Visit to the shrine of St. Kateri “Lily of the Mohawks”

St. Kateri
One of the most beautiful articles in the Apostles’ Creed is that which speaks of the “communion of saints.”For the month of November, I hope to post about some of the saints whom I have particular devotion to. Originally I had hoped to do one a day but maybe that is being slightly ambitious. As someone recently reminded me, I am a student! However, those who know me know my love for reading the lives of the saints and I trust heavily on their intercession. One of my favourite reminders is: “every saint has a past, every sinner has a future”. It gives me hope along the way of holiness!
Let’s start with St. Kateri, who was born in what is now upstate New York and who died in 1680 near Montreal, Canada, after a short life... She was canonized Sunday in St. Peter’s Square by Pope Benedict XVI on the 21st of October 2012. To be honest, I didn’t know much about St. Kateri until about two weeks ago when she was being mentioned on Canadian televisions, newspapers with regard to the imminent canonisation. Giving that we were on Reading Week, on Wednesday after the canonisation, some of us here in the house decided to pay a visit to Montreal and make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Kateri in Kahnawake.

So who was Kateri? The “Lily of the Mohawks” was a virgin of the Mohawk tribe. She was born to a Mohawk father and Christian Algonquin mother. Her parents and brother died of smallpox when she was four years old, and so she was adopted by her aunt. Smallpox still dotted her face and impaired her eyesight. Despite these obstacles, Tekakwitha (her name before baptism) shunned all marriage proposals and lived chastely. In 1667, Jesuit missionaries arrived at her tribe, and it was then that she converted to Christianity, accepting baptism later.  Ostracised and abused by relatives for her faith, Tekakwitha escaped to a cabin where she practiced austere mortifications and is said to have experienced union with God in prayer, devoting herself to a life of piety, chastity and corporal mortification. Upon her death, a devotion to her started immediately among her people. Today many pilgrims visit her grave in Caughnawaga (Kahnawake), Quebec where a monument to her memory was erected in 1884.
There was something very beautiful about the Shrine. Maybe because it was still free from the commercial aspects which can often envelop the cult of the saints. It was a very quiet and peaceful place, situated alongside a river and right in the heart of a neighbourhood. We had time to visit the museum which was deeply insightful in understanding the background from which Kateri came. Even the various pieces of artwork throughout the centuries show us the varying depictions, both devotional and cultural, which have surrounded this young saint.

To some, she represents unconditional commitment to Jesus; to others a bridge between Catholic and native spirituality and culture. To the Finkbonner family of Washington State, Kateri represents a miraculous life-giving force that saved their son, Jake, now 12, from a flesh-eating disease. Jake, whose family is part of the Lummi tribe, had 21 surgeries as doctors frantically tried to cure him. Near death, he was given last rites. At that point, the local priest suggested praying to Kateri for an intervention. Jake recovered and the cure was deemed by the Vatican to be medically inexplicable – a miracle.

Healing was indeed the theme of the Kateri canonization. Some native groups on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border have been promoting the cause of Kateri for decades but progress has been very slow. St. Kateri’s earthly life was hidden in the seventeenth century, yet her message continues to resound through time, reminding us of all that is good, beautiful, holy, pure and enduring about the Christian life and message. She is a true symbol of the enduring links between Catholicism and our native brothers and sisters, the indigenous people of our lands. As patron of ecology and the environment, she teaches us how to love and respect the created world and care for it. An instrument in her own lifetime of the First Evangelization, through her death and membership in the Communion of Saints, Kateri Tekakwitha is an enduring model of the New Evangelization for the Church.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI on the day of her canonisation, may we too pray: “Saint Kateri, Protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint, we entrust to you the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in North America, may God bless the first nations.”

Photo gallery (thanks to Fr. Ken for some of these photos in the gallery!)
Short Video of St. Kateri
Full video of the Canonisation Mass on the 21st of October 2012