Heart-to-Heart With St. Kateri Tekakwitha

After her baptism, St. Kateri Tekakwitha “flowered among Native Americans in a life of innocence,” and miracles were attributed to her even before her death.

This contemporary portrait of St. Kateri Tekakwitha was painted by Father Claude Chauchetière around 1696
This contemporary portrait of St. Kateri Tekakwitha was painted by Father Claude Chauchetière around 1696 (photo: Father Claude Chauchetière)

Without doubt, the spiritual life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is very interesting and inspiring. Yet at times, it is not adequately presented at her celebrations or through the media where her native natural culture seems to be emphasized and dominate to the degree that these presentations seem supernaturally sterile.

Having read a scholarly account of her life and spirituality in “The Marian Spirituality of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha” by Lynn Marie Busch in Marian Studies Vol. LXI, I felt that it could serve as an excellent basis for a brief popular presentation in much of this article derived from that expertly detailed source.

My introduction to St. Kateri Tekakwitha occurred when I led pilgrimages from my Connecticut parish to the famous miraculous shrines in Quebec, Canada. These were the monumental Oratory of St. Joseph, founded by the Miracle Man of Montreal, St. André Bessette, followed by the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary at Cap-de-la-Madeleine, whose image became animated at its dedication and, finally, that of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, founded in 1658 near Quebec City. I recall the time when I saw a group of teenagers there looking at a pilar covered with canes and crutches. I spontaneously said to them, “Now, remember that the priests did not buy these and put them there. The people left them in thanksgiving and to give witness to their healing.”

On the way, we would go first to the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, near Albany. It is the site of the martyrdoms of the Jesuits Sts. Isaac Jogues, John Lalande and René Goupil in the mid-1600’s. (Their feast is Oct. 19.)

Originally called Ossernenon, it is also the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

After touring its spacious grounds and the famous Ravine, where St. Isaac Jogues buried the body of young René Goupil, I celebrated Mass at the St. Kateri chapel. We then drove a few miles across the Mohawk River to Fonda where her tribe moved after suffering from small pox. She lost her Mohawk chieftain father, as well as her devoted mother, a Catholic Algonquin, captured in a raid. Her younger brother succumbed as well. She was left with a scarred face and poor eye sight that made her prefer to work in the dimly lighted five-family longhouse on clothing and bead work, although she also participated in the tribal field work.

The Mohawks, known to be ferocious warriors, were the most feared tribe of their Iroquois-speaking confederacy. Their very name indicated why. “Mohawk” means “man-eaters.” Their cannibalism was a ritualistic practice. They believed that by eating especially the heart of a courageous warrior, they would thereby be endowed with his strength. Terrible tortures preceded to increase the reaction of the victim and so to also increase the power they expected from their cannibalism.


Jesuit Evangelizers

Kateri was introduced to the Catholic faith by French Jesuit missionaries, who came with the colonists, to evangelize the natives in New France. It seems that their success was dependent on the culture of the individual tribes because they were more successful with some than with others. The Mohawks caused them probably their greatest problems, not only because of their brutal ritualistic customs, but also because of the deep suspicion and distrust of Jesuits who were friendly with their enemies.

Besides that, there was the Protestant propaganda disseminated by the Dutch in nearby Albany, that the “Black Robes” were sorcerers. In fact, René Goupil was martyred for blessing a child. It was believed that he was getting possession of his spirit. Isaac Jogues was accused and executed for bringing a disease through his “black box,” which was actually his Mass kit. Thus, many times they were the lightning rods for the misfortunes that befell the tribe.

The missionaries were not unaware but very much aware what awaited them in Mohawk territory. One Jesuit wrote in a letter to his provincial: “…for their name alone shows the risk we run and the glory that will accrue to God from the execution of that design… We are not ignorant of the fact that these savages have eaten us with relish and have drunk with pleasure the blood of the Fathers of our Society…” It was from such extraordinary men that the truth and the love of Christ reached the ready heart of Kateri Tekakwitha.


St. Kateri’s Conversion

Kateri was exposed to Christianity before the coming of the missionaries. Some Christian natives lived with the tribe. The reason why she did not pay attention to the missionaries at first, it is thought, was because her uncle chieftain had a great distain for those who became Christian and then left for the community of Christian natives formed near Montreal. But eventually she attended the instructions.

