Born a Mohawk

Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonised, lived a heroic life on the borders between the Church and a thoroughly non-Catholic civilisation.

She was born around 1656 in present-day New York state, the daughter of a Mohawk chief, Keneronkwa, and Tagasjouita, who had been captured from the Algonquins. A smallpox epidemic killed her parents and her brother when she was only four. It left her with facial scars, and in her teens she would cover her head with a blanket.

Slept on thorns

When she was about 10, the French colonists won a major military victory against the Mohawk. Part of the peace settlement was that the tribespeople would accept the presence of Jesuit missionaries. Thus Tekakwitha came across heroic figures such as Fr Jean Pierron, who tended to the wounded when the Mohawks were attacked by the Mohicans, and preached courageously of the falsehood of Mohawk rites and the truth of Catholicism.

By the time she was 17, Tekakwitha wanted to become a Catholic. Her aunts pressurised her to marry, but a resolution was forming in her mind that she wanted to give herself to Christ. She was baptised aged 19, on Easter Sunday 1676, and was soon practising hard penances – sleeping on thorns and eating unpleasant food. Her Jesuit spiritual director had to rein in these mortifications because they were affecting her health.

Nevertheless, Kateri grew sick and eventually died, aged 24.

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