This Biography is an abridgment of The Life and Times of Kateri Tekakwitha published in 1891 by Ellen Wallworth, that has been cut, edited, rearranged and sometimes supplemented with the Editor’s (Noah Moerbeek) own remarks, ideas and expressions. However, all the facts of her life are taken from this original book published in 1891. The Life and Times of St Kateri Tekakwitha by Ellen Wallworth used several primary sources including the book written on her life by her confessor, Father Cholnec SJ, and from the French Historian, Father Pierre Charlevoix SJ, the Author of the History of New France, who new Father Lambert (the priest who baptized her) personally. It also serves as the transcript for our Audiobook on the Life of St Kateri Tekakwitha.
Saint Isaac Jogues, in true imitation of the Bridegroom Jesus Christ, watched as bits of his flesh were cut off and devoured while the Mohawk high-priest cried, “Let us see if this white flesh is the flesh of spirit or devil!” “I am but a man like yourselves,” said St. Isaac Jogues, “though I fear not death nor your tortures!”
The fortitude of this brave man under torture was a spectacle as keenly appreciated by the Iroquois as were the martyrdoms of old by the Romans. In this case, however, the women were granted the duty of sawing off the thumb of the victim, as happened to St. Isaac.
St Isaac Jogues was put to death in 1646, receiving the crown of his martyrdom in the New World. His head was placed on the northern palisade, looking toward the French frontier, and his body thrown into the stream; but his blood sank deep into the land and his earnest words into the hearts of its people. From Saint Isaac Jogues’ mystic union with the Mohawk nation came the Christian Iroquois. One of these—a bright soul in a dusky setting, and a flower that sprang from the martyr’s blood — was Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. She grew up, says one who knew her, ” like a lily among thorns.”
The human torches of Nero – Christians he had wrapped in straw and placed in his garden on the Palatine Hill and set on fire to illuminate his evening revels – are vividly recalled by the death of a Jesuit missionary to these men in darkness. Saint Gabriel Lalemant was wrapped in pieces of bark which were put in a blaze. His writhing frame and quivering flesh made him suffer tremendously and the Iroquois kept him alive until morning, leaving his body a black and shapeless mass.
While the Mohawks were cruel to the Christian missionaries they had been long practiced in committing evil to their brother natives. Indian captives held by these Mohawks were tortured and burned with solemn rites in the public square in the hope of propitiating their war-god.
While there are many great differences between the ancient Romans and the Mohawks, we can say this: in the absence of Jesus Christ and His bloody sacrifice on Calvary, where a God chose to endure the tortures and insults thrown at Him while simultaneously forgiving them, there is left a void in the human soul which, at its worst, is filled by the murder and torture of involuntary victims. God the Son voluntarily offered Himself as a sacrifice to God the Father on our behalf, the pagans offered involuntary human sacrifice to demons.
In Saint Kateri Tekakwitha shined the light of true perfection like that of the early Roman Martyrs or the Fathers of the Desert. The beauty of her virtue only showed the more strongly due to her surroundings. She served our Lord Jesus Christ in persecutions, fastings, severe bodily penances, work, fatigue and the cold. Saint Kateri would afflict her flesh constantly and beg our Lord Jesus Christ and His Mother for the conversion of her pagan brethren. Daily she walked in the way of obedience and humility before the missionary priests and sought to be patient and charitable to others even when she was falsely accused of evil. Saint Kateri was not just a convert from darkness but she marked forth the beauty of a daily conversion to our Lord Jesus, truly hating her life on earth while filled with the charity and joy of Christ.
Kateri Tekakwitha was born in the year 1656; her father was a Mohawk warrior, and her mother a Christian Algonquin captive, who had been brought up and baptized among the French settlers at Three Rivers in Canada. The Iroquois, or People of the Long House (including the Mohawks), were enemies of the Algonquin tribes and hostile to the French. The Mohawks especially were accustomed to make frequent raids on the settlements in Canada, leaving desolation behind them on the St. Lawrence. They would also take captives back to be tortured and burned, or else adopted into the Five Nations of Iroquois to swell their numbers. If Frenchmen, these captives were often held as prisoners of war, and haughty terms made for their ransom. It happened on one of these raids into Canada that Tekakwitha’s mother, the Algonquin, was captured. Torn suddenly from a peaceful home and the French friends who were teaching her “the prayer”, she came to live in Iroquois country.
Tekakwitha’s father thought his wife was too fond of the French Christians and he did not wish her to have their newborn daughter signed with the ill-omened Cross, nor to have the water of baptism poured over her. Tekakwitha’s mother prayed that one day a “black gown” would dwell in the land that she now lived in and that her child might grow up a Christian.
Three years after the birth of Kateri, her father was killed by smallpox, which had spread like wildfire throughout the Mohawk nation from 1659-1660. Her mother died soon thereafter, leaving the child. One soul relates what he learned long afterwards from Anastasia Tegonhatsihongo, — that in death her mother grieved at not being able to pass on the Christian Faith; that she remained a fervent Christian to the last; and that she met death with a prayer on her lips. “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints.” He heard her prayer and would not only take her daughter as one of His own flock, but even to become one of His brides.
On the death of Kateri’s father, she became an inmate of her uncle who was Chief lodge. This is not surprising, considering the life of her people. This uncle was no doubt impoverished, in spite of his honors as Chief, as he would have been expected to dispense freely among his tribe. Daughters were always highly prized by the Iroquois. They performed a large part of the household work and, when wedded to some sturdy hunter, the lodge to which a young woman belonged claimed and received whatever her husband brought from the chase. So the aunts and the uncle of Tekakwitha acted quite as much from worldly wisdom as from humanity when they decided to give the young orphan a home.
