Lily of the Mohawks

May 28 2012 | by

AS I BEGAN to write this article an announcement was made from Rome and the Holy Father that Blessed Kateri was to be canonized on October 21, 2012. She will now be known in our Catholic world as St Kateri Tekakwitha. I now have the privilege of completing this work with our new saint.

At the time of the announcement the Pope also created several new Cardinals. Their first official act in their new role was to join with their peers in giving Benedict their opinion in writing on the canonization of seven new saints. Bl Kateri was among these chosen. Cardinal Thomas C. Collins of Toronto, Ontario, is quoted as saying, “I am delighted that my first action as a cardinal was to join with the College of Cardinals in affirming the canonization of Bl Kateri Tekakwitha who has been such an inspiration for the people of our First Nations and so many others in Canada and the United States”.


A Mohawk woman


Fonda, New York, USA, is a small town situated about 50 minutes outside the capital city of Albany, NY, off interstate 90 at exit 28. You have to drive there for there is no airport or boat and the train that passes by does not stop in Fonda. It has been rumoured that the town’s name is related to Jane and Henry Fonda of film fame.

There is special feature in the area, a shrine, that is dedicated to a young Indian woman: Kateri Tekakwitha. She was born in 1656, the daughter of a Mohawk chieftain.

When Kateri was 4 her mother died of smallpox, which also attacked her, transfiguring her face and impairing her eyesight. She was subsequently unable to differentiate objects and people and so stumbled into them from time to time. The name Tekakwitha attests to this stumbling condition.

Kateri was adopted by her two aunts and an uncle, and converted as a teenager. At the age of 20 she was baptised into the Catholic faith on the spot where a chapel in her honour now exists within the premises of the shrine.

Out of the reality of Kateri’s simple and loving life as a Christian, pilgrims have begun seeing the shrine and its sacred ground as a place of peace and holistic healing. It is a quiet place in the midst of farms, wood lands and a sparkling creek known as the Cayadutta. People visit from all over the USA, Canada, and even as far away as Australia. They make pilgrimages to this place to discover how St. Kateri can inspire them in their search for holiness and a closer relationship with Jesus. Many visit the 230 year old chapel and museum, spend a few dollars in the gift shop and then trek up the hill to the original village, an archaeological dig, where Kateri lived most of her 24 years. A short stop at the spring situated next to the ‘dig’ helps you recall the water source for the Mohawks. This same water that was used to initiate Kateri into the Christian faith.




Kateri was born across the river at a place called Ossernenon. This location is associated with the Martyrs’ Shrine commemorating the Jesuit missionaries who lost their lives bringing the message of the Gospel to the Mohawk nation.

When smallpox struck the small village of natives they were perplexed as to why they were infected. Some thought that it was the result of an evil spirit and so without full knowledge and cause of the illness they burnt the village and moved to another site. The place they finally chose was across the Mohawk river to the north. There on a rise they built another ‘castle’ which was a small enclosure surrounded by stakes to protect the occupants from invasion and keep out wild animals. This village was called Caughnawaga. Although the site is no longer a village the staked outline of the original group of longhouses attests to its early life when Kateri was a girl. The site was discovered in 1939 by a Franciscan Friar, Thomas Grassmann, OFM Conv. He and a dedicated group of seminary students and amateur archaeologists spent many summers sifting through the sand and early remnants of a living community. The New York Archaeological Society has declared this site to be authentic and worth preserving. It is available for anyone to visit and visualize the living conditions of the Mohawk people some 355 years ago.


Vocation to chastity


Kateri, pronounced ‘Gah-deh-lee’ in her native Mohawk tongue, was a member of this village and took her place with the other women cooking, making clothes and providing the other members of the settlement with needed care. As all Mohawk women of her time she was promised to a young man and was to marry. This was to be a kind of turning point for her adulthood and her membership in the community, but she discovered with the teaching of a Jesuit missionary another lover, Jesus Christ. As she uncovered the deep and abiding love that she had in her heart for Jesus she found it more burdensome to live in the enclosure with the traditionalists who did not want the Christian religion to replace their longhouse beliefs. She was astounded by the love that Jesus had for her and for all humankind. She began to appreciate how holiness consisted in entering into a relationship with this Jesus. Her whole life began to take on a unique aura and like the holy men and women before and after her, stepped out of an expected reality and entered a world of inner peace and delight.

After some time Kateri was lovingly coached by her Catholic aunt to leave the village of Caughnawaga and go to live in an all Christian village farther North. This place, called Kahnawake, is the present reservation of Mohawks living in Canada south of Montreal on the St. Lawrence river. She followed this spiritual insight and was gifted with a discovery of Jesus that inflamed her heart to an even great depth. She enjoyed a few years of peace and comfort in this new place as she prepared for her final embrace with her lover. She died in 1680 and was buried in her new Christian home. This village of Kahnawake still flourishes today and its spiritual leader, Deacon Ron Boyer, is the keeper of the cause for St Kateri, whose relics remain at this site where she is honoured today.


A national shrine


The Shrine of St. Kateri here in Fonda is known as the ‘National Shrine of St. Kateri’. It celebrates the various nations of North American indigenous people who have come together to honour their unique tradition and culture in the midst of the various cultures that comprise North America. The indigenous people claim neither the USA or Canada as their true home, but rather the land on which they live as their real inheritance of sacred space. The Shrine attempts to honour this tradition and invites the Natives to feel at home and at peace here. They honour St Kateri as their sister and take pride in her love of Jesus and of them. The Shrine also invites other cultures and peoples to pilgrimage and participate in the good of this holy woman.

The Shrine in Fonda is open from May 1 until the end of October, when the weather gets too cold for visiting. All are welcome to enjoy the peace and serenity of this sacred ground and spend some time in prayer and devotion to St. Kateri. We gather for the celebration of the Eucharist on the weekends and several times throughout the open season the First Nations people gather for a council meeting, some traditional ceremony and the celebration of the Mass. We celebrate well together for there is a deep abiding acceptance and honouring of all peoples here.

In the October issue of this magazine I will invite you all to a virtual visit of the shrine with more pictures and greater detail of all the various attractions. I will include some traditional native practices, and highlight our Spirit and how we honour our Saint to be.





The event which has secured Kateri’s canonisation occurred in 2006 when Jake Finkbonner, a 6-year-old boy, cut his lip during a basketball game in Washington state.

Overnight, Jake’s face swelled up and he developed a high fever. Doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital said a flesh-eating bacterium called Strep A was attacking the boy’s face. Over the next few weeks, it destroyed his lips, cheeks and forehead. Doctors told the family the boy was going to die.

The family’s priest asked his congregation to pray to Kateri on Jake’s behalf. The priest chose Kateri because of her facial scars and Indian heritage – Jake is half Lummi Indian.

The prayers started coming in from around the world, and a representative from the Society of the Blessed Kateri went to the hospital and placed a pendant of Kateri on the boy’s pillow. The next day, the infection stopped progressing and Jake recovered.

Investigators from the Vatican researched the incident for three years, and on December 19, 2011, Pope Benedict approved it as a miracle attributed to Blessed Kateri’s intervention.

Updated on October 06 2016