The Lily of the Mohawks was a sign of human dignity.
Name: Kateri Tekakwitha
Feast day: July 14
We don’t often think of the people whom missioners serve as missioners themselves, but you could call St. Kateri Tekakwitha just that. Theologians call it “reverse mission.” St. Kateri didn’t go out to found Churches — she was more an ascetic and contemplative. But in mission territory she clung to her newfound Catholic faith, which was no small sign to the people around her.
Kateri (named for Catherine of Siena) was born west of what is today Auriesville, in upstate New York. She was daughter of a significant political leader, a chief, in the Mohawk nation, which was in turn a part of the Iroquois confederation (a model for the future United States). Her mother, already converted to Catholicism, had been kidnapped and brought into the Mohawk tribe.
The Europeans had unwittingly brought smallpox to the New World; Kateri was the only one in her family who survived it. She was scarred for life and visually impaired. After hearing of Christianity from the Jesuits, at age 19, she converted. Against tribal norms, she refused to marry. She was shunned by her own people and went to live near the Jesuit mission south of Montreal. There she led a life of prayer, including acts of penitence that were popular at that time. She is known to have planted small crosses in woods where she had been at prayer.
St. Kateri died at age 24 of an unknown illness. Miracles were immediately attributed to her, and her sanctity was widely known. Her witness to Christianity while alive on earth, and then her growing reputation in death would put her in the ranks of reverse missioners. Her known holiness in the Christian tradition became a rallying cry of respect for Native American peoples. Catholic Native Americans eventually began to gather annually to celebrate their culture at the Tekakwitha Conference. St. Kateri was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Her title, “Lily of the Mohawks,” refers to a once-popular association of lilies with women’s celibacy.
St. Kateri, pray that each of us will conform to the will of Christ. By your witness, help us to see in our hardships an image of Christ’s suffering. Help us to be fearless in our faith, even when it is unpopular.