Q. This week we celebrate the Memorial of St. Kateri Tekakwitha (Tuesday, July 14), “the Lily of the Mohawks.” Why did she receive that title, and why is she often depicted with turtles?
A. St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680) was a Native American (Algonquin-Mohawk) convert. She was born in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon in the area that is now upstate New York, where two Jesuit priests, St. Isaac Jogues and St. John de Lalande, had suffered martyrdom ten years before. She was orphaned as a child when both her parents and her brother died in a smallpox epidemic, and she herself was left with impaired eyesight and a disfigured face. She was baptized Catholic at age 19 under the guidance of a Jesuit priest-missionary in 1676.
Kateri was soon abused and ostracized by her relatives and neighbors because of her new faith. Fearing for her life, she escaped from her village and walked some 200 miles through the wilderness to the native Christian village of Sault Ste. Marie near Montreal, Canada, in 1677. In Christmas of that year, she made her First Communion, lived a life of great holiness and austerity, and took a vow of perpetual virginity in 1679, dedicating her life to Our Lord. She died at the age of 24 in Caughnawaga, Canada, the following year. Many miracles were attributed to her intercession; she was beatified in 1980 by Pope St. John Paul II and declared a saint in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
St. Kateri is sometimes depicted as holding a cross because she had a pious habit of leaving small crosses throughout the woods. The lily is an ancient symbol of purity; “The Lily of the Mohawks” was given that name as the first consecrated virgin among her people. The turtles sometimes depicted with her recall that her father was chief of the Mohawk Turtle Clan.