The Extraordinary in the Ordinary of St. Kateri Tekakwitha

‘Each one of us is called to holiness, to everyday holiness,’ says Pope Francis. ‘Each one of us has this calling.’

This is a portrait of St. Kateri Tekakwitha painted by Jesuit Father Claude Chauctiere, who knew her personally. He depicts St. Kateri as she would have looked in life: in Mohawk dress typical for late 17th century, along with her unique choice of a blue shawl worn over her head.
This is a portrait of St. Kateri Tekakwitha painted by Jesuit Father Claude Chauctiere, who knew her personally. He depicts St. Kateri as she would have looked in life: in Mohawk dress typical for late 17th century, along with her unique choice of a blue shawl worn over her head. (photo: Claude Chauctiere / Public Domain)

“Like St. Kateri Tekakwitha, draw strength from the Lord. … Learn to do ordinary things in extraordinary ways, growing daily in faith, charity and zealous witness for Christ. Let us not forget: each one of us is called to holiness, to everyday holiness, to the holiness of the common Christian life. Each one of us has this calling.” So said Pope Francis at his General Audience of Aug. 30, 2023.

The juxtaposition of the words “ordinary” and “extraordinary” could not be more apt when speaking of the life of this saint and mystic.

Born into the Mohawk tribe, she died in 1680 when she was just 24 years old. During her life she was disfigured by illness; she never married and left nothing by way of writing. Throughout much of her life, she suffered from being misunderstood.

In her death, as in her daily life, she drew little attention or interest outside her immediate circle. Yet today she is recognized by the Church as a saint, canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

Her story begins in the village of Ossernenon — today in upstate New York — where three French Jesuits, René Goupil, Isaac Jogues, and Jean de Lalande, were martyred in the 1640s by the Mohawk. All three martyrs were canonized in 1930, giving their lives for Christ in the small settlement. A decade later Kateri was born there.

The missionary activities of French Jesuits in that area meant that, unusually, Kateri was born to a Christian mother. At some point between 1661 to 1663 when Kateri was around 4 years old, the Mohawk settlement suffered a smallpox epidemic. Both Kateri’s parents and her brother died. Kateri survived the disease but was left pockmarked and with impaired vision. The glare of the sun hurt her eyes and so she sought the darkness of interiors. Immediately this set her apart from the Mohawk way of life, which was lived mostly outdoors.

The child was adopted by her paternal aunt and uncle. They were not Christian and were childless. They could see Kateri was a virtuous young woman but they did not understand her. In order to continue the tribe and to provide for her foster parents in their old age, Kateri, aged 13, was expected to marry — and soon. But Kateri’s reluctance to do so alienated her still more from the Mohawk culture around her.

Following the smallpox outbreak, she moved with her aunt, uncle and others of the Mohawk tribe to a new village, which they called Caughnawaga. Here Kateri’s life was that of an obedient, sweet-natured and hard-working girl, but her conversation lacked the vanity and frivolity common to others of her age; she preferred solitude to Mohawk village life.

The 1667 treaty between the French and the Mohawks allowed the return of the “Black Robes” — Jesuit missionaries — to evangelize the Mohawk tribe. On April 5, 1676, the girl was baptized. She was given the name Kateri after St. Catherine of Siena, the Third Order Dominican mystic and Doctor of the Church who had died in Rome in 1380 at the age of 30.

Kateri responded to her baptism with immense joy. It opened to her the life of the praying Catholic community, cared for by the Jesuits. She was now to be seen regularly at morning and evening prayer in the local chapel, as well as at Holy Mass though she had not yet made her first Holy Communion. What her baptism did intensify further was Kateri’s desire for solitude and prayer.

Catholicism was tolerated by the tribe, but Kateri’s embracing of her new faith separated her more profoundly still than previously from the Mohawk way of life. In any event, by now she had chosen not to marry and, as a consequence, had gradually withdrawn from many of the tribe’s social activities. Thereafter, she was perceived as rejecting her own people. This drew suspicion and comment, mockery and taunt — she was derided as “the Christian.”

From the time of her baptism, she was seen carrying Rosary beads. It was a prayer to which she became devoted. She went nowhere without her beads — something else that upset her relatives. Shortly after baptism, she accompanied other Catholics from her village on pilgrimage to the Mohawk capital, Tionnontoquen. There, on Dec. 8, 1667, a statue of Our Lady, sent from Belgium was unveiled. The new convert beheld the statue in wonder. It was as if the Blessed Virgin spoke to Kateri, offering her an insight not only into the mystery of the Incarnation and the role of the Mother of God, but also of the mystery of virginity in the Divine plan. Kateri’s earlier intuitive desire for virginity — in contrast to her uncle and aunt’s desire for her to marry — and attraction to solitude in order to taste a greater love, seemed now to make sense to her as she gazed upon the statue.

