Bernadette Rigal-Cellard

Kateri Tekakwitha and Saint Kateri’s Shrine


1656:  Catherine Tegahkouïta [hereafter Kateri Tekakwitha ] was born in a Mohawk village near present day Auriesville, New York.

1667 or 1668:  St. Francis Xavier Mission was founded by Pierre Raffeix, S. J., in the seigneurie of La Prairie de la Madeleine, or Kentake, on the Eastern bank of the St Lawrence, South of Montreal.

1673:  Led by Jesuits, about forty Christian Mohawks reached the mission coming from Kaghnuwage, on the Mohawk River in the colony of New York.

1676:  Kateri reached the mission that was then moved to Sault Saint Louis. The village was named Coghnawaga (or Caughnawaga).

1680:  Kateri Tekakwitha died.

1680:  The French King granted the Sault Saint Louis seigneurie to the Jesuits for the settlement of the Christianized Iroquois; the Jesuits owned it until 1762 when France lost possession of North America.

1684:  Kateri’s body was removed from the cemetery and brought into the church of Côte Sainte-Catherine.

1716:  The mission, which had moved several times, permanently settled at its present site.

1720:  When the church was built, Kateri’s remains were placed there in a sealed glass box.

1831:  Under the supervision of Fr. Joseph Marcoux and Fr. Félix Martin, S.J., the mission was renovated to include a new sacristy, a new tower and steeple.

1845 (May 19):  Construction began for the current church.

1943:  Kateri was declared Venerable.

1972:  Kateri’s relics were relocated into a tomb in the right transept of the church.

1980:  In 1980, Catherine Tegahkouïta was formally renamed Kateri Tekakwitha. She is also known as Lily of the Mohawks.

1980:  Kateri was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Rome.

1983:  The church was declared Kateri’s Canadian shrine.

2012 (October 21):  Kateri was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.


Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 at Gandaougué, a Mohawk village, near present day Auriesville in New York State. Her father was Iroquois, her mother was Algonquin and had been baptized by the French. When Kateri was four, smallpox killed her mother, father and brother; marked her face forever; and damaged her eyesight. Thereafter, she had to continuously bend forward to

protect herself from all light, and even to wear a blanket over her head. She was adopted by her uncle, and she helped her family with daily chores but liked to remain solitary. When she came of age to be married, she refused all proposals, much to the surprise of her people for whom celibacy and virginity had no value.

At some point, Father Lamberville, S.J., visited her village where he met her. He later said how surprised he had been to encounter such a young person who had so much knowledge of Christianity. Kateri soon asked to be baptized and spent the whole winter studying with other Natives. More rapidly than was the Jesuits’ custom, she was baptized as Catherine on Easter Day in 1676, at the age of twenty.

She later fled with her brother-in-law and a friend to reach the mission on the St. Lawrence. The positive transformations she could see among the neophytes convinced her to dedicate her whole life to Christ. She would work and spend the rest of the day in prayer. She constantly inflicted macerations upon her body. At the end of the week, she reviewed all the sins and imperfections she had committed in order to erase them in the sacrament of penance. She was allowed to take Holy Communion for the first time on Christmas day, whereas neophytes normally had to wait several years for this privilege. Kateri besought her confessor to let her marry Jesus, that is, to become a nun. On the day of Annunciation she pronounced her vows after the Eucharist.

Soon after, her asceticism aggravating her physical frailty, she fell sick. She declined rapidly on Good Tuesday 1680, and the next day at three in the afternoon she entered a gentle agony and passed away at the age of twenty-four. Her confessor reported that her face underwent a transfiguration and that the smallpox scars disappeared altogether (See C hauchetière 1696 and Cholenec 1717 for biographical details of Kateri’s life).

In 1684, Kateri’s body was removed from the cemetery and brought into the church of Côte Sainte-Catherine. Some of her relics subsequently were taken to Mission St. Regis in Akwesasne in 1755 where most were lost. The Tekakwitha Conference holds one of the few remaining relics.

From the day Father Lamberville noted her extraordinary qualities and recommended her to Father Cholenec at the mission until 2011, many worked for the official recognition of her holiness. Her cause was introduced 204 years after her death; it took 127 years to succeed.

On December 6, 1884, the American bishops meeting for their Third Plenary Council in Baltimore sent letters of petition on behalf of the See of Albany to introduce her cause and that of the martyred Jesuits, Isaac Jogues and René Goupil. In 1885, twenty-seven Indian tribes from Canada and the United States followed suit and sent letters of petition. The process was somewhat unusual since the only diocese that can ask for the introduction of a cause is the one where the person died, which in this case was the See of Montreal. Father Molinari, S.J., was her Postulator General in Rome.