She was cared for and taught by her aunts in one of the cabins closed in by the palisade. She was learning the arts of the Indians, doing the daily work, and shrinking from all observation. This unsociable habit of hers (for so it must have seemed to her neighbors) was due in part to her own disposition,— modest, shy, and reserved, — but more than all, perhaps, to the fact that the small-pox had injured her eyesight. As she could not endure much light, she remained indoors, and when forced to go out, her eyes were shaded by her blanket. Little by little she grew to love a life of quiet and silence. Besides, she showed a wonderful aptness for learning to make all the curious bark utensils and wooden things that were used in the village. Much to her aunts’ satisfaction, she had an industrious spirit. This they took care to encourage, as it made her very useful. These aunts were exceedingly vain, and a child of less sense than the young Tekakwitha would soon have been spoiled by their foolishness.
Those into whose hands Tekakwitha fell when her mother died resolved to have her marry very soon, and with this object in mind they brought her up in all these little vanities. The little Tekakwitha however, who was not yet a Christian, had a natural indifference for all these things. She was like a tree which had not even flowered, but this little wild olive was budding so well into leaf that it promised some day to bear beautiful fruit. Our beloved Saint was preserved from the corruption of her surroundings, she was sweet, patient, chaste, and innocent. This is the testimony that has been given by those who knew her from a very young age, and who in using this expression gave in a few words a beautiful description of Tekakwitha, for it was said of her that “she had no faults”.
Tekakwitha set aside for Christ
Charlevoix, the learned author of the “History of New France,” wrote an account of Kateri Tekakwitha about the year 1732, mentioning “as soon as she was able to work she undertook the entire charge of the household. The first knowledge she received of Christianity was given her by the Jesuit missionaries who were sent to the Iroquois nations by M. de Tracy. They passed on their way through the town where she lived, and lodged in her cabin. She was charged with their entertainment, of which she acquitted herself in a manner which surprised them. She had herself been struck at the sight of them, and felt in her heart strange sentiments. . . The fervor and spirit of recollection of these Jesuit Fathers when saying their prayers inspired her with the desire to pray with them; this desire she expressed to them; they instructed her in the great truths of Christianity in their short stay in the town, they left her presence regretfully. The modesty and sweetness with which she acquitted herself of her duties touched her new guests; while she on her part was struck with their affable manners, their regularity in prayer, and the other exercises into which they divided the day.”
Had they remained longer in the village, she would probably have asked for baptism; however, due to either natural timidity or the express command of her uncle (we know not which, most likely both), she waited with sealed lips for eight long years. During all that time she gave no sign or token that has ever been recorded of a wish to become a Christian even though the missionaries were at work continuously in the Mohawk villages.
Tekakwitha was so accustomed, from a sense of duty, to obey those who stood to her in the place of father and mother, that she fulfilled their wishes in regard to her clothing and her attendance at popular amusements despite her extreme timidity and sense of modesty. These last-mentioned qualities were among her most marked characteristics. Her aunts, whose natures were of a very different fibre from her own, could have had little or no thought how this compliance on her part distressed her. Although it could scarcely have cast the faintest shadow of a mist across the whiteness of her soul, she was known long afterwards to regret and to grieve bitterly for this indulgence in little vanities.
Her aunts could not understand her, neither did they try to. They thought it strange that Tekakwitha took so little pleasure in the festive customs of the Mohawks.
When they stated plainly the object they had in view in thus bringing her forward, — that she should marry, — Tekakwitha’s whole nature was roused to resistance at the mere mention of such a thing, and every power of her soul was brought into action to thwart their plan. Though long accustomed docility and obedience, she showed at this time a sudden development of will, with inherent force to mould its own fate, and a strength of character that had not before asserted itself. This is clearly shown in the struggle of will against will, in which she was now enlisted and in which the odds were decidedly against her. But though her whole nature was roused at this well-meant, though unwelcome and premature proposition of her aunts, Tekakwitha was too wise and too self-poised to break at once into open rebellion. She did not announce her secret determination to go through fire and water, if necessary, rather than submit to the plan of her relatives. Why she did not wish to marry was perhaps at that time as much a mystery to herself as to others; but the fact remained: She could not and would not consider it, even for a moment.
Tekakwitha’s relations, not knowing the force of the young girl’s will, decided among themselves that the shortest and easiest way to overcome her unaccountable opposition would be to take her by surprise. They did not even allow her to choose the person to whom she was to be united. They desired to entrap her unaware into the simple and silent ceremony of an Iroquois marriage. Thus her fate would be sealed and she would be forced to submit. Would she be able to thwart this wicked plan? Her aunts acted coldly and harshly in this matter, disregarding her rights and her feelings. They were either over-confident of success to look beyond the present moment, or they presumed too far on her sweet temper and kind disposition. She was neither vicious, idle, talkative, nor was she proud. She was not attached to visions nor to dreams, neither had she ever cared much to assist at dances or games. She had shown herself on several occasions to be prudent, and she was naturally timid, not daring to show herself when there was no need that she should.
Her Aunts secretly arranged for a marriage to take place by surprise. One night while in the lodge, a guest arrived with his relatives and were welcomed by her family. The family’s began to receive each other cordially and a young Indian Man sat down next to her. When her Aunts told her to bring food to the young man she started to Obey. Then it hit her. She was taking part in her own wedding! (The presenting of food by the bride is part of the Mohawk wedding ritual as well as sitting on a common bench surrounded by the two families) What can she do? With quick determination, she rose abruptly, aflame with indignation, and walked out of the longhouse.
