Indiana: St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized

Indiana. The very name of our state should remind us of those who lived here and settled these lands: our Native American brothers and sisters. On July 14, we celebrate the first Native American to be canonized: St. Kateri Tekakwitha. The National Shrine dedicated to her is in upstate New York and many biographers have provided details of her life that continue to inspire us today (compiled from various sources):

Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to a Mohawk chief and a Christian Algonquin woman in upstate New York. 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 impaired vision. Her uncle, who had now become chief of the tribe, adopted her and her aunts began planning her marriage while she was still very young.

When three Jesuit fathers were visiting the tribe in 1667 and staying in the tent of her uncle, they spoke to her of Christ, and she believed in Jesus with an incredible intensity. She also realized that she was called into an intimate union with God as a consecrated virgin.

Kateri had to struggle to maintain her faith amidst the opposition of her tribe, who ridiculed her for it and ostracized her for refusing the marriage that had been planned for her. When she was 18, the priest returned to the Mohawk village and she asked to be baptized.

The priest with whom she studied catechism wrote in his journal that Kateri did everything she could to stay holy in a secular society. Realizing that this was proving dangerous to her life and her call to perpetual virginity, Kateri moved to a town near Montreal. Kateri grew in holiness and retained Iroquois ascetic practices, which in many cases exceeded the severity of European Catholic penances of the same time period.

She had a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and lived out the last years of her short life practicing austere penance and constant prayer. She was said to have reached the highest levels of mystical union with God, and many miracles were attributed to her while she was still alive. She died on April 17, 1680 at the age of 24. Tradition holds that her last words were “Jesus, Mary, I love you.”  

In popular devotion to her, she is often referred to as the “Lily of the Mohawks.” She is associated with outsiders, exiles, orphans and people ridiculed for their beliefs. She is also patroness of Indigenous people. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

Her shrine receives many pilgrims each year. Inspired by the witness of her life, and there are several confirmation candidates throughout our diocese who choose Kateri as their confirmation name. When we reflect on her heroic life and witness, she should inspire us to intensify our life of devotion to Jesus, love for the Blessed Sacrament, and embrace a life of prayer and penance. May we grow in appreciation of and respect for all our Native Americans and seek her intercession. St. Kateri Tekakwitha…pray for us.

Your servant,

Most Reverend Robert J. McClory

Diocese of Gary