Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to a Mohawk chief and a Christian Algonquin woman who had been captured in a raid and assimilated into the Mohawk people. She was born in Ossernenon, on the south side of the Mohawk River near present-day Auriesville, New York. The Kanienkehaka or Mohawk people pronounce Kateri's name as Gah-deh-LEE (Kateri) Deh-gah-GWEE-tah (Tekakwitha).
When she was four years old, a smallpox outbreak ravaged her village. Her parents and brother died, and Kateri herself was left with a scarred face and permanently darkened vision. Her Mohawk given name, Tekakwitha, means “she who bumps into things,” likely in reference to her poor eyesight. Tekakwitha was adopted by her paternal aunt, whose husband was a prominent figure in the Turtle Clan of the Mohawk nation.
In 1666 a French-led raiding party destroyed the Mohawk settlements on the south side of the river; Tekakwitha’s family and other survivors moved to the north side of the river and built the fortified village of Caughnawaga. Tekakwitha lived in Caughnawaga beginning in 1666. She became skilled at arts such as beadwork and basket weaving and mostly undertook small handiwork for the community due to her physical disability. In accordance with Iroquois custom, she was engaged to a young boy at about the age of thirteen; however, she wished to remain unmarried. “I can have no spouse but Jesus,” she later told her confessor. “I have the strongest aversion to marriage.”
As the result of a peace treaty with the French, the Mohawk allowed Jesuit missionaries into their settlements. When Tekakwitha was about eighteen, she began instructions in the Catholic faith. Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, the Jesuit priest with whom she studied catechism, wrote in his journal in the years after her death about Tekakwitha. This text described her before she was baptized as a mild-mannered and well-behaved girl. Lamberville also stated that Kateri did everything she could to stay holy in a secular society, which often caused minor conflicts with her longhouse residents.
On Easter Sunday 1676, she was baptized in Saint Peter’s Chapel with water from the spring that stands on Shrine grounds to this day. The current Saint Peter’s Chapel is named after this former Jesuit mission. Kateri is the Mohawk form of her baptismal name, Catherine, which she chose in honor of Saint Catherine of Siena.
Late in 1677 Kateri relocated to the Mission of Saint Francis Xavier, a Catholic Native settlement near what is now Montreal. On Christmas Day 1677 she made her first communion, and on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1679 she made a vow of perpetual virginity; however, her vow was not formally recognized by a bishop. Kateri’s retention of Iroquois ascetic practices, which in many cases exceeded the severity of European Catholic penances of the same time period, also caused controversy. Priests in the community discouraged her in these acts due to their negative impact on her already poor health. She is quoted as saying, “I will willingly abandon this miserable body to hunger and suffering, provided that my soul may have its ordinary nourishment.” In this period, she also developed a strong friendship with another young woman called Marie Thérèse Tegaianguenta. The two women broached the idea of forming a Native religious order, but the Jesuit missionaries rejected the suggestion.
Kateri’s health failed, and she died on April 17, 1680, at the age of 23 or 24. Tradition holds that her last words were “Jesus, Mary, I love you.” In the weeks after her death, she is said to have appeared to her mentor Anastasia Tegonhatsiong, Marie Thérèse, and the missionary Claude Chauchetière. Within four years, pilgrimages to the site of her tomb had begun and healing miracles were attributed to her.
Due to her unique cultural position, Kateri has been a figure of debate: there are conflicting accounts of how much hardship she faced within her community due to her conversion, with later Catholic authors extrapolating from the Jesuit records. Mohawk oral history describes much less contemporary persecution than the Catholic biographies written after her death and a greater respect for the skills she developed within the community, but some traditional Mohawks still take issue with her baptism into Catholicism or with the way Mohawk culture is represented through the lens of her conversion.
However, she is also widely seen as a bridge between Native American and European cultures. In the centuries since her death, she has had devotees ranging from French priests to Native American mystics to the Canadian Jewish songwriter and author Leonard Cohen. She is associated with outsiders, exiles, orphans, and people ridiculed for their beliefs. She is also patroness of Indigenous people, patroness of ecology and ecologists, and Protectress of Canada.
Kateri was declared Venerable by Pope Pius XII on January 3, 1943; beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II on June 22, 1980; and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 21, 2012. This National Shrine was established to honor Saint Kateri and to continue her legacy of devotion, healing, and intercultural encounter between Native and European Americans.