Once out of the stifling air of the cabin, she hurried on and on, taking an accustomed path, out of mere force of habit, till it brought her to the familiar cornfields. There, breathless and trembling, she hid herself away. Tekakwitha refused to to go back into the lodge while the young man was there.
It was many a long day to Tekakwitha before the storm which she thus raised had spent its fury in a series of domestic persecutions, till at last it was put to rest by the calm endurance of her firm but gentle spirit. Several times after this, her relatives tried to force her into marriage. In everything else, she was good, industrious, peaceable, and agreeable. When she chose to give the word for a laugh, none ever had anything to complain of, and they liked her company. She never resented their abuse which was constantly aimed at her on account of her desire to remain unmarried. Her good nature exempted her at this time from several difficulties into which she would have fallen if she had not been possessed of natural patience, and if she had not liked better to suffer everything herself rather than to make others suffer.” The firmness of Tekakwitha rendered her relatives furious, for they felt as though they had received an insult.
Artifice not having proved successful, they had recourse to violence. They now treated her as a family slave, obliging her to do everything which was most painful and repulsive, and malignantly interpreting all her actions, even when most innocent. They reproached her without ceasing for her uncouth manners, and her stupidity, because of the dislike she felt to marriage. The young girl suffered all this ill treatment with unwearied patience, and without ever losing her equanimity of mind or her natural sweetness; she rendered them all the services they required with an attention and docility beyond her years and strength. By degrees her relatives were softened, restored to her their kind feelings, and did not further molest her in regard to the course she had adopted.
Tekakwitha, now eighteen years old, sits in the cabin because of a foot she had injured severely. Father de Lamberville, who had been only a short time in the Mohawk country, passed slowly along through the rows of long, low bark-covered houses forming the Turtle Village. The missionary was taking advantage of this occasion to visit the old and the sick who chanced to be in their cabins. In his searches he found Tekakwitha. Never was an encounter so fortunate on the side of the girl who wished to speak to the Father, and who dared not go to seek him.
According to several witnesses, Tekakwitha was overcome with joy at the site of the Father and hastened to open her heart to him. She was in the presence of two or three women who heard her speak of her fervent desire to embrace Christianity. She added that she would have great obstacles to overcome in order to succeed in her intention, but that nothing should deter her. The ardor and courage with which she spoke proved to the missionary that his new convert would be a Christian of no common order; therefore, he instructed her in many things of which he did not speak to all whom he was preparing for baptism. The French Historian Charlevoix described Father de Lamberville, as one of the holiest missionaries of Canada, or New France, as it was then called. He has often told me that from the first interview he had with Tekakwitha, he thought he perceived that God had great designs upon her soul; however, he would not hasten her baptism, but took all precautions which experience had taught to be so necessary.”
After Tekakwitha had recovered from the wound in her foot,, she began to attend the morning and evening prayers at the chapel, in accordance with Father de Lamberville’s advice.
Tekakwitha was present at the instructions given to catechumens, and learned all the prayers with great dedication, in the hope that the Father would hasten her baptism.
Before the baptism of adults, the missionaries took care to inform themselves, secretly, of their catechumens’ manners and conduct. Father de Lamberville questioned all who knew her was greatly surprised to find that none, even among those who ill-treated her, could say anything to her discredit.
The missionary found no one who did not give a high compliment to the young woman. He hesitated no longer to grant what she so ardently asked. Father de Lamberville appoint Easter Sunday, 1676, to be the day of her baptism. Nearly a year had passed since she first asked to be made a Christian. When the glad news of Father de Lamberville’s decision was made known to Tekakwitha, her countenance became radiant with joy. Her aunts gave their consent to the step their niece was about to take, we are not told what her uncle said or did at this time.
The Indians crowded about the door of the rustic chapel, inside and out. Some of them carried their little brothers or sisters, tied to their backs on cradle-boards. Some were gorgeous with bright-colored blankets and beads. But for once, all eyes were centred on the quiet maiden, as she issued from her uncle’s lodge, and with two companions, also ready for baptism. It was easy to see that most of the people respected and honored her on account of her virtue. There was a time when the Iroquois had vaunted the chastity of their women, and on that account held their heads higher than any other race of Indians. On this glorious Easter day, the Mohawks seemed to realize, at least in a general way, that the maiden Tekakwitha, whom they knew to be as strong in will as their own flint rock and as pure of heart us their crystal spring, had caught the beautiful crown.
Father de Lamberville took care to render the baptism of an adult, and especially of such a noteworthy one as the niece of the chief, as impressive as possible; it was conducted with all due solemnity. Never before had the Christians of Caughnawaga been more generous with their gifts. They had offered their richest furs to adorn the chapel in honor both of Easter day and of Tekakwitha’s baptism. On the walls were hung beaver and elk skins. There were bear-skin rugs and buffalo hides, embroidered in many colors, both under foot and on every side. Belts of wampum festooned the rafters. Blossoming branches of shrubs and clusters of frail little wild-flowers that grew in the ravines near bv, decorated the altar. The entrance door
was covered in green. The approach to the chapel was through an avenue of budding trees, which had been planted there by the missionaries, to give an air of seclusion and dignity to the sacred portal. In them the birds were building their nests, and kept up a continual fluttering, chirping, and trilling. The priest and the well-trained choir of Indian boys and girls, already within the chapel, were watching for Tekakwitha to enter. When the three catechumens appeared at the door, Father de Lamberville, in surplice and violet stole, advanced to meet them. Sturdy Mohawk boys who had learned to serve at the altar, attended him. The ceremony began at the chapel door. Katherine was the Christian name to be given to Tekakwitha. Clear and distinct were the words of the priest, as he asked the following questions: ” Katherine, what dost thou ask of the Church of God ?” Then came the short sweet answer, ” Faith.” ” What doth faith lead thee to ? ” ” Life everlasting,” she responded. Father, still using the words of the time-honored ceremonial, continued… and baptized: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Song now filled the chapel with joyous melody, and made it resound with the sweet words of an Iroquois hymn, prepared for them by their missionaries. Heaven was united with earth as the blackness and darkness of sin washed away from our virgin maid, Katherine.
