It is a peculiar irony that the most famous of all the Mohawks – arguably the most well-known nation of the Rotinonhson:ni (Iroquois) Confederacy – is a 17th century woman who, by her vow of celibacy, isn’t an ancestor to any of us.
Daren Bonaparte, A lily among thorns
Minnesotans Know the Lily of the Mohawk – Kateri Tekakwitha
The canonization of Catholic saints is generally of interest to a devoted cadre of the faithful who have promoted the blessing of the Church on a pious soul who meets the rigid criteria for sainthood. Though the event of the person’s canonization has a profound impact on the community of supporters, it is of minor consequence to the world, even the Roman Catholic world, at large.
The October 21, 2012 canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha does not fit the traditional mold. It is, in fact, an occasion charged with unique political and religious aspects.
For Minnesotans the focus on the “Lily of the Mohawk” offers an occasion to reflect on both the political and religious aspects of a forgotten, if ever known, history and on the role of this simple woman whose life story is veiled by the complexity of the inherent symbolism.
Parishioners at the Catholic Church of Gichitwaa Kateri, the place of worship for many Native Americans as well as for the community at large. Many of the parishioners and advocates for Gichitwaa Kateri have been active in efforts to learn about and to promote the canonization of Kateri and to bridge the spiritual mores of the American Indian culture with the traditions of the Catholic Church – a challenge that has not been without an occasional – and painful – clash.
Following the process of Tekakwitha’s canonization with special interest are scores of American Indian women who know something of her legacy from their experience at Kateri Residence, a program of St. Stephen’s Church in South Minneapolis. Kateri Residence offers a home and help with recovery that blends contemporary recovery methods with a focus on American Indian culture and spirituality.
Needless to say the American Indian community watches with interest and some ambivalence the process and impact of Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization. The challenge for all is to understand and assess the meaning of this unique blending – or the contradiction of trying to blend – Native American and Catholic/Christian traditions.
Kateri Tekakwitha was a Seventeenth Century Algonquin Mohawk woman , member of the Iroquois Confederacy, born in 1656 in the Iroquois village of Ossemenonunder in what is now New York state. She died just 24 years later in a Jesuit mission village near present-day Montreal. Though stories of her short life are inconsistent, what is generally understood is that she was the eldest daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Roman Catholic Algonquin who had been adopted into the tribe after her Huron tribe was captured. Kateri’s mother had been baptized and educated by Jesuit missions.
While Kateri was a young girl her family, including both parents, was decimated in a smallpox epidemic that left the orphaned girl with scars and impaired eyesight. Her name meaning “she who bumps into things” speaks to her reputed poor vision. Because the Mohawk tribe followed a matrilineal kinship tradition Kateri was adopted by her maternal uncle. Kateri’s early life brought her in contact with the Jesuits, for whom her adopted uncle had no time. Nonetheless, at age eighteen Kateri met the Jesuit Father Jacques de Lamberville and began to study the catechism, the first step in her conversion to the Catholic Church.
Still a very young woman of 20 Kateri was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1676. Rebuked by some in her tribe she moved to the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake near Montreal, a sort of gathering place for converts, primarily women. These women believed in self-mortification as a way to absolve themselves of their sins. It was in this period of her impressionable young life that Kateri “took Jesus for her husband”, a decision that led to her subsequent reputation as the “first virgin among the Mohawk.” The influence of the Jesuits is complex. Some Native Americans argue that it negated her Indian roots, while others, including Mohawk leader Tom Porter, maintain that “she was raised mostly by our tradition, so her spirituality was mostly of the real old faith” adding that “I don’t look at it like she gave up her native believes. She added to her faith.”
Many suggest that it was Kateri’s life of self-mortification that led to her final illness and death in 1680. She is buried at St. Francis Xavier Church in Cahnawake, Quebec, South of Montreal.