The instructor noticed her regular attendance and attentiveness. He also saw her quick absorption of the teaching beyond the others. So, he tutored her privately and advanced her baptism as well as her First Communion because he was convinced of her perseverance in the faith. Others had to wait until they had proven themselves settled in the faith.

The priest who gave her Holy Communion saw the evident ardor in her heart. Circumstances developed a naturally contemplative heart which grace perfected by the mystical appreciation of the mysteries of faith. To assist her in spiritual development, he organized a rule of life focused on work and prayer.

Her transformation did not go unnoticed by the tribe who began to mock her, calling her “The Christian” as she went to Church or refrained from work on Sundays. Children mimicked the adults and threw stones at her. Fallen-away Christians were not exempt from contributing to her public humiliation.

It became evident to the priest that Kateri should join the Christian community and it was arranged that she join a few others in doing so. The 200-mile escape was successful even though there was a search party after them.

On the way there, they came across a convent of nursing Sisters. Kateri became impressed with their virginal consecration to Christ. She had a great attraction to a virginal life which was not customary in her native culture. That increased the misunderstanding of her in the tribe.

Soon after arriving at the Christian village, she asked the priest for permission to make such a consecration. He procrastinated making a decision, but she was adamant. He saw the grace of God in that and allowed her that joy. On the first anniversary, she added two ancillary consecrations. The first was that of her body in honor of her crucified Spouse and the second was of her soul honoring his Eucharistic gift of himself.


St. Kateri’s Spirituality

Kateri’s spirituality had a triple focus: the Cross, the Eucharist and Mary. The Jesuits frequently put a cross or carved them on trees with the Holy Name of Jesus painted in red to recall the mystery of our Redemption, Kateri wore a crucifix for this remembrance.

The Eucharist really captivated her pure heart. She would kneel for hours in the church in simple Eucharistic contemplation. After participating in an extended hunting trip with the community, she refused to go again because it kept her from the Eucharist. It was evident where her attention was during that hunting trip. She would erect a cross and meditate at length before it. Staying at the village during a hunting trip meant great deprivations. But she preferred experiencing those than being deprived of the Eucharist.

Her model in loving Jesus was his Holy Virgin Mother, Mary. She had an exceptional devotion to her, expressed in the multiple Rosaries prayed each day and her litanies prayed privately each evening after community services. She prepared herself to celebrate Mary’s feasts well. Whenever anyone asked her counsel, she directed them to Mary.


St. Kateri’s Sanctity

She became severely ill just 4 years after being baptized. There were no signs that she ever reverted to any pagan practices. The Gospel was sufficient for her. She lived those years totally focused on Christ, as directed in Hebrews 12:1-2: “Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, who inspires and perfects our faith.”

Even before her death at the age of 24, miracles and healings were attributed to her intercession. Fifteen minutes after she died, her complexion was restored, the pox scars disappeared and her skin became white. She appeared to her spiritual director several times shortly after her death. He then wrote her complete biography. Her canonization took place Oct. 21, 2012.

A few years ago, I was in a store that had beautifully sculptured figurines of Native Americans, one of which caught my attention. It was a maiden of about Kateri’s age, seated on the ground, with her hands folded on her lap and her head turned slightly upward, wearing a light leather fringed and beaded robe. Her black hair was strewn across her shoulders. [It seems that in some tribes only married women wore braided hair, while maidens did not.]

I bought it and made a small shrine in her honor in my hermitage. I had a natural pine standing cross just the right size for the statue. I affixed a symbol of the Eucharist and hung a small wood beaded rosary on the cross: the three focuses of her contemplation. St Kateri is on one side looking up at the cross and a small clear glass vase with a plant in it is on the opposite side to represent her being the official Patron of Ecology. In front of the cross is a relic of her, gotten by a friend at St. Kateri’s Shrine at Fonda, New York.

I always find it inspiring to look at especially when I recite daily the Collect of her July 14 feast day Mass: “O God, who desired the Virgin Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha to flower among Native Americans in a life of innocence, grant, through her intercession, that when all are gathered into your Church from every nation, tribe and tongue, they may magnify you in a single canticle of praise. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

And so, we see in St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a native American living in a primitive culture, achieving great mystical heights, and fulfilling St. Augustine’s famous expression: “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in Thee.”