After her baptism, Katherine Tekakwitha was supremely happy. Her hands were as busy as before, providing for the general comfort in her uncle’s lodge. Besides this, she went back and forth twice each day to the chapel, where the Father assembled his dusky flock for morning and evening prayers. On Sundays she heard Mass at the same bark-covered shrine of St. Peter, and later on in the day she joined in chanting prayers with alternate choirs of the Christian Indians. This was a favorite religious exercise at all the Iroquois missions. These people were gifted by nature with sweet voices, and sang well together. If at any time the Mohawk girl was beset with some difficulty or perplexity, she went at once to tell it with all simplicity to Father de Lamberville, who pointed out to her with great care the path which he believed would lead her most directly on to holiness of life. Once sure of her duty, Tekakwitha walked straight forward, with downcast eyes and a joyous spirit, swerving neither to the right nor to the left. The rule of life that the Father prescribed for his other Christians (to keep them from the superstitions, impure feasts, and drunken debaucheries) was too general and not advanced enough for Kateri. She had always avoided these excesses even in her pagan days, and now her craving for a higher and deeper knowledge of spiritual things was so great that the good priest soon found himself called on to direct her in the way of special devotional exercises and unusual practices of virtue.
From the first, her virtues gained admiration even from those who were the furthest from imitating them, and those to whom she was subject left her free to follow the promptings of her zeal for a short time. The innocence of her life, the precautions she took to avoid all occasions of sin, and above all her extreme reserve with regard to all which might in the slightest degree wound modesty, appeared to the young people of the village a tacit reproach to the licentious life which they led. Several endeavored to turn her astray in the hope of tarnishing the splendor of a virtue which dazzled them.
Although she neglected none of her domestic labors and was ever ready to assist others, her relatives murmured greatly at her spending all her free time in prayer; and as she would not work on Sundays and feast-days, they would deprive her of food the entire day. Seeing that they gained nothing by this means, they had recourse to more violent measures, often ill-treating her in the most shameful manner. When she went to the chapel they would send boys to throw stones at her and calumniate her, while drunken men, or those pretending to be such, would pursue her and threaten her life. But fearless of their artifices, she continued her exercises as if in the enjoyment of the most perfect liberty and peace. She did not hesitate to say, when there was occasion for it, that she would die rather than give up the practice of the Christian religion. Katherine showed an extraordinary firmness of spirit against human respect.
She had much to suffer from the mockeries of the sorcerers, of the drunkards, of all the enemies of the practice of the Faith. When her own uncle, the chief man of the lodge, turned against her, what could she expect from others but ill-treatment of every sort? Her firmness, which nothing and no one could shake, irritated her heathen relatives more and more. They called her a sorceress, they cast stones at her whenever she went to the chapel, and yet she seemed to be utterly devoid of fear. Though timid as a deer, she had the courage of a panther at bay, and was no less quick to act when the time for action came.
One day when she was employed as usual in her uncle’s lodge, a young Indian suddenly rushed in upon her, his face filled with rage, his eyes flashing fire , his tomahawk raised above his head as if to strike her dead at the least opposition. Kateri did not cry out, did not make an appeal for mercy, nor promise to abandon the course she was taking. With perfect composure, without tremor or twitch of a muscle, she simply bowed her head on her breast, and stood before the wild and desperate young savage as immovable as a rock. Words were not needed on either side. The rage in the Indian’s eyes died out and gave place to wonder, then awe. He gazed as if spellbound. The uplifted tomahawk dropped to his side. Her firmness unnerved him. Admiration, then a strange fear overmastered the young brave, whose brain perhaps had been somewhat clouded with liquor when he undertook to rid the old chief’s niece of her Christian whims. Be that as it may, he could not have been more astonished at what he beheld if a spirit had appeared before him and ordered him out of the lodge. Cowed and abashed, he slunk away.
It was the last trial she was called upon to endure in the land of her birth. It was the only one, perhaps, that could have estranged her from her nearest kindred and her beloved Mohawk Valley, for we are told that she was particularly sensitive to the reproach they made to her of having no natural affection for her relations and of hating her nation. Had this been true, she would never have remained in her uncle’s lodge as long as she did under her particular conditions. This was particularly the case with one of her aunts, who succeeded only too well in making the life of Kateri a torture. She was the direct cause of her last and severest trial in the Mohawk country. Her cruel aunt, tried by every means in her power to brand the virtue of her niece as a mere pretence to Father de Lamberville and accused her of evil crimes she did not commit. Though it did not work on the virtuous priest.