The first stage of her canonization was reached in 1943 when she was pronounced Venerable (Positio 1938). Thanks to the new evangelization policy of John-Paul II, who decided to grant saints to all the social and ethnic groups deprived of them, she was beatified in 1980. A first class miracle was expected before the canonization could proceed. In 2006, one finally occurred near Seattle thanks to specific prayers to Blessed Kateri and contact of the terminally ill child with her relic.

The College of Doctors who report to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints found that “in the current state of scientific knowledge” there was no medical explanation for the cure. The theologians concluded that the boy had been healed through miraculous intercession. On December 19, 2011, the Holy Father authorized the promulgation of the decree recognizing the miracle attributed to the intercession of Kateri Tekakwitha. On October 21, 2012, her canonization was celebrated in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI in front of thousands of North American Native Catholics. Since 2012, more visitors have been coming to the shrine which is regarded as a pilgrimage center.


The doctrines and ceremonies at the shrine follow the Roman Catholic canon, with some marks of inculturation. For example, the Our Father is prayed in Mohawk. Because the church itself is ancient, it has not been altered to accommodate more Native cultural elements as can be seen in more recent churches.

Mass is celebrated on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and on Sundays; it is followed by Anointing with Saint Kateri’s oil. Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction are performed the last Sunday of each month. Daily silent prayer at the tomb of St. Kateri is held in the afternoon. Anointing with Saint Kateri’s relic is performed every Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as on Sundays.

On April 14, St. Kateri Feast Day, the celebration includes a procession with the diocese bishop to Saint Kateri’s tomb immediately after mass and veneration of the relic of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Eucharistic adoration and benediction follow in the afternoon.

For the second anniversary of Kateri’s canonization, the shrine organized a candle-light procession with the Statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha around the Church on October 20, 2014. The procession was followed by the testimonies of a person healed by the intercessory prayers to Saint Kateri. The ceremony concluded with the Our Father in the Mohawk language. The exact anniversary, October 21, began with the Eucharistic celebration; Ron Boyer narrated “The life of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.” Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction followed. In the afternoon, the Anointing with Saint Kateri’s relic and Blessed oil was offered, and the day closed on Our Father prayed in Mohawk.

The Prayer to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha is as follows (with permission of the Ordinary of Saint-Jean-Longueuil. August, 2012):

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, our elder sister in the Lord, discreetly, you watch over us;

May your love for Jesus and Mary inspire in us words and deeds of friendship, of forgiveness and of reconciliation.

Pray that God will give us the courage, the boldness and the strength to build a world of justice and peace among ourselves and among all nations.

Help us, as you did, to encounter the Creator God present in the very depths of nature, and so become witnesses of Life.

With you, we praise the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Amen.

Holy founders of the Church in North America. Pray for us.

The Prayer of Thanksgiving for Kateri Tekakwitha is as follows (with permission of the Ordinary of Saint-Jean-Longueuil. August, 2012):

God our Father, Whom Kateri Tekakwitha liked to call the Great Spirit,

We thank you for having given us this young woman as a model of Christian life.

Despite her frailness and her community’s resistance, she bore witness to the presence of Christ.

With her companions, she drew close to the elderly and to the sick.

Every day, she saw in nature a reflection of your own glory and beauty.

Grant that by her intercession we may always be close to you, more sensitive to the needs of those around us, and more respectful of creation. With her, we shall strive to discover what pleases you and endeavour to accomplish it until that day you call us back to you.  Amen!


The mission complex includes the west wing; the rectory; the security vault; the museum and the sacristy; and the small grounds where a cemetery must have been. All of the buildings were constructed with grey Montreal stone. The old bell donated by King William IV of England stands on the left lawn on the street side. The Kateri Center, located in a nearby house, publishes the quarterly Kateri and administers all the activitites at the sanctuary.

The church looks like old French Breton country churches. The inside is a graceful combination of simplicity, with its white walls, and of neo-baroque statues and paintings typical of churches in Quebec.

Kateri is represented in a statue on the main altar by Médard Bourgault (1941) and on the right side of the church in a 1981 statue by Leo Arbour, placed behind her tomb. She is also portrayed in a stained glass window above it. Another statue, painted red, adorns a niche in the outside walls above the date of construction, 1845. Her rectangular white Carrara marble tomb bears the inscription: “Kaiatanoron Kateri Tekakwitha, 1656-1680”. Kaiatanoron means “blessed, precious and dear.”

