A painting portraying St. Kateri Tekakwitha at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y. CNS photo/Jason Greene, Reuters

Getting to know the Lily of the Mohawks

By 
  • December 7, 2013

To grasp the significance of St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s devotion to Christ, you have to understand the context of her life as a young native woman in the 17th century.

In Emily Cavins’ book Lily of the Mohawks: The Story of St. Kateri, the author shows us the chronology of events that led to her taking a vow of virginity. In choosing this unmarried path, she was accepting a future filled with struggle.
Within aboriginal culture, without a husband there was no man to provide meat for food, hides for clothing and other items necessary for day-to-day survival.

When pressed by her sister and aunts to marry, St. Kateri said she was willing to live in poverty and would consider herself fortunate if she could live with Jesus Christ as her only spouse. This dedication to Christ is a lasting testament to her strength.

Her life was not an easy one. The recently published children’s book, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks by Anne E. Neuberger, highlights the circumstances of her time: colonization, war and disease. While her Christian Algonquin mother told her stories about Jesus when she was a child, her family dynamic shifted drastically as smallpox, brought by the Europeans, claimed the lives of both her parents and baby brother.

As one of the few survivors of smallpox, St. Kateri’s modified lifestyle made her an outsider. Given her extreme sensitivity to light she could not participate in many of the expected customs of her Mohawk tribe, such as ritual dances at festivals. Instead, she’d spend many hours in the quiet of the longhouse. When she openly practised her faith, the majority of her community did not approve of her going against cultural norms.

Cavins also highlights similarities between Christianity and native spirituality that would have made St. Kateri’s newfound religion more relatable, such as fasting. For the Iroquois, fasting was used to tap into the spiritual world where they hoped to receive a vision from the spirits to help them make decisions.

While the children’s telling of St. Kateri’s life is geared to younger minds, the author does a good job of conveying the hardships St. Kateri faced. It also brought to life the simple ways St. Kateri lived the faith in her unique circumstances such as making crosses out of sticks and scattering them throughout the forest as little prayer reminders.

As for the book by Cavins, it is packed with detail. The author does not shy away from thoroughly describing the ways in which young Kateri mortified herself — from burning a hole in her foot with a burning coal to wearing an iron girdle — which she did as acts of penance. For those who crave the nitty gritty of St. Kateri’s reality, this book does the trick.

Catholics know that St. Kateri has been given the honour of being Canada’s first indigenous saint, but these books will help them understand the complex circumstances that formed her character and situation.

While St. Kateri’s canonization won’t undo the damage natives endured at the hands of the Church over the years, it was a powerful step in the right direction and a testament to all the converts that embraced Christianity with open arms over the years.

(Santilli is a freelance writer based in Toronto.)

Lily of the Mohawks: The Story of St. Kateri by Emily Cavins (Servant Books, 134 pages, softcover, $19.99) Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks by Anne E. Neuberger (Our Sunday Visitor, 32 pages, softcover, $12.95).

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