deeply cared about to assure them of her love and that she was going home to God. The apparitions have a deeper meaning in traditional Haudenosaunee cosmology than would appear at first glance to Catholics used to European culture. Traditional Haudenosaunee beliefs held that after death, the souls of the dead would visit their loved ones before departing to the village of the dead. St. Kateri’s apparitions follow this “script” and perhaps are her ultimate testimony that the traditional path of their ancestors is fulfilled — not broken — in the Catholic faith.
One of the Jesuits also dreamed St. Kateri appeared to him. Their chapel was overturned, and one of Kahnawake’s Catholics were burning at the stake. They eventually came to see the prophecy fulfilled when a powerful windstorm flattened the church, nearly killing the Jesuits inside it. They prayed to St. Kateri for protection, and credited their survival to her prayers. And then, of course, with the martyrdoms of Kahnawake’s Haudenosaunee Catholics.
However, it is possible that this image of the Church on its side and the persecuted indigenous Christian has more than one fulfillment. Much further south, the La Florida Mission Martyrs – a majority of whom were Appalachee and Timucua Catholics – would be killed for their faith in an invasion and persecution led by the English. The vision has no doubt been repeated in our own time, the 19th- and 20th-century era, in which Native Catholics, the living roots of the North American Church, came under direct assault from the U.S. and Canadian governments with the scandalous cooperation of Church authorities. St. Kateri’s vision continues to warn and challenge Catholics today about witnessing to Jesus Christ when the Church is blown on its side by scandals.
18. St. Kateri’s Miracles Eventually Lead to Her Canonization
Devotion to St. Kateri Tekakwitha and reports of miracles from St. Kateri’s intercession were reported over the next few centuries, and her reputation spread from coast to coast. French Canadians reported miraculous recoveries. People would grab dirt from her grave and touch it to their bodies. Her mentor Kahahstatsi believed St. Kateri’s prayers saved her daughter-in-law from illness and a gambling addiction, and her son from committing suicide. There were an abundance of personal miracles attributed to St. Kateri’s intercession, and among the French, she was called the “Genevieve of Canada” for delivering them in times of conflict and famine. Many Native communities heard of St. Kateri Tekakwitha long before any Catholic missionaries arrived.
There were enough of these reports for St. John Paul II to waive the first miracle requirement for St. Kateri’s beatification in 1980. The miracle for St. Kateri’s canonization was the healing through her intercession of a then-5-year-old child, Jacob Finkbonner, a descendent of the Lummi nation of Washington state, who was cured of an otherwise fatal flesh-eating disease that struck his face. One of Finkbonner’s ancestors actually signed a petition to canonize St. Kateri back in the 19th century.
19. St. Kateri Tekakwitha Sang the Old Mass in Mohawk – Today’s Roman Missal Still is Not Translated into Her Language
St. Kateri Tekakwitha lived out the fullness of her life in an inculturated, Haudenosaunee Catholic Church, where the laity sang the prayers of the old Latin Mass entirely in Mohawk, including the proper prayers. The Jesuits had worked this out by 1677 when she arrived. It was a kind of indult not seen in European communities. A few of these other inculturated examples include a ceremony involving the blessing of bread that was shared after Mass, penitential services combined with a meal that were done in a Haudenosaunee manner, and a special emphasis on celebrating Allhallowtide, All Saints and All Souls, similar to what one sees with Catholics from Meso-America.
Unfortunately, Haudenosaunee Catholics did not establish a Haudenosaunee clergy and episcopate to protect their voice in the wider Catholic Church, when they no longer had political independence, or to advocate for them against the spiritual and cultural assault on their Catholic life in the later 19th and 20th centuries. Many Catholics of European descent, both lay and clergy, believed colonialism was justified, and did not respect the Haudenosaunee language, culture, identity of their church. The post-Vatican II reform did not see the same kind of benefits for indigenous people as Europeans. Clergy abandoned the Latin Mass around which Native people would sing in their own languages (and which formed a part of cultural resistance against assimilation) and did not see fit to translate the new Roman Missal into Native languages on the basis that they understood English or French – which is true as far as that goes, but it meant giving preference to the language of the colonizers in the Mass at the expense of their own language.