Kateri remained at Caughnawauga for six months after her baptism. It was suggested by the Jesuit fathers that, since was no longer part of the tribal society, she should go to live at the Jesuit mission south of Montreal at Kahnawake. There a settlement of native converts had been established. Toward the end of 1677, Kateri traveled there with a letter of introduction from her local priests. As part of the Jesuit Mission du Sault St. Louis, she would spend the last two years of her life living at Kahnawake.

The Mission du Sault St. Louis comprised about 150 souls, all Native Americans. From different tribes, but now all united in one faith, the previous enmity between the tribes disappeared. The traditional Native American ways and lifestyle continued to be practiced in the settlement but with one important difference: The religion of these peoples was Catholic. French settlers and even a bishop visited the mission to learn more of this novel settlement. What they found confirmed what they had heard: namely, the edifying manner in which those of the Mission du Sault St. Louis lived out their Catholic faith was true.

The mission bell established the rhythm of work, rest and prayer that the villagers shared. European visitors would watch in amazement as the villagers stopped work as the Angelus bell rang out and the community recited the ancient prayer commemorating the Annunciation. The French Jesuits in charge of the mission noted, too, how lay Catholic converts from the village would go out to evangelize different settlements of tribes living around it. They also noted the success of these endeavors.

The Jesuits of the Mission welcomed Kateri to Kahnawake. The new arrival was immediately struck by the piety of the village, especially by the manner in which the men of the village conducted themselves — in stark contrast to her former settlement. Needless to say, Kateri took to the prayer life offered at Kahnawake by the Jesuits: the Divine Office began with Matins at 4 a.m., followed by an early morning Mass. A later Mass was said at 8 a.m., which many villagers attended. The Rosary was then recited. Throughout the day, many villagers could be seen making visits to the Blessed Sacrament.

Kateri thrived in this atmosphere of sincere piety. She would attend Holy Mass daily, though she had not yet made her first Holy Communion. She made her Confession each week. Every morning, winter or summer, she was in the church at 4 a.m. She remained there in silent prayer for several hours. In addition, Kateri began to undertake penances. She would walk barefoot in the snow and would sometimes be seen kneeling, praying her Rosary in the snow-covered woods. She would pray through the night in the chapel. She also began limiting herself to one small meal each day. All of these mortifications were carried out in a spirit of reparation for sin, and the desire to live in the presence of God — and all were undertaken as discretely as possible, as testified to by the priests who witnessed them.

Upon arrival at Kahnawake, she had not made her first Holy Communion. Yet Kateri had a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Her instruction for the sacrament began soon upon arrival. On Christmas Day 1677, she approached the altar for the first time. “She made ready for the great day by extraordinary redoubling of her devotion,” noted the local priest, Father Cholenec, “and afterward she seemed altogether different, so much was she filled with God and his holy love.” From then on, the priest noted, her Sundays and feast days were spent almost entirely praying at the foot of the altar, while during her working days she came there, too, to offer her work before the Real Presence.

By the winter of 1679, Kateri’s health was failing. Never robust, her body was unable to endure the austerities that she had begun. In due course, she became bedridden for long periods. During those times she would pray, reciting the Rosary. When she could, she would walk to the chapel. There she would sit on one of the benches while gazing upon the Blessed Sacrament. Physical exhaustion soon developed into intense pain.

“During the last two months,” wrote Father Cholenec, “her sufferings were extraordinary. … The least movement caused her the most intense pain. But when these pains were at their worst, she seemed most content, esteeming herself happy, as she herself said, to live and to die on the cross, uniting her sufferings to those of the Saviour.”

As Holy Week approached, her condition worsened. She was brought Holy Communion for the last time. Her condition worsened. Her skin darkened and her body was contorted in pain. She received the Last Rites. Her time was drawing near. She started to speak.

“I’m leaving you,” she said to those assembled. “I am about to die. … I will love you in heaven. I will pray for you. I will assist you.”

On April 17, 1680, aged 24 years old, Kateri Tekakwitha died. Her final words, heard and attested to by those assembled, were: “Jesus, I love you.”

Those who prepared her body for burial noticed a sudden change in it. Her body was no longer dark and sickly. Instead, her skin was radiant — the pox marks of her youth now completely disappeared.