Tekakwitha, Catherine (Kateri)

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Tekakwitha, Catherine (Kateri)

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Ossernenon (Auriesville), New York


Kanawake, Quebec

Mohawk Catholic nun and candidate for sainthood

Catherine (Kateri) Tekakwitha was the first Native American to be venerated (the first step toward being declared a saint) by the Roman Catholic Church. (The Roman Catholic Church is a branch of Christianity based in Rome, Italy. It is headed by a pope who oversees bishops, priests, and other religious officials.) Because of her peaceful religious nature, she was known as "Lily of the Mohawks." Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in Ossernenon (Auriesville), New York, to a Mohawk father and a Christianized Algonquin mother who had been captured by Mohawks about 1653. At the time there was extensive fighting among Native factions (rival groups) and Europeans in order to acquire more territory in the New World (the European term for North America and South America). Tekakwitha was born into this chaotic atmosphere of tribal warfare and Native American cultural and religious battles with Europeans.

Although the French Jesuits (a Roman Catholic order for men) were making some headway in their attempts to Christianize and colonize New France (parts of present-day Canada and upper New York State), Native Americans remained hostile toward the French. The sixteen-year interval between 1632 and 1648 was reportedly the worst period for the mission. Eight Jesuits were brutally murdered between 1642 and 1649, three by Mohawks from Tekakwitha's village. The Mohawks were known for their violence among the Five Nations (the Iroquois Confederacy, formed around 1570; an alliance of the Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, Oneidas, and Onondagas).

Family dies from smallpox

In 1642, eleven years prior to the capture of Tekakwitha's mother, a Jesuit missionary named Isaac Jogues had been taken prisoner by a band of Mohawk warriors and brought to Ossernenon. Like the other Jesuit missionaries he was pressured by French officials to convert the Native Americans and bring them under French rule. Jogues encouraged the tribe to believe that the articles used in the Catholic mass (religious service), including the altar (a structure that serves as the center of the service), were powerful tools of sorcery (witchcraft) and magic. He reportedly also threatened to use his powers to bring death to the tribe if they did not accept Catholicism.

Some years later Jogues went back to France. Upon his return to Ossernenon, he found that a smallpox epidemic (out-break of a fatal viral disease) had devastated the village. When the Mohawks saw Jogues they killed him with a war axe because they thought he had fulfilled his promise to destroy them. The epidemic took the lives of Tekakwitha's mother, father, and youngest brother. Orphaned at the age of four, she was left disfigured and visually impaired by the disease. She went to live with the family of her uncle, who was a prominent village chief and the husband of her mother's sister. Tekakwitha's uncle was violently opposed to Christianity.

Resists marriage

In 1667 the French government sent a military expedition to avenge the murders of the Jesuit missionaries, including Jogues. After extensive conflict the Mohawks were forced to accept the presence of the missionaries. Although Tekakwitha's uncle did not approve of Christianity, he was obliged to host three missionaries who were sent to Ossernenon. Tekakwitha, who was then eleven, was given the task of looking after them during their short stay. The young girl was reportedly impressed by the gentle, courteous behavior of the Jesuits. Two of the three missionaries later returned to the area to settle and continue their work.

During this time Tekakwitha had reached the customary age for marriage but, according to missionary reports, she refused all romantic advances and any attempt to find her a husband. Her family responded to her resistance with violence and extreme deprivation, such as withholding meals and threatening her life. Possibly Tekakwitha's resistance to the idea of marriage was influenced by Christianized Algonquins and Hurons, who now made up two-thirds of the village. They may have told her about unwed Ursuline nuns (women who belong to a Catholic religious order) in Quebec.

The Mohawks had not traditionally been opposed to the idea of virginity (having no experience with sexual intercourse) and chastity (refraining from sexual relations). In fact, they believed that virginity could bestow great powers, and one Mohawk band had special virgin groups who followed specific codes of behavior. However, evidence suggests that the Mohawks had been greatly shamed when the virgins broke their vows. Europeans contributed to the situation when they introduced alcohol to the Native Americans. Unaccustomed to the effects of drinking liquor, virgins embarrassed themselves and the villagers by violating behavioral codes. Therefore the elders disbanded the group. This incident undoubtedly had an effect on surrounding villages, including Ossernenon.

Converts to Christianity

The story of Tekakwitha's conversion to Christianity was told by a Jesuit missionary named Lamberville. He reported finding the nineteen-year-old in her dwelling, unable to work because of a foot injury. By all accounts she was ordinarily an industrious, willing worker. Lamberville wrote, "I conversed with her about Christianity and I found her so docile that I exhorted her to be instructed and to frequent the chapel, which she did." He further observed "that she had none of the vices of the girls of her age, that encouraged me to teach her henceforth." Tekakwitha then attended his catechism class (instruction in the Catholic religion) through the summer and winter.

Lamberville was so impressed with Tekakwitha's progress that he baptized her the following Easter, in 1676, earlier than usual for new converts. Tekakwitha was twenty years old. She then received the name Kateri as her baptism name. For six months she remained in her village, enduring ridicule and scorn for her open practice of Christianity. She was accused of sorcery and repeatedly confronted during her trips to and from the chapel. She was also deprived of food on Sundays and Christian holidays when she chose not to work. Once, when she was on her way to the chapel, a Mohawk warrior held a war axe over her head and threatened to kill her. Her aunt also accused her of trying to seduce her uncle (persuade him to engage in sexual relations).

