For many years, American Catholics who wanted to follow in the footsteps of a saint had to travel to Europe.
In Assisi, they could step where Saint Francis did. In Ireland, they might walk the byways of Saint Patrick.
It wasn’t until the late-20th-century canonizations of Sister Elizabeth Ann Seton, born in New York City in 1774, and Sister Katharine Drexel, born in Philadelphia in 1858, that Americans finally had the opportunity to stay in the country when visiting places where U.S.-born saints lived and worked.
But the Big Apple and the City of Brotherly Love have changed significantly since the 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast, a virtually unspoiled place trod by a saint lies in upstate New York, thanks to the October 21 canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, who walked and prayed in what is now the central part of the Empire State. In her time, it was the land of the Mohawks.
Tribute to the Native Daughter
By making a trip to the Albany Diocese, people can visit two places associated with this Native American woman. The National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine, located in Fonda, New York, and operated by the Conventual Franciscans (katerishrine.com), honors Saint Kateri’s baptismal site, while the Jesuit-run Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York (martyrshrine.org), marks her birthplace.
The landscape where Kateri walked and prayed hasn’t changed, nor has the meaning of her life, according to Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of the Albany Diocese. Earlier this year, in the diocesan newspaper, The Evangelist, Bishop Hubbard paid tribute to the native daughter: “Despite the pristine simplicity of the civilization [Kateri] experienced and the rather drab ordinariness of her life, there are . . . some important lessons to be drawn from her pilgrim journey of faith,” he said.
First, she was “a woman who understood well and accepted with patient resignation the mystery of the Cross, that mystery which proclaims that our faith is founded on . . . the paradox of death leading to life; the paradox of suffering leading to glory; the paradox of defeat and failure leading to victory.”
Second, continued Bishop Hubbard, Saint Kateri was “a woman of magnificent fortitude, dogged determination, and unswerving conviction. A lesser person might well have yielded to the pressure . . . to squelch that thirst for the God of the Christians, which the Holy Spirit had so copiously stirred up in her heart.”
Finally, he said, Kateri was “a woman of great prayer, a woman who had a deep and abiding awareness of the Lord’s love for her and an ongoing personal relationship with him.”
Commemorating the Canonization
Since its origin in 1847, the Albany Diocese has commemorated Kateri in several ways. Both the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Daughters of the Americas have chapters dedicated to her. A diocesan program carries her name: Kateri Institute for Lay Ministry Formation. Most recently, two parishes that merged in Schenectady eschewed creating a portmanteau name from the titles of the former parishes and elected to become St. Kateri Church.
The two national shrines annually host multiple events that involve Native American Catholics. This year, the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine celebrated the saint’s feast day on July 14 with Native American rituals and songs. “I wanted to be in the place where she lived, where she was baptized, and where she is still honored,” said Eddie Ryder of Bay Shore, a town on Long Island. “I’m part Native American, and I’ve always wanted to come here and really feel Kateri’s presence.”
As Franciscan Father Mark Steed prepared to celebrate the feast-day Mass in a rustic pavilion on the shrine’s 200 acres of wooded land on the bank of the Mohawk River, he explained the significance of Kateri’s canonization for Native American Catholics. “It authenticates who they are as a people and who she was as an individual living all of those numbers of years ago,” he told Catholic News Service. “It gathers them in now to the whole Church. So they’re not sitting on the fringe. Now they are part of the inner circle.”
Four days later, more than 800 Native American Catholics from throughout North America flocked to the Albany Diocese to attend the 73rd annual Tekakwitha Conference. Holding the conference in Albany was a lucky stroke—or the intercession of a soon-to-be saint— because the event had been slated well before the canonization was announced. The conference, based in Great Falls, Montana, was started in 1939 as a way to unify Native American Catholics from different tribes across the United States.
Participants included members of the Mohawk, Choctaw, Algonquin, Navajo, Ojibwa, and other tribes. They listened to presentations ranging from the connection of Mother Earth and fracking to Native Catholic genealogy and a talk on Kateri as “a princess of the Eucharist.” Throughout the conference the smell of burning sweetgrass—known among native peoples as the “hair of Mother Earth”—wafted through Masses as congregants approached altars, offering corn, beans, and squash with the Eucharist.
