Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (pronounced GAH-deh-lee Day-GAH-kwee-ta, but you can say it however you want) is truly the Cinderella of North American saints. Her father was Mohawk, her mother a Catholic Algonquian captive whom he married. But they both died of smallpox when she was four, along with her little brother; she survived scarred on the face and in the eyes, which made her very nearsighted. She was adopted by her uncles and aunts on her father’s side.
When she was about eleven, three Jesuits stayed the night at her uncle’s house, and she apparently got as much info on her childhood faith as she could. From then on, she apparently became determined to live as a virgin, despite the fact that she was coming up to a marriageable age and her aunts had a lot of matchmaking plans. As was common in many tribes, these ladies decided that working recalcitrant kids to the bone was the way to get obedience; but Kateri was as stubborn and unafraid of pain as her tribe was taught to be. (And to be fair to the Iroquois confederation, forced marriage wasn’t really something they did.) When she was 18, she was baptized by the local missions priest. Homelife got even more difficult, because she still refused to marry like a normal Mohawk. (And remember, she had high family connections and was a cheerful, skilled hard worker, which made her a very desirable wife despite her scars. So I’m sure men offered plenty to her family and her.)
Things were at an impasse, until Kateri decided to leave home and head to one of the Jesuit settlements of Catholic tribesmembers. There she found happiness, continuing to work hard but being able to take Catholic instruction, and live as a virgin without shame. After learning about asceticism and mortification as a path to sanctity (which would appeal to someone of traditional Native American background), she began to practice fairly extreme stuff. This was a big witness to her fellows, because bravery to withstand pain is a sign of spiritual power in a lot of religious traditions from that area. But given the crazy “boomtown” furtrading atmosphere and the constant wartime footing of the Iroquois confederation groups (because they were fighting everybody else to get all the fur trade with Europe for themselves), many Europeans who had a bad opinion of Native Americans’ moral capabilities were also impressed by Kateri’s holy (and strenuous) life. She achieved a depth of prayer and love that impressed others as being totally in union with God.
She died young, about 24 years old. (Not unusual in that rough time.) As soon as she died, eyewitnesses said that her smallpox scars vanished, and that her face shone with unusual loveliness and peace. She has been the object of popular local devotion from that day to this, although her second wave of popularity began in the late 1800’s as the Jesuit missions became a popular subject of study in Canada and the US. She has been taken to the hearts of people of all races and political views and denominations.
The oldest portrait of Kateri, by Fr. Chauchetiere, one of the Jesuits who knew her.
And now, the girl who survived smallpox has prayed for a boy to survive flesh-eating bacteria, and God has responded with a miracle, to show the world that His favor is upon this handmaid of His. The way is clear for her name to be raised to the altars.
Stay tuned. The canonization announcement will probably come out in the next few months. Then the canonization will probably take place in the US and/or Canada — since these days, the Pope is trying to spread the fun to people who can’t make it to Rome.