Flees to Canada

Lamberville advised Tekakwitha to leave the village and join the Jesuit mission of Saint Francis Xavier in Kanawake, Quebec, on the Straits of Saint Louis. Formed in 1667 in reaction to the disastrous effects of alcohol on the Iroquois, Kanawake was known for the discipline of its inhabitants. When three Native American converts from the mission were recruiting in Ossernenon, Tekakwitha left with them. At the time of Tekakwitha's departure her uncle was absent from the village. Upon learning of her absence, he vowed to have her and the three converts killed. He set out in pursuit of the party but they eluded him.

When Tekakwitha reached the mission, she was entrusted with the spiritual care of Anastasie Tegonhatsiongo, a former friend of her mother. Tekakwitha received intensive Christian training and proved to be a gifted student. Within months of her arrival she was allowed to receive communion (a Christian religious ceremony in which church members eat bread and drink wine that represent, respectively, the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity). Anastasie and many others at the mission were opposed to Tekakwitha's desire to remain a virgin. They pressured her to marry, reminding her that with a husband she would be financially secure. However, Tekakwitha resisted their efforts and instead befriended two other women at the mission.

Founds Native American cloister

After visiting the nuns of Hotel-Dieu hospital in Ville-Marie (present-day Montreal) and learning of their ascetic (strict self-denying) practices, Tekakwitha and her two friends decided to form a cloister (home for nuns) for Native Americans. As a final resort, Anastasie asked one of the head priests, Father Cholenic, to assist the women in their project. Although Cholenic and other Catholic authorities considered the idea premature, Tekakwitha was allowed to take a vow of chastity on the Feast of the Assumption in 1679. In addition to her self-imposed restrictions, her life at the mission had its hardships. Her half-sister later charged her with having sexual relations with her husband during an annual winter hunting expedition. After the incident Tekakwitha no longer participated in the hunt. Instead she remained at the mission, where she increased her religious activities.

Observes strict penance

One of the most pronounced features of Tekakwitha's Catholicism was her frequent penances (self-punishments). She consumed very little food, and what she did eat was often mixed with ashes. Tekakwitha was known to stand barefoot for hours in the snow at the foot of a cross, saying the rosary (chanting prayers while fingering the beads of a necklace attached to a crucifix, or cross). She once spent three continuous nights on a bed of thorns. She also asked a companion to regularly whip her, and she knelt for several hours on her bare knees in an unheated chapel during severe winter weather. Onlookers were amazed at the severity of her practices, which priests attributed to virtue and holy dedication.

Beatified by church

Tekakwitha's devotion to penance probably cut her life short. Her health declined rapidly, and she died at age twenty-four during Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday). The last Sacraments (religious observance for the dying) were administered at her bedside rather than in the chapel. Tekakwitha is said to have promised intercession (offering of prayers on the behalf of) for those present at her death. According to some reports, shortly before she died her badly disfigured face became radiant with beauty and all scarring completely disappeared.

Penance rooted in Iroquois values

Catherine Tekakwitha's strict observance of frequent penances is said to have been rooted in Iroquois spirituality. Placing great value on dreaming, the Iroquois considered dreams to be the language of the soul and extremely important for a functioning society. All members of the community ritualized, interpreted, and acted upon their dreams. They believed that depriving the soul of dreaming would cause sickness. If people did not or could not dream, Iroquois culture provided ceremonial methods for producing a trance state that would put them in touch with the soul. Among the practices were taking a sweat-bath, fasting, singing, chanting, and performing self-mutilations. Food was sometimes mixed with ashes. Alcohol also became part of the rituals after it was introduced by Europeans.

Miraculous cures of the sick have been credited to Tekakwitha since her death. In recognition of these miracles and her life of piety (dutifulness in religion) and devotion, the Jesuits submitted a petition for her canonization (declaration of sainthood) in 1884. In 1932 her name was formally presented to the Vatican (the seat of the Catholic Church in Rome), and eleven years later she was venerated (given the first of three degrees of holiness). In 1980 Tekakwitha was beatified (declared blessed), thus achieving the second degree of holiness.

At least fifty biographies and numerous pamphlets have been written about Tekakwitha. More than one hundred articles have examined her life and influence. Her story has also been told in radio broadcasts, film and television dramatizations, two operas, and several plays. These portrayals draw mainly on the accounts of Father Cholenic and Father Chaucheterie, another priest at Kanawake, both of whom claimed to have observed her life of piety. At least one modern scholar, however, claims that Tekakwitha did not exist and that the Jesuits created her to promote their missionary efforts. Nevertheless, many Catholics continue to believe she was an actual person. Two American magazines are devoted to Tekakwitha, keeping a record of favors granted through her help. More than ten thousand Americans are involved in gathering support for her canonization. Eighty-four organizations—camps, clubs, and missions—have been dedicated to Tekakwitha or named in her honor. An international Kateri Tekakwitha movement has been dedicated to establishing a unique form of Native American Catholicism.

For further research

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/14471a.htm Available July 13, 1999.

Brown, Evelyn M. Kateri Tekakwitha: Mohawk Maid. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991.

Fisher, Lillian M. Kateri Tekakwitha: The Lily of the Mohawks. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1996.

James, Edward T., and others, eds. Notable American Women, Volume III. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 436–37.