Her Family declared that Christianity was making her lazy and worthless because she refused to work on Sunday. If she had she been accustomed to waste away her time in amusement as the other young Indians, she would not have been so treated; but her ill-natured aunts, for whom she had worked industriously all her life, now begrudged her the one day of rest out of seven which she took for the sake of her conscience. Sunday generally proved not a feast, but a fast-day to Kateri. Her life was becoming intolerable. There was no longer even a shadow of protection in her home. Her uncle had beset her path with drunken men and taunting children, she was deprived of food, she was threatened with death, and last of all, her aunt had done what she could to defame her to the her father in Christ. The priest was now her only friend, and his advice to her was to leave the country as soon as possible and take refuge at the Jesuit Mission.
Saint Kateri declared to Father de Lamberville that she must indeed go away, even at the cost of her life. She was too unhappy and distrustful of herself and her own powers of endurance to remain longer in the country where she was exposed to such constant trials of her strength and faith. Father de Lamberville, moved by her earnest words, spoke to Hot Ashes – an Iroquois Warrior Chief and a Christian who was staying with the Father – and asked if it would be possible for him and his companions to take her back with them to Canada. Hot Ashes at once offered Kateri his own place in the canoe. God had provided a means of escape for her most unexpectedly, it was the very best opportunity she could have to go; her uncle was away, and her aunts, either through indifference or ignorance of the plan, put no obstacle in her path.
The two companions of Hot Ashes put Saint Kateri secretly into the canoe with them, and immediately took the route leading towards the Dutch. She arrived in the autumn of the year 1677, in the Jesuit Mission Kahnawake, which is today located in Quebec, south of Montreal, which at that time was called New France. On her arrival, she put the letters that Father de Lamberville had written into the hands of the Fathers who, having read them, we’re delighted to have acquired a treasure, for these were the words of the letter: “I pray you to take the charge of her direction. You will soon know the treasure that we give you. Guard it, then, well! May it profit in your hands to the glory of God, and to the salvation of a soul that is assuredly very dear to Him.”
This Jesuit mission was full of Christian Iroquois and it was not long until Saint Kateri developed a friendship with Anastasia a learned Christian Indian. Saint Kateri spent much time with her, listening to her instructions on the heinousness of sin and its terrible consequences. One day soon after her arrival, Anastasia noticed that Kateri had wampum beads around her neck and in her hair; and the elder woman questioned her to find out if she really cared for these things. It cost Saint Kateri nothing to lay them aside the moment she thought that they might be displeasing to God. Her only motto henceforward was, “Who will teach me what is most pleasing to God, that I may do it ?”
Saint Kateri soon began to inflict upon herself severe penances to atone for what she considered great wickedness on her part. She hoped by severe penance to expiate the sins she had committed in the past – adorning herself with beads, trinkets, and Indian ornaments – even though she had done it more to please her aunts than to gratify her own vanity.
She learned more in a week than the others did in several years. She was always seen rosary in hand and with her dear instructress. She never left Anastasia because she learned more from her when the two of them were alone. Her actions made Anastasia say of her that she never lost sight of God. Their talk was about the life and doings of good Christians, and she tried to put what she heard into practice.
Over time, Saint Kateri developed the friendship of a few companions of her own sex. She wished no other ties than those who would help her in perfection, and even separated herself from a certain person with whom she had previously associated, because she noticed that she had a false pride. She did, however, accomplish the separation without appearing to despise the person she left. When Anastasia spoke to Saint Kateri of the necessity of avoiding slander, Kateri asked her what that meant. It is not surprising that she did not know what evil speaking was, for she was never known to say a word against anyone, not even against those who calumniated her. One day her amiability was put to the test. A young man passed through the cabin where she sat with Anastasia, and roughly pulled aside her blanket with these words: *’ They say this one has sore eyes; let’s see.” Kateri flushed deeply, but made no retort. She gathered her blanket about her, and continued the conversation with her friend.
Saint Kateri learned from Anastasia the order of religious exercises at the Praying Castle, never failed in regular attendance at the chapel, and became the most fervent spirit in that devout community. At the first dawn of day, after having said their private morning prayers in the cabins, they were accustomed to assemble at the chapel to visit the Blessed Sacrament. If there happened to be a Mass at that hour, they stayed to hear it, and then returned to their cabins. At sunrise the regular daily Mass for the Indians was said. At this they all assisted, chanting Iroquois hymns and other prayers, including the Creed and the Ten Commandments. These sacred songs were intoned by the catechist, and sung by alternate choirs of men and women. The Indians never tired of singing, and the hymns prepared for them in their own language were full of instruction. In this way they learned in a very short time the laws of Christian morality and the mysteries of the Faith.
The missionaries were accustomed to hold frequent conferences on religion. Objections to doctrine were raised by one of the audience, and answered either by the priest or the catechist. Instead of referring to books, which the Indians could not read, sets of pictures were shown to them. These proved exceedingly useful and they soon learned to carry on conferences among themselves in the absence of the missionary. Many converts from paganism were made in this way.
The people of the mission , though unable to read or write, were thoroughly instructed Christians, and on more than one occasion the white men were put to shame by the greater integrity, morality, and piety of these fervent converts.
After the morning Mass, when the men and women went off to work in the fields or cabins, the children were gathered into the chapel and instructed orally. Three times a day the Angelus sounded from the little belfry, and each time the headers of moccasins and the tillers of cornfields, the hunter starting out with his weapons or bringing in the trophies of the chase, the children, and the warriors bowed their heads in prayer. They knew the Angelus by heart, and prayed it faithfully. Saint Kateri prayed the Angelus also, and recited the Litanies of the Blessed Mother nightly. All carried the rosary, wearing it around their necks or wound about the head like a coronet; hers was often in her hands. These Indians understood only their own language, thus ordinary prayers were all translated for them from the French or Latin into Iroquois.