Soon after Kateri’s death the people of her community noticed a physical change. The pockmarks changed so that one Jesuit observed that “this face, so marked and swarthy, suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful and so white that I observed it immediately. There were reports of individuals who claimed to see Kateri in the weeks following her death.
A chapel was built near her gravesite. By 1684 pilgrimages had begun to honor her there. Her physical remains were used as relics for healing. The epitaph on her grave read “Kateri Tekakwitha – The fairest flower that ever bloomed among red men.”
All of these happenings were recorded by the Jesuits. From earliest days the story of Kateri became a sort of bridge between Mohawk and European cultures.
Representations of Kateri Tekakwitha:
Many 21st Century Americans have learned about Kateri through architectural and literary depictions of her life. As the wheels of the Vatican have ground slowly, the laity has not waited for the decision about her canonization. Tekakwitha is already honored in three national shrines in this country – the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, New York, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC and the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, originally constructed to honor three slain and canonized Jesuits in Auriesville, New York. The humble shrine at Fonda, New York, focuses on devotion to Kateri Tekakwitha. A statue of Tekakwitha also stands outside the Basilica of Saint-Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec and outside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC.
Closer to home, visitors to the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville will recall the Statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha on the Eastern shore of Lake Sagatagan. The statue, installed on the tri-centenary of Kateri’s death, was a gift to St. John’s from St. Olaf parish in Minneapolis and its pastor, Father Leonard P. Cowley. The statue originally stood outside the original St. Olaf Church before it was destroyed by fire.
A bronze statue of Blessed Kateri kneeling in prayer was installed in 2008, created by artist Cynthia Hitschler along the devotional walkway leading to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. One of the Bells of St. Mary at the Basilica in Minneapolis is dedicated to Kateri Tekakwitha. The entering class this fall at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute will be named after her.
The stories and the veneration of Kateri have endured over the decades. In fact, the Catholic Church commemorates her feast day on July 14; along with St. Francis of Assisi she is honored as the patroness of the ecology and environment. The canonization is a long and protracted process that requires persistence on the part of the faithful and manipulation of an intricate system by the hierarchy. In 1884, three centuries after Kateri’s life began, Catholics in the U.S. and Canada began the process for her canonization. In 1943 Pope Pius XII declared her “venerable.” She was beatified on June 22, 1980, by John Paul II.
A critical canonical requirement is the verification of miracles realized through the intercession of the saint-to-be. In December 2011 the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, part of the Vatican establishment, certified a second miracle. This cleared the path to Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization as the first Native American/First Nations woman to qualify for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
Numerous literary works depict the life and legacy of Kateri Tekakwitha. Among the most important are Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint – Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (2005) and Darren Bonaparte’s A Lily Among the Thorns: The Mohawk Repatriation of Kateri Tekakwitha. (2009) These and other books and articles include references to the records of the Jesuits as well as descriptions of the miracles for which she credited as part of the canonization process. The implications of this historic canonization will be interpreted in very different ways by Native Americans in particular, by Roman Catholics and by historians of this era.
For some Native Americans the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha is an attempt on the part of the Catholic Church to deflect attention from the reality of history, particularly the pain inflicted by the controversial boarding schools that separated American Indian children from their families and traditions during the late 1800’s through much of the 20th Century. Some harbor deep resentment for the ways in which Christianity in general eroded their traditional culture and religion.
Others look to the potential of the interweaving of Christianity and Native religion as a positive development. Thousands of American Catholics, including many of this nation’s 600,000 Native American Catholics, will travel to Rome for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. For the faithful who are devoted to Kateri Tekakwitha the occasion speaks to a movement towards tolerance and integration between Native ways and Catholic traditions. For Sister Kateri Mitchell, executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference located in Great Falls, Montana, Kateri’s canonization is an important historical moment; for Mitchell Kateri Tekakwitha “ is the face of our future church.” For the faithful who worship at Gichitwaa Kateri in South Minneapolis the canonization of the first Native American saint is a time to reflect and pray.