In the passage way to the museum, left of the altar, one finds an intriguing sculpture that evokes the specialty of Mohawk men as sky scraper construction workers and binds the sanctuary to the recent history of North America: it is a replica of the Twin Towers made by Donald Angus with the molten steel he extracted from the ruins of 9/11 when he helped the firemen recover bodies. He had been part of the Mohawk team that had built the towers and he wanted the victims to be remembered in this sanctuary (personal research information). Among various artifacts, the museum displays the earliest known oil painting (1690) of Kateri by Father Claude Chauchetiere S. J., her spiritual director.

The mission is located on the Mohawk or Kanien’kehá:ka reservation of Kahnawake (8,000 people) that lies on 48 km 2 on the Eastern bank of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, South West of Montreal, at the level of the Lachine rapids. The St. Lawrence Seaway passes right behind the sanctuary.

The mission complex belongs to the Diocese of Saint-Jean-Longueuil. It was run by Jesuit fathers for a large part of its history. In 1783, following the suppression of their Society (1773), they stopped operating it and were replaced by Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Jesuits returned in 1903, and the Sisters of St-Ann came to help in 1915. In 2003, though they were intimately bonded to Kateri’s cause, the Jesuits stopped operating the shrine because they were unable to staff it adequately. Father Alvaro Salazar from Guatemala was appointed parish priest. In 2013, he was replaced by Fr. Vincent Esprit, F.M.I. (Fils de Marie Immaculée). The priests are helped by Deacon Ron Boyer (Ojibway), who also acted as Vice Postulator of Kateri’s cause between 2007 and 2011.

Since Kateri Tekekawitha is a bi-national saint, she is remembered also in two shrines within the United States: Fonda, New York, where she was baptized, and also at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York.


St. Francis Xavier Mission can be seen as a tiny Catholic island in a sea of traditionalist and Protestant Mohawks. In the early decades of conquest, being the allies of the British, the Iroquois were mostly evangelized by Protestant missionaries, and when New France became part of the British Empire, many Catholic Mohawks joined various Protestant denominations. This trend is also visible in their speaking English even though the reservation is located within French speaking Quebec. When in conflict with the Quebec authorities and police forces, they make a point of not speaking French as a sign of resistance (as occurred during the Oka Crisis that in 1990 involved Kahnawake and the Mercier Bridge that straddles part of it). Even if everything in the shrine is bilingual, it is connected historically to the French period of colonization and may have suffered from this.

Furthermore, in Kahnawake, as in other Indigenous lands, many people practice only their traditional tribal ceremonies. The Long Houses where Iroquois rituals are performed are numerous on the reservation. Thus, the number of regular worshipers at St. Francis church had decreased over the years (in fact with the same ratio as within the Catholic churches in the whole of Quebec). Now, with the crowning of Kateri’s cause, the number of visitors and of worshippers is increasing. This improvement in the life of the mission is attested in the better health of the finances as well.

Apart from Kahnawake and Akwesasne, the nearby Mohawk reservation, and from some indigenous parishes across Canada, before the 1990s, Kateri was far less known in Canada than in the U.S. In the U.S., a very active organization (the Tekakwitha Conference, directed since 1998 by a Mohawk sister from Akwesasne, Sister Kateri Mitchell, S.S.A.) has promoted her cause and networked American Native Catholics for decades.


Chauchetière , Claude. 1887. Vie de la Bienheureuse Catherine Tegakouïta dite à présent la saincte Iroquoise (1696). Manhattan: Cramoisy Press of John Gilmary Shea.

Cholenec, Pierre. 1717. La vie de Catherine Tegakouïta Première Vierge Iroquoise . Manuscrit conservé par les Hospitalières de Saint Augustin à Québec. Lettre publiée dans Lettres édifiantes et curieuses écrites des missions étrangères. Paris.

Positio. 1938. Romae : Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis. 1940: Universitatis Gregorianae. Shortened English version: 1940 : The Positio of the Historical Section of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on the Introduction of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization and on the Virtues of the Servant of God, Katharine Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks. Being the Original Document First Published at the Vatican Polyglot Press Now Done Into English and Presented for the Edification of the Faithful. New York: Fordham University Press.

Rigal-Cellard. Bernadette. 2010. “Native American Religion: Roman Catholicism.” Pp. 2041-44 in Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices. 6 vols., edited by J. Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.


Greer, Allan. 2005. Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. New York: Oxford University Press.

Greer, Allan and Jodi Bilinkoff, eds. 2003. Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas. New York: Routledge.

Holmes, Paula Elizabeth. 2000.  Symbol Tales: Paths Towards the Creation of a Saint. PhD dissertation. Hamilton, Ontario: Université MacMaster.

Post Date:
2 December 2014