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  • Patty Breen

Daughter of the Mohawk People, what have you to teach me?

The older I get, the more deeply I am convinced how little I actually know. As I encounter people whose life experience and perspectives are different from my own, I am reminded the only thing I am an expert in is the story and life of Patty Breen.


This disposition of humility is continually a reminder of how I want to approach other people and the world around me: what do you have to teach me?


I find myself asking this question as we honor the sacred life and story of a woman quite different than I - St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first canonized Indigenous woman of North America.


She is popularly known as the patroness saint of the First Nations Peoples and ecology. Kateri was born in 1656 to a Mohawk chief and a Christian Algonquin mother at the Kanienkehaka (“Nohawk”) village of Ossernenon, which is near the present-day Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York.


A four years old, a smallpox outbreak ravaged her village leaving her an orphan when her parents and brother died. Left permanently scarred by her illness, her vision greatly suffered as well. Her Mohawk given name, Tekakwitha, which means “she who bumps into things,” is likely in reference to her poor eyesight. She would often cover her head with a blanket because the bright sun would bother her eyes, and would often feel her way around when she walked.


Little Kateri was adopted by her paternal aunt whose husband was a prominent figure in the Turtle Clan of the Mohawk nation. After the outbreak subsided, her family established a new settlement called Caughnawaga, some five miles away on the north bank of the Mohawk River, in the area of the present-day Saint Kateri National Shrine and Historic Site in Fonda, New York.


In many ways, Kateri’s life mirrored that of other young Indigenous girls. Her days were filled with chores, helping her aunts work in the fields, care for their longhouse, and picking roots in the forest to prepare medicines and dyes. Despite her poor vision, Kateri was quite skilled in beadwork.


When Kateri was eighteen years old, Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary, came to her village and established a chapel. She was fascinated about the stories of Jesus, and eventually wanted to be baptized and become a Christian. On the morning of Easter Sunday in 1676, twenty year old Kateri was baptized.


However, not everyone in Kateri’s village accepted her decision to follow Jesus. SHe quickly became a village outcast and was bullied, especially when she refused marriage. Other children would often taunt her and throw stones at her. Due to increasing hostility, she left her village and traveled to a Catholic mission 200 miles away where she experienced a loving community with other Indigenous Catholics.


She died young at the age of 24 on April 17, 1860.


As we honor the sacred story of St. Kateri, I invite us all to sit with this question: what do you have to teach me?


What does this Indigenous girl with childlike faith have to teach women living in 2022?


The importance of nurturing a sacred connection to Creation, the world around us, and how to care for it.

Recognizing our need for Jesus, that he is okay when we are needy with him as his little children.

Living the Gospel in our daily lives will be costly and will cost each of us something.


Our answers will be varied and many.


Whatever the Spirit speaks to your heart, remember there is no one perfect or particular way to live the Gospel and follow Jesus.


Our sister Kateri reminds us of this.






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