The shrine for Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks,” has been a part of the Nazareth landscape since July 19, 1941 – but not always in the same spot.
The first home for the shrine was located at the end of the Rose Arbor. In her records of the campus, S. Emiliana Murray states: “The shrine was made possible by the donations of friends of Rev. Father Dignan of Hyde Park, MA. The beautiful colored 4.5 ft. statue arrived on the noon train on July 19, 1941. Our men, knowing how we wanted her in place while the Retreatants were here, had the Lily of the Mohawks on her pedestal ready to greet us at 1:00 p.m.”
The original shrine consisted of a concrete stucco Wigwam and low pedestal, a walk around the stone wall, and a swinging bridge consisting of oak boards over cables. Sometime in the early 1960s the statue was moved to a wooded area behind Russell Hall, but the wigwam was discarded because it could no longer be repaired. In the 1970s, Kateri was relocated to the present location along Nazareth Drive.
The Story of “The Lily of the Mohawks”
The Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks, is the patron of the environment, people in exile, people ridiculed for their religious beliefs, orphans, and of World Youth Day. In Canada, the Feast of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is celebrated on April 17, the anniversary of her death. In the United States, it is commemorated on July 14.
Kateri was born in 1656 in Ossernenon, a Mohawk village located near present day Auriesville, New York. Her father was a Mohawk chief; her mother an Algonquin woman who had been captured by the Mohawk. While her father hadn’t converted to Christianity, her mother had, and she taught her daughter to pray in the Christian way. When Kateri was only four, the community was ravaged by smallpox and she was the only member of her family to survive. Historical documents report that Kateri was left weakened and covered in NCS scars from the disease, which also had affected her eyesight. For this reason, she was given the name, Tekakwitha, which means “she who stumbles into things.”
Kateri was born at a time and place where living as a Christian was difficult. Many Mohawks distrusted the Jesuit missionaries who came among them, blaming them for bringing the sickness that spread through their communities. When French missionaries visited the village, Kateri’s uncle was their reluctant host. It was during that visit that Kateri chose the path she would follow. Soon after the visit, Jesuit missionary Father Jacques de Lamberville arrived to set up a permanent mission and, although her uncle had forbidden her to speak to the missionaries, an opportunity soon presented itself and Kateri told de Lamberville of her desire to be a Christian. Kateri converted to Christianity in 1676 and was baptized on Easter Sunday. She was given the Christian name Katherine.
Kateri spent as much time as she could in the chapel, spending almost the entire day there on Sundays and holy days. The fact that she so openly embraced Christianity did not please Kateri’s family or other members of the community. People would throw rocks at her as she made her way to chapel, calling her “the Christian.” And because she refused to do any work on Sundays, keeping the Sabbath holy according to Christian practices, on that day her aunts would give her no food. One day, while Kateri was alone in the longhouse, a young man from the community, angry with her because of her beliefs, burst in and threatened to kill her if she did not renounce her religion. As he stood over her, war club in hand, she calmly told him he could take her life, but not her faith. Then she lowered her head and waited for the blow. Her calm and conviction shook the attacker and he fled without harming her.
Kateri spent much of her time caring for the sick and elderly among her people, and those around her were touched and inspired by her goodness and devotion. But Kateri herself felt the need to do penance for her weakness and her sins, and this penance was often painful for the young girl. Not allowing herself even simple comforts, she would mix ashes into her food, and once slept on a bed covered in thorns. At one point she branded herself with hot coals, offering up her suffering to God.
In 1679, Kateri visited a convent in nearby Ville-Marie (now Montreal) and was so impressed with the way the nuns lived their lives that on her return to Caughnawaga she asked to set up her own convent. Her request was refused, but still she chose to take the vow of chastity, which she did on March 25, becoming the first Native American woman to do so. In the winter of 1679, Kateri’s poor health began to worsen. She began suffering from headaches and stomach pains, and her strength dwindled. For months she was unable to move from her bed. And then, on April 17, 1680, she received communion for the last time, whispered to those around her that she would remember them in heaven, professed her love to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and slipped away.
It is said that 15 minutes after her death, the smallpox scars that had marked Kateri for most of her life disappeared completely, replaced by a radiant beauty. Those who witnessed this event believed it was a sign that she was truly special, and felt the transformation occurred at the moment Kateri saw God. Many people reported seeing visions of Kateri appear to them after her death, and in the years following, many miracles were attributed to her, with gravely ill people being cured by touching the cross she had held on her deathbed or when given powder that had come from her tomb. Even today, people have claimed miraculous recoveries after praying to Kateri.