A painting of Kateri by Jesuit Father Claude Chauchetiere, who was one of two Jesuits who witnessed Kateri’s death, hangs at the St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, Que. Photo by Carolyn Girard

St. Kateri Tekakwitha: a life of faith

  • October 20, 2012

Twice a refugee. Twice an orphan. An outsider among her own people. Kateri Tekakwitha lived in a time of war, famine, disease and turmoil. She was baptized at 20 and dead at 24 but lived such an extraordinary life of faith, courage and hope that the Church has now invested its hope in her, declaring her the first North American aboriginal saint, patron of ecology and ecologists, of exiles and youth.

St. Peter’s Square will look very different when Pope Benedict XVI declares Blessed Kateri a saint Oct. 21. Hundreds of native North Americans in traditional beads, feathers and blankets, carrying drums and wampum belts, will fill the heart of the Vatican. In the often painful history of the Church’s relationship with the original people of this country, there’s never been a moment quite like this.

“it’s very affirming and definitely gives us a whole new perspective on our sense of belonging in the Church,” said Sr. Kateri Mitchell, executive director of the Kateri Conference National Centre in Great Falls, Montana.

There will be all kinds of attempts to claim Kateri. Canadians will claim her as a native Canadian who lived and died in New France.

“This will be a great day for Canadian Catholics and a deep honour for our country,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper when plans to make the Lily of the Mohawks a saint were announced in February.

The Jesuits also have a legitimate claim, having begun their efforts to have Kateri declared a saint more than 100 years ago.

“The Jesuits consider her one of theirs,” said Jesuit archivist Fr. Jacques Monet.

It was two 17th-century Jesuits, Fr. Pierre Colonec and Fr. Claude Chauchetiere, who wrote the first biographies of Kateri. Chauchetiere painted a portrait of her a few years after her death. It was the Jesuits who sheltered her at their mission in Sault Ste. Louis in 1677.

Though she is the Lily of the Mohawks, “It’s not going to be just the Mohawks there (at the canonization),” said Ojibway elder Rosella Kinoshameg a week before she was to fly to Rome with a delegation of mostly Mohawk followers of Kateri. Kinoshameg is a member of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council, the official liaison between Canada’s Catholic bishops and aboriginal Catholics.

There are native people from across North America who identify with Kateri.

“She was born in 1656, died in 1680,” said Mitchell. “There wereno countries, no boundaries at that time. We had our own Turtle Island, which is North America. I just consider her a North American indigenous person.”

But once a saint, Kateri is a saint for the entire Church and an example to the whole world.

“It is a recognition by the Catholic Church of the holiness that exists among the native peoples,” said Monet.

There have been at least 300 books published about the life of Kateri, but few take seriously the historical and cultural circumstances of her life in the middle of the 17th century. A second look at Kateri leads to the conclusion that her fervent, mystical embrace of Christ was never a rejection of traditional Mohawk beliefs but rather a fulfilment of them, writes Mohawk historian Darren Bonaparte.

The tragic results of colonization struck Kateri early in her life. The European smallpox virus raged through her community the winter of 1661-1662. It killed her parents and her baby brother, and left her nearly blind with extreme sensitivity to light.

Kateri was born into wars that raged for control of the fur trade. Her Turtle Clan Algonquin mother, Tagascouita, had been captured in a Mohawk raid on Trois-Rivieres in then New France. By this process Tagascouita became Mohawk and was married to a Kenneronkwa, a war chief. She was born in Ossernenon, a village of the Iroquois Confederacy more than 360 kilometres south of Montreal in modern day New York State.

In the aftermath of the smallpox epidemic, Kateri was adopted by her maternal uncle, a chief of the Turtle Clan.
When she was 10 years old the French army launched an expedition into Mohawk territory to put a stop to Mohawk raids against the Huron, who were allies and trading partners with the French. The Mohawks were selling their furs into the Dutch network of trading posts around modern-day Albany and Schenectady, New York. It took the French a couple of tries, but they eventually looted and burned the village where Kateri was living at the time, Kahnawake or “At the Rapids.”

The French victory opened the door for Jesuit missionaries to move into Mohawk villages. The Jesuits learned the Mohawk language and were careful to ensure converts truly embraced the faith of their free will. Most converts were not baptized until near the end of their lives.

The new religion was splitting Mohawk villages. Kateri was in the middle of the split. Her father opposed the French and their religion. Another chief, Kryn the Great Mohawk, took more than 40 people with him to the Christian village of Kahentake near Montreal in 1673, including Kateri’s older sister.

