“Who will teach me what is most pleasing to God, that I may do it?” –St. Kateri Tekakwitha
Known as the ” Lily of the Mohawks,” St. Kateri Tekakwitha was the child of a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother. She was born in 1656 in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon (now Auriesville, NY) and orphaned at age four when a smallpox outbreak killed her entire family. St. Kateri survived but was left with serious scars and poor vision.
She was then raised by a Christian uncle and aunt and at age 11 encountered Jesuit missionaries who further encouraged her in the Faith. As was the custom, her extended family began to pressure her to get married at age 13. She resisted, insisting that she had consecrated her life to Jesus and Mary and had chosen our Lord as her husband. At age 19, St. Kateri was baptized, which made her religious beliefs public. Consequently, she was ostracized from her village, harassed, stoned, and threatened with torture by her fellow tribe members who saw her Christian practices as sorcery. To protect her life and her virginity, she fled 200 miles to Kahnawake, a Jesuit mission village for Native American converts to Christianity.
At Kahnawake, Kateri discovered her mother’s dearest friend, Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo, who was a clan matron of a Kahnawake longhouse. Along with other kind Mohawk women, Anastasia took Kateri into her care and instructed her in the Faith. Kateri remained happily in Kahnawake (now Fonda, NY) until her death at age 23 or 24. Although she never took formal vows, she is considered a consecrated virgin and is the patron of the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. Additionally, she is the patron saint of traditional ecology, Indigenous peoples, and care for creation.
I had the great privilege of visiting the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York while working on my book, My Queen, My Mother: A Living Novena (Pilgrimage Across America). The shrine and surrounding property honor both the life of St. Kateri, whose feast day is July 14, and the life, history, and culture of the Native American people to whom she belonged. The shrine grounds also contain the village of Caughnawaga, the only fully excavated Iroquois/Haudenosaunee village in the world, and the place St. Kateir lived for many years. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and also includes Kateri Spring, where St. Kateri was baptized.
On the day I visited the St. Kateri shrine, a huge storm system moved into the area, bringing with it torrential rain and strong winds. I was the only visitor there and rushed from my car into the shrine, realizing that this storm could make my journey to my next destination quite dangerous. Without fear of disturbing others, I meandered around the shrine, looking at all the different statues, paintings, and artifacts. With the downpour still in full force, I knelt down in the front pew and gazed at the painting above the altar. It depicted the Lily of the Mohawks, praying before a wooden cross, and was a reminder to me that heroic faith can thrive in the most meager – and dangerous – surroundings. Beautiful cathedrals are built to give glory to God. With their ornamentation and artistry, they draw us into the Divine. St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s cathedral was the wild woods of upstate New York, created, not for God, but by God himself.
One of the few quotes preserved from the Lily of the Mohawks is this: “Who will teach me what is most pleasing to God, that I may do it?” Her faith was as simple as her surroundings and her dedication to Christ as unmoving as the Adirondack Mountains nearby. Her only ambition in life was to learn and follow God’s will.
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Photo: Marge Steinhage Fenelon