On July 14, my daughter Lilly will get to choose what we have for dinner, and we will be sure to have dessert with our evening meal. That is because July 14 is her feast day, or rather, the feast day of her namesake, St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Lilly was named after St. Kateri, who is known as the “Lily of the Mohawks.” As you may have guessed, I too was named after St. Kateri.
Growing up, my family often had outings in the woods at my father’s alma mater, St. John’s University. On the trail, there is a statue of St. Kateri that one my parents often saw during their walks in those woods before they were married. I often joke that I was named after a statue — but fortunately, the statue was named after a beautiful woman of God. Ever since those childhood walks, that statue, but more importantly the beautiful woman it depicts, has been very important to me. So much so that we felt called to name our first-born daughter after her as well.
If you are not familiar with St. Kateri, I encourage you to look her up. She is a Native American saint who lived in the mid-1600s. When Kateri was only four, her family died of smallpox; the disease left Kateri’s face disfigured and her eyesight impaired. She was taken in by her uncle, who was very opposed to Christianity. Yet, Kateri found ways to persevere in holiness. Despite living 300 years before I was named after her statue, St. Kateri has so much to teach me and my family today.
St. Kateri was, I believe, who Pope Francis continues to call each of us to be — a missionary disciple. A model follower of Jesus, Kateri never abandoned what she believed Jesus was calling her to, despite opposition by many in her community. Although her family tried to insist she marry, she stayed true to her vocation of single life and dedication to God. St. Kateri, help us stay true in our discipleship and never fear the vocations Christ is calling us to.
A model missionary as well, Kateri desired to bring Jesus to everyone she met. Her love for Christ was so evident that many historians believe her uncle eventually relented and supported her baptism. Though still facing opposition by others to her conversion, Kateri spent her remaining years bringing her native way of life and her Christian faith together. This inculturation showed both the village and the missionaries who catechized her that Christ has a welcome place for all peoples and cultures. St. Kateri, help us recognize the beauty of diversity and create space for differences within our families and communities.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of Kateri’s life is that she was in mission to her own people. In a growingly divided world, and even divided families, it is often more difficult to challenge and change hearts when it is with those who are closest to us. How much easier is it in our society today to disregard, discount and “un-friend” than to remain in the hard work of dialogue? St. Kateri, help us find the courage to speak the truth to those around us, and the greater courage still to listen.
Not only did Kateri have a heart for all people, but for all of creation as well. She is often depicted with animals around her or seen in nature. She knew the beauty and interconnectedness of all that God has made, and recognized that our earth would never know true peace until we all see this connection. She is known for her gentleness and kindness. Yes, truly St. Kateri was a woman of God and example for all the Church today. And, as the first Native American saint, she is a hero and witness for Indigenous, people of color and marginalized members of the Church. St. Kateri, help us find ways to seek connection and peace with all we see, and to uphold those who often go unseen or unheard.
In naming our daughter after St. Kateri, it has been our prayer that Lilly, too, will look to this witness of holiness. Because of St. Kateri’s impaired vision when she was young, she was named “Tekakwitha,” which means “she who bumps into things.” I want my daughter to know that despite any mistakes she makes, or bumps in her life, she can still be beautiful, strong and holy. At the same time, I want her to seek encounters, to discover new things, and not be afraid to bump up against tough challenges in her life. St. Kateri, help us to see how the many ways in which we bump up against things in our life can shape us into someone holy and wonderful.
St. Kateri’s life, her discipleship and her love of all God’s people and creation, have much to teach all of us. They are the ideals that I strive for, what I desire for my family to be, and who I want Lilly to be. With the strong saintly witness of her namesake, I believe she will be. If I guess right, our family will be having mac’n’cheese for supper on July 14. Mac’n’cheese and an evening of celebrating a beautiful, strong woman of God placed on this earth to change it for the better — not only for herself, but for all the earth. St. Kateri, help us to be able to say this of each one of us.
Kateri Mancini is the director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud.