Died: Apr. 17th, 1680
FEast: July 14th
Patron of: the environment, ecology, American indigenous people, exiles
Kateri was born in the Mohawk village Ossernenon with the name, "Tekakwitha", which means, "she who bumps into things". Her mother was an Algonquin woman who had converted to Christianity after she was taken captive by the Iroquois and before being captured again by the Mohawk. Her father was the chief, and she had an infant brother as well.
An epidemic of smallpox struck the village, however, when she was 4, and she lost both parents and her brother to it. Kateri herself just barely survived, and her face was left scarred by the disease, which also impaired her eyesight and left her with remaining health problems. Kateri and the few other survivors from Ossernenon moved to her uncle's nearby village where he was chief. While there, Kateri learned the skills of making clothing, planting, and cooking from the gathered crops. It was said that she often wore a blue blanket about her head to hide her scars while working.
When Kateri was about 13, the custom was that she would have begun to be pressured to consider marriage, but we see that she must have refused until the time she was about 17 when her relatives began to threaten her over it. They punished her for her lack of interest, causing her to even run away once.
Around this time, however, a recent peace treaty had mandated the presence of Jesuit missionaries in their villages. Many tribes and countries trying to gain land in Canada and the United States fought battles against each other, and terms were established and then dissolved in the interest of peace and trade. Kateri's uncle was not pleased with these terms since his eldest daughter had converted to Christianity herself and left the tribe earlier on, but he was forced to allow them to stay.
These missionaries aided the wounded and dying after battles and used times of peace to try and teach the Mohawk about the Christian faith. They also, unfortunately, demanded that many of the tribes' traditional customs cease, upon pain of the loss of peace treaty terms.
One day while most of the women were out harvesting, Kateri stayed at home due to a foot injury. A Jesuit priest visited the village during this time, and Kateri, finally alone, was able to tell him her story and that she wished to become Christian as well. He was able to teach her all that she knew until she was baptized at age 19, taking the name "Kateri" after St. Catherine.
Kateri's conversion likely caused a disruption and possibly some persecution amongst her relatives and other members of the village. Due to this, she left not long after to go to a Jesuit Mission outside of Montreal. While there, she prayed constantly and befriended a few other women who wished to start a community of religious life with her. The priests, however, denied them this request, stating that they were "too young in faith" despite their fervent prayer. Kateri instead spent time alone in the woods praying, and leaving small wooden crosses among the trees.
Kateri and a few of her friends participated in physical penances, which the priests discouraged, but had been part of Mohawk tradition as well. Because of this and her lifelong poor health, as well as the fact that she worked incredibly hard every day to support the community, Kateri's health began to fail when she was only 23, 2 years after she had entered the Mission.
After she passed away, several people were said to have seen her appear, and she was canonized officially in 2012, despite having a large following since her death.
As patroness of the environment, help us know just how desperate our current situation really is. Give us a fierce defense of our earth in the same way we defend humanity because humanity cannot be without it and God gave it to us to protect, not for us to use carelessly as we are. Give us strength to take individual steps to love and care for it.
Kateri is, in this portrait, doing all she can to protect even one piece of the environment. I wanted Her arms around the animal to show her both protecting and caring for it. Her tattoos are symbolic of other natural elements and of her identity as an indigenous American. She was known to have had smallpox scars on her face, so I made the texture of her skin uneven. Instead of showing her hiding the scars in embarrassment, though, as she was known to do, I wanted to imagine her proud of her strength, resilience, ethnicity, and appearance.