Painting of Kateri Tekakwitha painted by Jesuit Father Chauchetière between 1682 and 1693
The Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the daughter of a Mohawk warrior and an Algonquin woman who had embraced Christianity, was born in 1656 in the Mohawk fortress of Ossernenon in modern-day New York. A smallpox epidemic tore through her village when Kateri was 4, leaving her with unsightly scars and poor eyesight. The outbreak took the lives of her brother and both her parents.
Thetradition holds that in 1676 Kateri was converted and baptized Catholic by Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary. She was chastised by her relatives and shunned by the tribe because of her faith, but she suffered all with patience and humility, according to the legend.
In 1677 Kateri fled to Quebec, seeking asylum at the mission of St. Francis Xavier du Sault. Kateri and other converts engaged in acts of mortification including severe fasts and self-flagellation.
After her death Kateri's pock marks supposedly vanished, and Jesuit records indicate that she appeared to two different individuals in the weeks following her death.
The process of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha began in 1884 during the papacy of Pope Leo XIII. She was declared Venerable by Pope Pius XII on January 3, 1943, and beatified June 22, 1980 by Pope John Paul II. She is properly referred to as "Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha" within the Roman Catholic Church today. Tekakwitha was the first Native American to be beatified.
The debate of her canonization dates back to the seventeenth century, centering on a biography of Tekakwitha composed by Jesuit missionary Father Pierre Cholenec. While the details of her life continue to be debated, there can be no doubt about the enormous following this woman has inspired. Tekakwitha - later called "Lily of the Mohawks" - is held in high esteem by Catholics, Native Americans, and environmental activists.
The Jesuits and the French may have had ulterior motives for generating the extraordinary account of Kateri Tekakwitha. A Native American individual of saintly repute would help legitimize missionary aspirations; such a person could inspire other conversions and strengthen the faith of those already in the fold. In a more political sense, the veneration of Kateri would demonstrate at least the illusion of equality between the French and indigenous peoples. This could also counter the perception that it was necessary to have a European pedigree as a prerequisite to hierarchical ascension within the Church.
The Jesuits claimed that Kateri's smallpox-scarred face was suddenly freed from its diseased ugliness on her deathbed; the last moments of her life allegedly showed a countenance that had been changed to a soft, radiant beauty, free from disfigurations. While some Catholics may accept this type of manifestation on faith alone, it should be pointed out that the Jesuits stood to benefit from the creation of such a miraculous myth as a means of validating Kateri as a holy woman.
Ultimately, though, the decision to accept the miracles described by Jesuit missionaries comes down to faith.