If you find yourself driving down Route 5 near Fonda, NY you may come across the
National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine. This modest grouping of buildings were named for the 17th century Mohawk Kateri upon her beatification in 1980. Beatification is the second step in the establishment of sainthood, and as such Kateri’s full title is Blessed Kateria Tekakwitha.
Who was this young woman that is honored over 330 years after her death?
Kateri was born near the present site of the shrine in Ossernenon (present day Auriesville) in 1656. When she was just 4 years old she lost her parents and her brother to smallpox. Though she survived the outbreak, it left her face permanently scarred and her vision impaired. Kateri was taken in by her uncle, a Kanienkehaka Chief and moved to a new settlement at age 10. The shrine is built near this settlement, and it is said to represent the only completely excavated Iroquois village.
Despite the fact that Kateri lost her mother, an Algonquin Christian, at such an early age, she retained fond memories of her mother’s prayers. Given that influence, Kateri was very receptive to the appearance of the Jesuit missionary Father de Lamberville. Her uncle reluctantly consented to her pursuit of Christianity but it caused her to become a pariah in her village. Due to the persecution, she left the area to join up with other native Christians at a missionary near Montreal in Canada. The journey there took two months time through the wildnerness but she reached her goal and went on to lead a life of prayer and meditation.
Kateri died at the young age of 24 due to her poor health. It is said that upon her death her face became clear of its scars, and other miracles were said to have happened to those who came to pay their respects. On December 19th, 2011 Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree that accounts for a miracle that will qualify her for sainthood. In 2006 a young boy who suffered from a flesh eating bacterium that scarred his face recovered after his parents prayed to Kateri for help.
Kateri has often been referred to as a patroness of ecology and nature, a fitting role for the first Native American saint.
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