Chicago, Ill., Jul 13, 2023 / 12:00 pm (CNA).
Shrines to various saints can be found in every part of the world, including every state in the U.S. Each one is dedicated to faith and prayer, but one shrine in the northeastern United States also has a distinct mission of connecting pilgrims with Native American culture and sharing the fascinating history of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first American Indian to be canonized a saint.
The Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York, honors not only the life of St. Kateri, whose feast day is July 14, but also the life and history of the local Indigenous people to whom she belonged.
“We have cultivated strong ties to both the Catholic Mohawk community and the traditional Mohawk community,” said Melissa Miscevic Bramble, director of operations at the St. Kateri Shrine, in an interview with CNA. “We see it as our mission to educate about her Mohawk culture as well as her Catholic faith.”
Who was St. Kateri?
Called the Lily of the Mohawks, Kateri Tekakwitha was the child of a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother but was orphaned at age 4 when the rest of her family died of smallpox. Her own early bout with the illness left lasting scars and poor vision.
She went to live with an anti-Christian uncle and aunt, but at age 11 she encountered Jesuit missionaries and recognized their teaching as the beliefs of her beloved mother. Desiring to become a Christian, she began to privately practice Christianity.
Beginning at about age 13, she experienced pressure from her family to marry, but she wanted to give her life to Jesus instead. A priest who knew her recorded her words: “I have deliberated enough. For a long time, my decision on what I will do has been made. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen him for husband, and he alone will take me for wife.”
At last, she was baptized at about age 19, and her baptism made public her beliefs, which had been kept private up until then. The event was the catalyst for her ostracism from her village. Some members of her people believed that her beliefs were sorcery, and she was harassed, stoned, and threatened with torture in her home village.
Tekakwitha fled 200 miles to Kahnawake, a Jesuit mission village for Native Amerian converts to Christianity to live together in community. There, she found her mother’s close friend, Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo, who was a clan matron of a Kahnawake longhouse. Anastasia and other Mohawk women took Kateri under their wings and taught her about Christianity, and she lived there happily for several years until her death around age 23 or 24.
Although she never took formal vows, Tekakwitha is considered a consecrated virgin, and the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins took her as its patron. She is also the patron saint of traditional ecology, Indigenous peoples, and care for creation.
A shrine with a special mission
The Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine and Historic Site has a unique mission of archaeological and historical research related to Kateri Tekakwitha and her people. Welcoming several thousand visitors per year, the shrine ministers not only to Christians but also to all American Indians.
According to its website, the shrine and historic site “promotes healing, encourages environmental stewardship, and facilitates peace for all people by offering the natural, cultural, and spiritual resources at this sacred site.” Describing itself as a sacred place of peace and healing with a Catholic identity, its ministry and site are intended to be ecumenical and welcome people of all faiths.
In keeping with this mission, the shrine’s grounds include an archaeological site, the village of Caughnawaga, which is the only fully excavated Iroquois/Haudenosaunee village in the world. St. Kateri lived in this village, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can also visit the Kateri Spring, where Kateri Tekakwitha was baptized.
“The water from the Kateri Spring is considered holy water by the Catholic Church,” Bramble said. “People are welcome to come take the waters, and we regularly get reports of healing. We’ve sent that water all over North America to folks who have requested it.”
Besides the archaeological site, the main grounds of the shrine include St. Peter’s Chapel, housed in a former Dutch barn built in 1782; museum exhibits of Native American culture and history; St. Maximilian Kolbe Pavilion; a Candle Chapel dedicated to St. Kateri; Grassmann Hall and the Shrine office; a friary; a gift shop; an outdoor sanctuary; and maintenance facilities. The 150-acre property includes hiking trails that are open to the public year-round from sunrise to sunset.
Peace Grove at Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York. Photo courtesy of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine and Historic Site
Outside the Candle Chapel, which is always open for prayer, visitors can participate in a ministry of “Kateri crosses.”
“St. Kateri was known for going into the forest, gathering sticks, binding them into crosses, and then spending hours in prayer in front of crosses she created,” Bramble said. Sticks are gathered from the shrine grounds and visitors are invited to make their own “Kateri crosses” and take them home to use as a prayer aid. Bramble shared that the shrine sends materials for Kateri crosses to those who aren’t able to visit, including recently to a confirmation group.
The feast day weekend
The Saint Kateri Tekakwitha National Shrine has a schedule of special events planned for St. Kateri’s feast day on July 14. Bramble said they anticipate several hundred visitors for the feast day events this year, which include Masses, a healing prayer service, and talks. (A listing of the full schedule can be found here.)
The weekend Masses, which include special blessings and the music of the Akwesasne Mohawk Choir, “incorporate American Indian spiritual practices in keeping with the Catholic Church,” Bramble said. “The Akwesasne Mohawk Choir is made up of descendants of St. Kateri’s community who lived in the area historically.”
Bramble described numerous events each year that partner with the local American Indian community, such as the fun-filled “Three Sisters Festival” in May (celebrating corn, beans, and squash — the “three sisters” that were staples of Native cuisine), healing Masses during Indigenous Peoples’ Week in October, and a recent interfaith prayer service with Mohawk elders.
“There is a reestablished traditional Mohawk community a few miles west of the shrine, and we feel very blessed that we’ve been able to cultivate a very cooperative and mutually respectful relationship with the folks there,” Bramble said.
The Saint Kateri Shrine is also a great place for families. Events often include activities and crafts for children, there is an all-ages scavenger hunt available at the site, and the shrine’s museum is “a phenomenal educational opportunity.”
Bringing together American Indian archaeology and history with the story of St. Kateri, the shrine and its programs shed light on the saint’s story and keep alive the traditions and history of her people.