Father Cholenec, to whose care Saint Kateri had been so particularly commended, watched her actions closely during the first few months of her life at the mission as he was the one to decide how soon she should be permitted to receive Holy Communion. She cared for nothing so much in all the world as to hasten, by every means in her power, the day of her First Communion. During the day, she would take little breaks from her work to go and be with Jesus Christ at the foot of the altar. In the evening, she returned again to the church, and did not leave it until the night was far advanced. When engaged in her prayers, she seemed entirely unconscious of what was passing about her; and in a short time the Holy Spirit raised her to so sublime a devotion that she often spent many hours in intimate communion with God.
To this inclination for prayer, she joined an almost unceasing application to labor. She always ended the week by an exact investigation of her faults and imperfections, that she might efface them by the Sacrament of Penance. To this preparation, she also performed different mortifications with which she afflicted her body; and when she accused herself of faults, even the most slight, it was with such vivid feelings of compunction that she shed tears, and her words were choked by sighs and sobbings. The love and reverence she had for God made her regard the least offence with horror.
Saint Kateri’s First Communion was made on Christmas Day. This was a privilege not normally accorded without some years of probation and trials, but her piety placed her beyond the ordinary rules. Her fervor did not slacken afterwards, she was allowed to make her second Holy Communion at Easter. Father Fremin, her former guest of the Mohawk Valley, soon admitted her, without the customary delay, into the Confraternity of the Holy Family. This honor was usually accorded only to well-tried and thoroughly instructed Christians. The meetings of the Confraternity filled up the hours of each Sunday afternoon, and the members of it were expected to reproduce in their own homes, as far as possible, the family life of the three who dwelt together in the Holy House at Nazareth, — Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Saint Joseph was held up as a model for the men, the Blessed Virgin for the women, and the child Jesus for the children.
Kateri had no sorrows at this time save one: her nearest kindred still rejected and scorned the Faith that was more dear to her than life. For their sins and for her own she suffered and prayed. Five times a day she knelt in the mission chapel and pleaded with God for the pagan Indians, her friends and her kindred. Despite the fact that she could have grown rich on account of her skills at crafts, she lived in poverty; she worked freely for all. She only had what was necessary for her own support and was never a burden to those with whom she dwelt. She often fasted till evening, even when hard at work, and then, if unobserved, would mingle ashes with her food, that it might be devoid of everything that could afford pleasure to the taste.
Saint Kateri, in a town who treated all with generosity, soon attracted trouble. There was an Indian woman who possessed the idea that Kateri was making mischief between herself and her husband. It was because of Saint Kateri’s obliging disposition that she had quickly volunteered to fix a canoe that her husband had asked a group of Indian women to stitch repair.
The wife of the man went to the Father, and told him her suspicion. The Father, who feared much in so delicate an affair, which seemed perhaps possible enough, spoke to St. Kateri as much to question as to exhort her. Despite her words to the contrary, she was not entirely believed; her instructress spoke to her also, either to remedy the evil in case there might be any or to prevent it. Never before did the Saint suffer so much as on this occasion. What grieved her was that the Father seemed to not believe her, and had accused her as if she had been guilty; but God permitted it thus to purify her virtue, for nothing more remained for her to do than to practice abnegation in her honor, and to retain not a particle of rancor. She said only what was necessary to make known the truth, and said not the least thing that could make it appear that she was displeased with any one of those who were seemingly against her..
In the end, her remarkable patience and her silence helped to vindicate her in this severest trial of her life. Compared to it, the lying tale of her malicious aunt was as nothing, for no one had believed what she said. In this case it was very different, and Saint Kateri, unable to defend herself against the plausible suspicion of this woman, could only live down the calumny as bravely as possible, leaving God to clear her memory of every shadow of a doubt, as he would not fail to do in time. The good man who was accused with her never before or after gave his wife any occasion to complain of him, and she realized that her own jealousy had led her into error. When our beloved Saint died, she who had done the mischief could never speak of her without weeping of how needlessly she had wronged and grieved her, for who can ever heal the wound of a reckless tongue?
It is certain that Saint Kateri visited the French settlement on the north side of the river; for the French Historian Cholenec thus writes: —
“While passing some days at Montreal, where for the first time she saw the nuns, she was so charmed with their modesty and devotion that she informed herself most thoroughly with regard to the manner in which these holy sisters lived, and the virtues which they practised.”
Her visit to Montreal had given her an intimation of something well known to the Christians of Europe, which had not been taught at the mission: a life of perpetual virginity and espousal to our Lord Jesus Christ.
When she came home from Montreal, she started talking with her companions about imitating the nuns that she saw in order to make their souls more pleasing to God. As their imaginations grew more and more excited in picturing the ideal life they would lead in their little community, shut off from everything that might distract them from prayer and holy thoughts, their eyes fell naturally enough upon the solitary unfrequented Isle which lay off in the midst of the rapids. They started to plan an oratory with a cross under the trees; they also tried to make out a rule of life for themselves. But all at once they remembered Father Fremin, the head of the mission, and wondered what he would think of their project. Saint Kateri had great respect for authority, and a true spirit of obedience. They agreed to do nothing without the consent of their priest. One of them went at once to find him and ask him if approved of their plan. He laughed heartily at all their beautiful projects, and made light of them, saying that they were too young in the Faith to think of such a thing as founding a convent. It was too much out of the ordinary way, not to mention the isle was too far from the village and young men going back and forth from Montreal would be always at their cabin. Upon further consideration, they concluded that what the Father said was reasonable, and they thought no more of their convent.
