. By T.V. Antony Raj
Last moments of Kateri Tekakwitha
At the end of 1679, Kateri fell ill. Her afflictions increased day by day. Whenever she was able to leave her cabin, she would go to the chapel and rest on the benches and pray, and when she could support herself she would kneel before the altar.
During the Holy Week of 1680, Tekakwitha’s health was failing overcome by migraine headaches, fever and severe stomach pains accompanied with frequent vomiting.
On Tuesday, April 16, 1680, her friends knew she had, but a few hours left to live. They and the villagers gathered at the longhouse. Kateri was too weak to be moved to the chapel. Father Chauchetière and Cholenec hurried to the longhouse. Father Cholenec gave her Holy Viaticum. Until then, carrying the Blessed Sacrament to a longhouse was unheard of in the village for it was the custom for the sick to be carried on a board of bark to the chapel.
In the morning of Holy Wednesday, April 17, 1680, Kateri’s illness became worse and Father Cholenec administered the last rites – Extreme Unction.
Kateri Tekakwitha died around 3 pm in the arms of her friend Marie-Therèse. Father Chauchetière reports her final words were: “Jesos Konoronkwa” (“Jesus, I love you”).
Death of Kateri Tekakwitha (Source: Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha by Anne E. Neuberger)
After her death, the people noticed a physical change in her. Father Cholenec later wrote:
“Then she had a slight spasm at the right side of her mouth. She died as if she was falling into a light sleep and we were for along time not certain of her death. Sometime before 4 o’clock, her face had suddenly changed and became in a moment so beautiful, smiling and white. Her face had an appearance of a rosy colour, which she never had and her features were not the same. I saw this immediately, because I was praying beside her and cried out for my astonishment. Her face was so scarred with smallpox from the age of four years old, and with her infirmities and mortification contributed to ruin her even more. And before her death she had taken a darken complexion. Her face appeared more beautiful than when she had been living. I will admit openly of the first thought, which came to me that Kateri might have entered into Heaven at this moment. After reflecting back in her chaste body a small ray of glory she had gone to possess.“
The day Kateri died, the villagers passed it with an extraordinary devotion. Kateri’s simple compatriots kissed her hands and passed the evening and stayed the rest of the night near her to admire her face that exuded devotion even though her soul was separated from her.
They placed her body in the coffin with a cross in her hands. They did not cover her face until she was buried because of the pleasure people had looking at her.
Appearances after death
In the weeks after her death Kateri Tekakwitha has been said to have appeared before three persons: Kanahstatsi Tekonwatsenhonko (her mentor), Wari Teres Tegaiaguenta (her spiritual companion) and Father Claude Chauchetière.
Kanahstatsi said that, while crying over the death of her daughter, she looked up to see Catherine “kneeling at the foot” of her mattress, “holding a wooden cross that shone like the sun“.
Wari Teres reported that she was awakened at night by a knocking on her wall, and a voice asked if she were awake, adding, “I’ve come to say goodbye; I’m on my way to heaven.” Immediately, she went outside, but saw no one; then, she heard a voice murmur, “Adieu, Adieu, go tell the father that I’m going to heaven.“
Chauchetière reported seeing Catherine at her grave; he said she appeared in “baroque splendour; for two hours he gazed upon her” and “her face lifted toward heaven as if in ecstasy.“
Tomb of Kateri Tekakwitha (Source: kateritekakwitha.org)
Chauchetière had a chapel built near the site of her grave.
The settlers of New France spoke in whispers that a saint had been living among them. The Jesuits ground her bones to dust and placed it in the newly rebuilt mission chapel to symbolize her presence on earth. By 1684, pilgrims started coming to Kahnawake to honour Kateri Tekakwitha. Miracles were attributed to her intercession.
Kateri’s physical remains such as the crucifix she wore, the utensils she ate with, and even dirt from her grave, were all known to affect cures and were used as holy relics for healing.
Father Chauchetière was convinced that he had been in the presence of holiness. He told settlers in La Prairie to pray to Catherine for intercession with illnesses. He wrote the first of his many biographies of Kateri Tekakwitha in 1695. He was followed in 1696 by the equally prolific Father Pierre Cholenec. Through their writing, the legend of Kateri Tekakwitha, the Miracle Worker of the New World, reached across the sea to France and from there to the Vatican. Even the Jesuits in China and their converts, came to know about Kateri’s fame through Father Chauchetière’s writings. At least 300 books have been published in more than 20 languages on the life of Kateri Tekakwitha based on the accounts written by the two Jesuit priests who knew her.
The Jesuits ground her bones to dust and placed it in the newly rebuilt mission chapel to symbolize her presence on earth. Her physical remains were sometimes used as holy relics for healing.
Because of her singular life of chastity, she is often associated with the lily flower, a traditional symbol of purity among Roman Catholics and one often used for the Virgin Mary. Religious images of Tekakwitha are often decorated with a lily and the cross, with feathers or turtle as cultural accessories. Colloquial terms for Tekakwitha are The Lily of the Mohawks, the Mohawk Maiden, the Pure and Tender Lily, the Flower among True Men, the Lily of Purity and The New Star of the New World.
Kateri Tekakwitha’s tribal neighbors praised Kateri Tekakwitha as “the fairest flower that ever bloomed among the red men.” Now, reverence of Kateri Tekakwitha transcends tribal differences. Indigenous North American Catholics have taken her to heart and identify themselves with her by portraying her in their art, and in their own traditional clothing.
Many consider her virtues as an ecumenical bridge between Mohawk and European cultures.
The Canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha
After her death, Tekakwitha became an honorary yet unofficial patroness of Montreal, Canada, and Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
The process for Tekakwitha’s canonization was initiated by the United States Catholics at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. It was followed by the Canadian Catholics.
On January 3, 1943, Pope Pius XII declared her venerable.
She was beatified as Catherine Tekakwitha on June 22, 1980, by Pope John Paul II.
On December 19, 2011, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints certified a second miracle through her intercession, signed by Pope Benedict XVI, that paved the way for her canonization.
On February 18, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI decreed the canonization of that Tekakwitha. Speaking in Latin, he used the form “Catharina Tekakwitha” while the official booklet of the ceremony referred to her in English and Italian, as “Kateri Tekakwitha”.
Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized on October 21, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. In the official canonization rite booklet, “Catherine” is used in the English and French biographies and “Kateri” in the translation of the rite itself.
Kateri Tekakwitha is the first Native North American saint and the fourth Native American to be venerated in the Roman Catholic Church after Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin – canonized on July 31, 2002, at the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City by Pope John Paul II, and two other Oaxacan Indians.
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