Biographical details are sparse for this Patron Saint of the Environment: daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Christian, Algonquin mother, Kateri was orphaned when her family was wiped out by the smallpox epidemic of 1660, which left her pock-marked and half blind. Adopted by her uncle, she asked for baptism at age 20, and celebrated it in a chapel festively decorated with feathers, ribbons, flowers, and beads. The beauty of nature, which she had always loved, took on new intensity because she knew the creator.
The Mohawks, however, could not accept her conversion and ridiculed her. Eventually she made a long journey on foot to the Sault mission south of Montreal in Canada, where she could live among other Native American Christians. Early French biographers describe her as solid and joyful. She nursed the sick and dying with remarkable cheer, considering that her own health was precarious. Her joy was so contagious that children were drawn to her for storytelling. She showed a key hallmark of holiness: people wanted to be around her. At her burial there was no mourning, only public rejoicing.
At a time when much progress to preserve clean air, water and wilderness is threatened with dismantling, and the recent Supreme Court decision has gutted the Clean Power Plan, we can appreciate how the restrained native American approach might’ve saved the planet. (For more on that topic, see Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.) In desperate, last-ditch circumstances now, we need Kateri’s wisdom, reverence, and sense of the earth’s sacredness.