As soon as Saint Kateri learned from Father Fremin that God left every Christian free to marry or not to marry, she lost no time in choosing a state of life for herself. Furthermore, if the fear that she had of appearing virtuous had not restrained her, she would have cut off her hair as a sign of devotion; but she contented herself with dressing like those who were the most modest in the village. Father Fremin gave her some rules of life more special than those he gave to the others; he directed her to keep herself in retirement, especially during the summer when the canoes came down, not go to the water’s edge to see them arrive, like the rest, but to remain in her cabin. Saint Kateri was not going to be deterred from the thought of giving herself completely to Jesus Christ, and she started insisting with Father Fremin to make a vow of virginity.
Her spiritual friend and instructress Anastasia, who had always until that time found so much docility in Saint Kateri, was extremely surprised at the little deference she paid to her counsels which were towards marriage. She even bitterly reproached her, and threatened to bring her complaints to the Father. Saint Kateri had anticipated her in this, and still begged Father Fremin to let her take the vow of virginity. The priest praised her design but advised her to take three days to deliberate her decision that she might better know the will of God, after which if she persisted he would grant her request and silence her friends who wished her to marry. The priest was aware of Saint Kateri’s virtue, her sincerity of heart and love of Christ. Anastasia approached the priest to oppose the vow but was corrected by the Father, upon which she saw the error in her ways repented of her fault. She became joyous for the choice that Saint Kateri was making and fortified her soul with encouragement.
The priest no longer resisted her pleadings to be allowed to consecrate herself to God by a vow of perpetual virginity. This she did, with all due solemnity, on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin, the 25th of March, 1679. However others might look upon her act, this solemn engagement with God gave her a feeling of freedom. At last she had an acknowledged right to live her own life completely and only for Jesus Christ. After making her vow before the Priest, no relative of hers questioned or disturbed her. From that time she aspired continually to heaven, where she had fixed all her desires;
Saint Kateri did not follow the others out of the village to camp during the Winter Months. When they engaged in the hunt, she remained behind, where she lived only on Indian corn. However, not content with allowing her body only this insipid food – which could scarcely sustain it – she subjected it also to austerities and excessive penances without taking counsel of anyone, persuading herself that while the object was self-mortification, she was right in giving herself up to everything which could increase her fervor.
She was incited to these holy exercises by the noble examples of self-mortification which she always had before her eyes. The spirit of penance reigned among the Christians at the Mission. Fastings, discipline carried even unto blood, belts lined with points of iron, were common austerities. These voluntary penances allowed them to prepare themselves to suffer the most fearful torments if captured by pagan Indians. One in particular among them, Etieune, signalized this with his constancy and faith amidst torture. When surrounded by the burning flames , he did not cease to encourage his wife, who was suffering the same torture, to invoke with him the holy Name of Jesus. Being on the point of expiring, he rallied all his strength, and in imitation of his Master, prayed the Lord with a loud voice for the conversion of those who had treated him with such cruelty. Many of the Indians, touched by a spectacle so new to them, abandoned their country and came to the Mission to ask for baptism, and to live there in accordance with the laws of the Gospel.
It was also not uncommon to fast sometimes for days. Some placed themselves in the snow when the cold was most severe ; others stripped themselves to the waist in retired places, and remained a long time exposed to the rigor of the season, on the banks of a frozen river, and where the wind blew with violence. There were even those who broke the ice in the ponds, plunged themselves in up to the neck, and remained there as long as it was necessary for them to recite many times the ten beads of their rosary. One of them did this three nights in succession, and it was the cause of so violent a fever that it was thought she would have died of it. When the extremes came to the knowledge of the priests they were obliged to moderate the Indians’ zeal.
Although those who inflicted these mortifications on themselves were particular to conceal them from the knowledge of the public, Saint Kateri did not fail to figure out from various appearances what they held so secret. As she studied every means to show her love for Jesus Christ, she applied herself to examining everything done that was pleasing to the Lord, that she might herself immediately put it into practice. After hearing from her companion, Marie Therese, about her use of wooden switches, she resolved to make it a daily practice for herself when the other Indians were away on the hunting chase. She also had as much time as she could wish for to satisfy her devotion at the village chapel. Saint Kateri knew but two paths while she lived at the Mission, — one leading from her cabin to the field where she worked, and the other to the chapel where she prayed. Anyone who chanced to stray into the chapel might see a muffled figure kneeling near the altar-rail, facing the tabernacle. At such times she saw and heard nothing of what was taking place around her. In front of her was the sacred Presence she could not leave unless for some urgent call of duty or charity. A touch on the shoulder, a whispered word, and she would be happy to assist all. Often she did not wait for this; a sudden inspiration would carry her where she was needed. When the good deed was done, the love within her heart drew her again to the foot of the tabernacle.When she entered the church in taking the blessed water she recalled her baptism, and renewed the resolution she had taken to live as a good Christian. When she knelt down in some corner near the balustrade for fear of being distracted by those who passed in and out, she would cover her face with her blanket, and make an act of faith concerning the real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. She also made several other interior acts of contrition, of resignation, or of humility, according to the inspiration which moved her, asking for light and strength to practise virtue well. She prayed for unbelievers also, above all her Iroquois relatives. She finished her devotion by praying her rosary. She confided this exercise to her companion, who made it known. She had regulated the visits which she made to our Lord to five times a day without fail; but it can be said that the church was the place where she was ordinarily found.
