Every time I hear someone say, “The Catholic Church is so sexist and prejudiced,” I always respond with, “You should come visit my church, Saint Kateri Parish. Our patron is a Native American woman who had a facial disfigurement and was even partially blind.” The stunned silence that follows is priceless.
Now I can’t paint with all the colors of the wind, but I can tell you the story of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha!
Okay, I know that this is a more glamorized depiction of her, but she really did have a scarred face and weak eyes. Before I explain how that happened, let’s go back to the beginning.
Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in Auriesville, which today is known as upstate New York, so technically she is a New Yorker. [DISCLAIMER: Get ready for some seriously hard-to-pronounce-words in 3…2…1] She was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and a woman named Tagaskouita, who was an Algonquin Christian. In her day, small pox was the kiss of death. If you had it, it was game over for you. Only the most hardy souls survived, and among them was a four-year old girl. When small pox wiped out her entire village, including her parents and younger brother, the little girl was adopted by her uncle, an Iroquois chief who was disgusted by her scarred face and poor vision. As a result, he gave her the derogatory name Tekakwitha, which means, “she who bumps into things.” The scars on her face made her less attractive to potential suitors, so her uncle felt the need to arrange a marriage for her at the tender age of eight.
In her day, Jesuit missionaries were frequent visitors to that territory due to their mission to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. As a child, Tekakwitha often had exposure to the words of the humble yet passionate missionaries. She was moved by the promise of Salvation, and in particular, the emphasis on God’s deep love for each human being. “Even me,” she probably thought as an outcast in her own tribe. This led her to open her heart to a God who would accept her when no one else would. Keep in mind that her mother had been a Christian, so faith was weaved into her youngest memories. It was the message of the missionaries that has reawakened the faith of her childhood. Nature was where she felt closest to the Creator, for she would make a cross out of sticks and pray among the trees and woodland creatures. However she couldn’t be baptized just yet because, well…
In 1666, the Mohawk’s strongholds on the south bank were demolished by a group of French soliders and hostile Natives from Canada. Tekakwitha and the remaining Mohawks crossed over the north side of the river and sought refuge in a village called Fonda where, at the age of 18, Tekakwitha was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in secret and took the name Catherine, also known as Kateri.
There was just one major problem: Her uncle was not only repulsed by her, but like Professor Radisson in “God’s Not Dead,” he loathed Christianity. So when he learned that his niece had become a Christian, he only accepted her decision under the condition that Kateri never leave their tribe. The Iroquois people may have tolerated her facial disfigurement and blindness before, but now that she was a Christian, the gloves were off and she was made a pariah. Public ridicule, scornful neighbors, false accusations; Kateri was at the center of the mob mentality. Yet she never caved or recanted her faith in Jesus. If anything, the rejection and hate from others only made her stronger. It assured her that she was on the side of Truth.
Two years after her baptism, Kateri was forced to flee after her life was threatened. She escaped to the Mission of St. Francis Xavier in Caughnawaga, Canada, where she lived with fellow Natives who had converted to Christianity. She spent the last years of her life here, where she dedicated her days to prayer, self-mortification and acts of charity. On April 17, 1680, twenty-four year old Kateri Tekakwitha drew her last breath after suffering from a grave illness. Upon the entrance of her soul into Heaven, the scars on her face faded away, revealing the true beauty of who she was.
On October 21, 2012, Kateri was canonized after prayers to her miraculously healed Jake Finkbonner, whose life had been on the line due to a flesh-eating virus. She became the first Native American to be declared a Saint.
I think that certainty was Kateri’s defining characteristic. She was certain that Jesus is Truth. She was certain that her countercultural faith was worth the scorn of her tribe. Christianity had empowered her to remove the blanket from her scarred face and shine with the Light of Christ for all to see.
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, patroness of my home parish and of Catholic Girl Bloggin’, pray for us.