Conference executive director Sister Kateri Mitchell, SSA, a Mohawk, said that the organization’s members, as well as other native peoples, routinely return to where the new saint was born and baptized because “there’s something intriguing about Kateri. She was born way back in the mid-17th century and died 24 years later. But in 2012, people still remember this Indian woman.”
Walking on Holy Ground
Sister Kateri’s own introduction to the new saint occurred when she was a child named Delia; she grew up on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, which straddles upstate New York and Canada. “My father would say on some mornings, ‘Let’s go back home.’ By ‘home,’ he meant the Mohawk Valley—Fonda and Auriesville,” she recalled. “He said that even though he had never lived there. The Mohawk people had not lived there for centuries. My father would tell the story of our people when we were there. It was like walking on holy ground.”
As the years passed, she came to love the shrines as much as her father did. “They attracted me,” she explained, and then echoed her father by saying, “It was like going home.”
Eventually, she entered religious life and chose Kateri as her name. When her order later permitted its members to return to their baptismal names, she consulted her parents. “My mother and father said, ‘Keep Kateri.’ It’s a very special name to me. I’m a Kateri more than a Delia.”
The uniqueness of the Kateri sites in upstate New York, she says, is that “they are so beautiful. Nature itself captivates you. People have told me they go there annually because they find a connection with nature and Kateri. It’s very peaceful and sacred. Saint Kateri calls people to deepen their own spiritual lives.”
In 1987, while visiting the United States, Pope John Paul II called Kateri “the best-known witness of Christian holiness among the native people of North America. . . . She always remained . . . a true daughter of her people, following her tribe in the hunting seasons and continuing her devotions in the environment most suited to her way of life, before a rough cross carved by herself in the forest. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the great gift of God’s love, is never in contrast with what is noble and pure in the life of any tribe or nation, since all good things are his gifts.”
Sister Kateri believes that those good gifts include Saint Kateri and the land her people loved, where today’s Catholics can walk in her footsteps.
A Short History of Saint Kateri
When Kateri Tekakwitha was proclaimed Saint Kateri Tekakwitha on October 21, she became the first member of a North American tribe to be declared a saint. “The Lily of the Mohawks,” Kateri was born in 1656 in a village along the Mohawk River called Ossernenon, now known as Auriesville, New York. Her father was a Mohawk chief, her mother a Christian Algonquin raised among the French.
When Kateri was 4, a smallpox epidemic claimed her parents and baby brother. She survived, but her face was disfigured and her vision impaired. She was raised by her anti-Christian uncle, who began to plan her marriage. But after meeting with Catholic priests, Kateri decided to be baptized.
Following her Baptism by a Jesuit missionary in 1676 at age 20, Kateri’s family and village ostracized and ridiculed her. She fled the next year to Canada, taking refuge at St. Francis Xavier Mission in the Mohawk Nation at Caughnawaga on the St. Lawrence River, about 10 miles from Montreal, and made her first Communion on Christmas in 1677.
Kateri astounded the Jesuits with her deep spirituality and her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. She took a private vow of virginity and devoted herself to teaching prayers to the children and helping the sick and elderly of Caughnawaga.
She died in 1680 at age 24. According to eyewitnesses, the scars on her face suddenly disappeared after her death. Soon after, Catholics started to claim that favors and miracles had been obtained through her intercession. Native Americans have made appeals to the Catholic Church for her recognition since at least the late 1800s.
Documentation for Kateri’s sainthood cause was sent to the Vatican in 1932. She was declared venerable in 1942 and in 1980 was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Records for the final miracle needed for her canonization were sent to the Vatican in July 2009. It involved the full recovery of a young boy in Seattle whose face had been disfigured by flesh-eating bacteria and who almost died from the disease. His family, who is part Native American, had prayed for Kateri’s intercession. On December 19, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI signed the decree recognizing the miracle, clearing the way for Kateri’s canonization.
James Breig has written articles for many Catholic publications, including St. Anthony Messenger.
This article first appeared in its October 2012 edition.