Her adopted father forbade Kateri from going near the missionaries in an attempt to keep what was left of his family and his village together. But the girl knew her mother had been Christian and contact with the Jesuits became almost inevitable. Stuck in the village one day in 1675 with an injury, unable to work the land with the other women, Kateri ran into Fr. Jacques de Lamberville — a new missionary still trying to learn a very foreign language.

Lamberville baptized her with the name Catherine, after Catherine of Siena, Easter Sunday, 1676.

Meanwhile Kateri’s adoptive parents had been arranging a marriage for her. Marriage was the first and most important obligation of every Mohawk girl to her community. Kateri’s refusal to marry could have only shamed her uncle. Her Jesuit biographers report that the entire village turned against young Kateri.

In 1677 Kateri’s sister sent her husband into the Mohawk Valley. At 20 Kateri was off on a perilous journey with her brother-in-law through Lake Champlain and eventually back to the Christian village of Sault Ste. Louis on the shore of the St. Lawrence River.

In her new village, Kateri formed a close bond with an older woman named Kanahstatsi Tekonwatsenhonko, who became like another mother to her. Kateri also made friends with a young widow named Wari Teres Tekaienkwenhtha.

Kanahstatsi and Kateri’s older sister in Sault Ste. Louis began to pressure Kateri to marry, but the younger woman was fascinated by the life and witness of French nuns. The Jesuits argued native converts were too young in the faith to join an order of nuns. Denied that possibility, in 1679, on the Feast of Annunciation, Kateri made a personal vow of perpetual virginity.

Kateri and her friend Wari Teres became central figures in a movement of young women who took up extreme penitential practices in imitation of the Jesuits. Mostly symbolic self-flagellation was a normal practice among Jesuits of the time. The young women took it to extremes, and none more extreme than Kateri.

Kateri was frail, malnourished and tiny. The penitential practices likely took their toll. On Holy Thursday, April 17, 1680, her dying words were, “I love you, Jesus.”

“Then her face suddenly changed,” wrote the Jesuit missionary Cholenec. “It appeared to be smiling and devout and everyone was extremely astonished. We were all admiring her face and we could not have tired ourselves of looking at her.”

The scars that had marked her since her brush with smallpox seemed to disappear.

For many native people, the Holy Father’s declaration of sainthood for Kateri will only bring Rome up to date. Devotion to her has been building for generations among native North Americans who have long thought of her as their saint.

The native-focussed parish in Thunder Bay, Ont., is called Kitchitwa Kateri. Kitchitwa is the Ojibwa word for holy, blessed or sacred. Since there’s no separate word for saint, the parish will continue to be called Kitchitwa Kateri after her canonization, said Jesuit Father Larry Kroker.

Kinoshameg remembers praying for Kateri’s canonization as a school girl in the 1960s. As a young woman she attended Kateri prayer weekends and over the years she’s been to several Tekakwitha conferences in the United States and Canada. For as long as she can remember, Kateri has been part of Catholic native spirituality.

Though many native parishes seem to be dominated by elders, Kinoshameg believes devotion to Kateri will continue among those under the age of 25.

“I would hope young people would see that here is a young woman who has to be strong and be brave — really brave with all this turmoil going around,” she said.

The story of Kateri gives an example of perseverance that can only help young native people, said Kinoshameg.

“(Kateri) has a significant role to play in the future of the Catholic native Church insofar as she’s young,” said Jesuit Father David Schulist, director of the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre near Espanola, Ont.

The next generation needs to see themselves in the Church.

“There is now somebody they can refer to. Their lives are not seen entirely looking or gazing at a Eurocentric kind of faith,” Schulist said.

To get ready for the canonization, Campion College campus minister Stephanie Molloy organized a mini-pilgrimage on Oct. 10 through downtown Regina for 47 inner city students from Sacred Heart Community School. A large percentage of the students are aboriginal. The kids loved it.

“Definitely there’s the link with young people. She’s the patron of ecology and things that young people care about,” said Molloy.

That connection with youth was central to Pope John Paul II’s thinking when he beatified Kateri in 1980. In 2002 he would make her one of the special patrons of World Youth Day in Toronto.

John Robinson, an elder from Toronto’s Native People’s parish, will be one of about 180 native people from Ontario alone in Rome for the canonization. This begins a new chapter, he said.

“A lot of native people in cities and outside of cities are going to look to Kateri as a saint in a special way,” he said. “This is our first native saint and they’re going to have a lot of respect for it.”

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