She remained there so many hours on her knees in the coldest winter weather, that more than once priests or someone else, moved with compassion at sight of her half-frozen condition, obliged her to leave the chapel.
Saint Kateri had a great and special devotion both for the Passion of our Saviour and for the Holy Eucharist. These two mysteries of the love of the same God, concealed under the veil of the Eucharist and His dying on the cross, ceaselessly occupied her spirit, and kindled in her heart the purest flames of love.
One Saturday afternoon, while waiting for the bell to ring for Benediction, Saint Kateri sat in the cabin of her friend, talking confidentially with her friend on matters of conscience. Marie Therese happened to mention the bundle of switches with which she had scourged herself on a certain occasion, and Kateri, quick to put a pious thought into practice, hastened at once to the cemetery and returned with a handful of stinging little rods. These she hid adroitly under the mat on which she was sitting, and waited eagerly for the first stroke of the bell. As the other Indians hurried along to church, the two were soon alone. Kateri was the first to fall upon her knees, and handing her companion the switches, begged her not to spare her in the least. When she had been well scourged, she in turn took the switches, and Therese knelt down to receive the blows. With bleeding shoulders, they said a short prayer together, and then hastened to the chapel, joyous and happy at heart. Never before had the prayers seemed shorter or sweeter to them than on that evening. Their next thought was to choose a place where they might continue this exercise. They kept up this practice every Saturday. They made an act of contrition, an act of faith, and then Saint Kateri would kneel to receive the first scourging, begging her companion to strike harder, even though blood would appear by the third stroke. When they came to a pause, they recited the chaplet of the Holy Family, which they divided into several parts, at each of which a stroke was given with the switches. At these times she would speak of the three nails which fastened our Saviour to the cross as a figure of her sins. When Saint Kateri was thus touched, she did not fail to move her companion, who with equal fervor underwent the same voluntary punishment.
Her greatest excesses of self-inflicted pain came like sparks of fire from her intense love of the crucified Redeemer. She had seen the Iroquois warriors brand their slaves with coals of fire; so she could not resist the impulse which came to her one night to seize a red-hot brand from the hearthfire, and to place it between her toes.
It would be a long and harrowing task to give a full account of all the austere fasts and penances that Saint Kateri Tekakwitha underwent during the course of the year 1679 but we can truly say that she filled up those things that were wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in her flesh, for His Body, which is the Church.
During the last winter of her life Kateri had frequent attacks of illness severe enough to keep her in the cabin. Those who were ill were obliged to remain alone throughout the whole day in their cabins, a plate of Indian corn and a little water being placed in the morning near their mat. It was thus that Saint Kateri Tekakwitha passed through her last illness, during the Lent of 1680.
She had a continuous low fever; but during the last two months of her life her sufferings were very acute, and she could not change her position without severe pain. Women of the confraternity of the Holy Family would stay with her at night.
On Tuesday of Holy week, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha renewed her baptismal vows and the solemn offering she had made of her body to Almighty God from her deathbed. She recalled the graces bestowed upon her, and especially such as had enabled her to preserve her chastity throughout life. She then received the Holy Eucharist, and after a few moments of silent adoration, all present joined her in prayer. Throughout the afternoon, other Indians of the village were constantly going back and forth to the lodge where she lay; not one was indifferent to the passing of her soul. Many were the signs of love and of reverence shown for her on that day; it seemed as if she had been to each one of them a favorite sister.
The next day, Marie Therese arrived in the cabin shortly before Saint Kateri was given the last rites. After Kateri had received all the sacraments, she conversed with her companion. She was speaking with difficulty and unable to raise her voice, seeing Marie Therese weeping bitterly, she bade her this last farewell:
“I leave you; I am going to die. Remember always what we have done together since we knew one another. If you change, I will accuse you before the judgment-seat of God. Take courage ; despise the discourse of those who have no faith. When they would persuade you to marry, listen only to the Fathers. If you cannot serve God here, go away to the Mission of Lorette. Never give up mortification. I will love you in heaven, I will pray for you, I will help you”
It was Fr. Martin, kneeling nearby reciting the prayers for the dying, who heard these words of the Saint to her friend. In his account of this scene, after her last words to Therese, Saint Kateri covered her crucifix with kisses and tears, and cried out three times, “Jesus, I love Thee!” Thus died Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, on Wednesday, April 17, 1680, only 24 years old.
A quarter of an hour after her death her face, which had been scarred from the smallpox she had in her youth, changed all at once, removing the scars and becoming beautiful to the amazement of the Priests and other Indians.
Shortly after her death, St. Kateri started to appear to other villagers. Eight days after passing from the sorrows of this life, she showed herself to her spiritual mother Anastasia in this manner: Anastasia had laid down to rest, but scarcely had she closed her eyes when she was awakened by a voice calling her “Mother, arise.” She recognized the voice of her Kateri, sat up and turned to where the voice came, and saw her standing nearby, all brilliant with light. Half of her body was hidden to the waist in this brightness, and the other half was shining like the sun. She carried in her hand a brilliant cross, and said “Mother, look at this cross; oh! how beautiful it is ! It has been my whole happiness during my life, and I advise you also to make it yours.” With that she disappeared.
We Bless thee O Lord Jesus Christ for the graces that you have bestowed upon Saint Kateri Tekakwitha and we beseech thee that we might share in them that we might become more pleasing to thee.
On October 21, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. May she, the Lily of the Mohawks, spouse of Jesus Christ, and lover of the Cross, pray for us.
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Walworth, Ellen H. The Life and times of Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, 1656-1680. Buffalo: P. Paul, 1891. Print.