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Kateri Tekakwitha: Lily of the Mohawks

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A clash between two cultures can produce life stories that are both fascinating and tragic. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native woman to be beatified by the Roman Catholic Church and known in the Christian community as Lily of the Mohawks, lived a life that was unusual, bumpy, and controversial.

Tekakwitha was born in 1656, according to the publication entitled “100 Native Americans Who Shaped American History. Her mother was an Algonquin captive who had converted to Christianity before Tekakwitha was born, and her father was a Mohawk chief. When the girl was only four, a smallpox epidemic, likely caused by Europeans, killed her parents and little brother. She lost most of her eyesight, and her face became disfigured.

Tekakwitha was adopted by her uncle, a Mohawk leader. While staying with the uncle, the girl encountered Christian missionaries, and her soul became drawn to their religion. At the age of 20, Tekakwitha was baptized. She didn't find love, and vowed to remain a virgin.

The Mohawks didn’t support Tekakwitha’s fervor. They ridiculed her for refusing to work on Sundays and staying unmarried. They were of the opinion that she was trying to avoid the responsibilities of a married woman. Furthermore, she started receiving life threats, and was forced to flee. She traveled by canoe to the Catholic mission at Kahnawake. Tekakwitha wanted to start her own convent, but the priests at the mission didn’t welcome the idea.

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As time went by, Tekakwitha began to subject herself to rigorous trials, in order to mortify her flesh. According to “100 Native Americans”, she “ate very little food, and mixed ashes with the food she ate. Scantily clad, she prayed outside in the middle of the winter. She also slept on a bed of thorns and flogged herself with a whip.” Such behavior alarmed the Jesuits. They were not aware that in the girl’s father’s culture, physical stamina and ability to stoically endure pain was “greatly respected, and Tekakwitha may have been trying to show that she was worthy of this kind of respect.”

Tekakwitha's flesh mortification exercises weakened her health, and she passed away at the age of 24. In 1943, Pope Pius XII declared her venerable, and in 1980 she was beatified by Pope John Paul II.