Saint Kateri (pronounced Kat’ er ee) was born in 1656 in what is now central New York state. Her mother was a Catholic Algonquin Indian who was captured by her father, a Mohawk warrior, and forced to assimilate into his tribe. When Kateri wasfour, a small pox epidemic killed her parents and younger brother. It scarred her face and impaired her vision. She wore a blanket over her head to help cover her face and the Mohawks gave her the additional name of Tekakwitha (Tek uh wick uh) which means “she who bumps into things”.
Kateri then lived with her father’s sister. When she was a teen, her aunt and uncle followed the tribal tradition and pressured her to marry. Kateri refused. When Jesuits visited her uncle, she asked to become Catholic and was mocked because of her request. Several years later she escaped to a Jesuit community for Native Americans in Canada and was baptized at age twenty.
Kateri chose a life of perpetual virginity which was important to her for spiritual reasons and to debunk a stereotype of Native American women as promiscuous. She dedicated her life to prayer, penitential practices, and care for the sick and aged. She is responsible for establishing Native American ministries in Catholic Churches all over the United States and Canada. Mexicans venerate her as well. She died in 1680 and is known as the Lily of the Mohawks and the ecumenical bridge between Native Americans and European cultures, both north and south of the United States borders. She was canonized when miraculous healings were attributed to her intercession. Her feast day is July 14.
I don’t know anyone who is named after Kateri Tekakwitha but her end of life story reminds me of my brother John who also died of an infection. Witnesses reported that within minutes of Kateri’s death, her small pox scars disappeared. Three of my older sisters and I can attest that when John died, his face changed too. We don’t know if it was the way the shadows came through the window or the way the pillow and sheets were situated, or if it was because his horrible pain was lifted. but his eyes were not slanted. His ears were not misshapen. His finger tips were not blunt. John had Down Syndrome, but we saw no sign of it at that moment.
Like Kateri, John left this world looking like everyone else. And like Kateri, his legacy was not his looks, but his good-nature, and the hard working, loving way he lived the life given to him. It isn’t surprising then, that both Kateri and John received their heavenly reward so immediately and visibly.
What is surprising is that in the end, we all want to look like them.
photo from the National Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine http://www.katerishrine.com/kateri.html