To this day, the Church’s bishops in the U.S. and Canada have not yet remedied their failure to translate the Roman missal completely into Mohawk among many other indigenous languages. Some have justified the decision not to invest time and resources into translating the Roman Missal on the basis that those languages are now struggling for survival, but that is a painful irony given that the Catholic Church’s participation in the residential school systems significantly caused that decline. Even where it has been done, such as Navajo, work needs to be done to train clergy to speak the language so they can pray with those missals. Evidence shows that reimmersing Native people in their own languages and culture could save lives and restore hope to communities. It could also help Native people rediscover the Catholic faith as originally encountered by their Catholic ancestors, and also help the wider Catholic Church become renewed through spiritual insights that come from Native culture, as prophesied by St. John Paul II.
However, the U.S. bishops new resolution to develop a comprehensive pastoral plan for Native American ministry, combined with the liturgical latitude afforded by Pope Francis’s Magnum Principium, could finally allow the Church to make strides toward the kind of fully inculturated Catholic liturgy and life that nourished St. Kateri and the holy men and women of Kahnawake, and allowed them to thrive in holiness.
20. St. Kateri is Opening the Door to the Church’s Native American Roots and Native American Saints
St. Kateri’s spiritual maternity is revealing itself more and more in the Catholic Church today. Rediscovering St. Kateri’s story is bringing a new awareness to the Native roots of the Catholic Church in the U.S. and Canada, esp. after the damage done by Church leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Tekakwitha Conference has helped share the stories of holy men and women who could very well be formally recognized as saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church. Among them are possibilities as the Kahnawake Martyrs (mentioned previously) as well as the Wendat (Huron) Martyrs such as Eustace Ahasistari and Paul Onnonhoaraton, both of whom refused the death chant (the victim’s prayer during ritual torture and execution for his nation to take vengeance so his spirit may rest) during their martyrdoms in the Mohawk Valley. These martyrs instead offered forgiveness and prayed for the unity of their peoples in Jesus Christ. Perhaps these martyrs shall finally be recognized as having a rightful place alongside the Jesuits in the North American Martyrs.
Since St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization, Catholics are pushing to finally recognize the Martyrs of the La Florida Missions. Most of whom were lay Catholics of the Apalachee and Timucua nations, such as the lead martyr Antonio Cuipa, who along with their clergy, were given a martyr’s death rather than renounce their faith and go into slavery at the hands of the English and their allies around the turn of the 18th century.
One canonization effort that emerges directly from St. Kateri’s canonization is the effort to declare Nicholas Black Elk a saint. Black Elk, who prayed the Rosary, smoked the sacred pipe, and signed St. Kateri’s petition for canonization, shows one could be fully Lakota and fully Catholic, at a time when that wisdom was not respected as it once was in the Church. He spoke and wrote in Lakota as a catechist, working closely with the Jesuit priests in evangelization, and brought 400 Lakota into the Catholic Church.
His cause began in 2016, after his grandson George Looks Twice attended St. Kateri’s 2012 canonization, and mentioned that his grandfather should be canonized as well. Pilgrimages, such as the Knights of Columbus pilgrimage, have been organized to Black Elk’s grave and Black Elk Peak, as devotion grows beyond Lakota Catholics.
In Western Canada, there is a large devotion to Rose Prince of the Dakelh (Carrier) nation, who was a contemplative, deeply devoted to Jesus in the Eucharist, and suffered from a terrible spinal disability. She was educated at a residential school, but stayed after graduation in part to remain close to the Eucharist and comfort Dakelh children separated from their families. She kept them connected to their culture by teaching them prayers and hymns in the Dakelh language, which was illegal at the time. Her body was found incorrupt after her death, and many miracles have been attributed to her intercession but none yet with enough conclusive documentation. The school was torn down, and all that remains of the site is the saint’s grave which is the subject of an annual pilgrimage.
There is a great chorus of Native saints and martyrs, most of them laity, waiting to be discovered by Catholics in the U.S. and Canada hungry for the holy witness of their fathers and mothers in the faith. St. Kateri Tekakwitha has opened the door to meet them.