Kateri Tekakwitha shunned marriage and expressed her faith with mortification
“IT IS NO POWERFUL SPIRIT, no famous conqueror who protects the double empire of the French,” wrote Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand in Les Natchez, a 1794 novel inspired by the religious romantic’s travels in America. “It is a shepherdess in Europe, an Indian maid in America; Genevieve of the hamlet of Nanterre and Kateri of the Canadian forests.”
“Kateri” is Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Roman Catholic saint. Her figure in bronze adorns the doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and in 1966, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen featured her in his debut novel, Beautiful Losers. Her spirit of devotion lives on in Kateri circles, groups of prayerful Christians and others who find inspiration in Tekakwitha’s brief, intense life.
Born in 1656 into a Mohawk family near what is now Auriesville, in upstate New York, she survived smallpox, which killed her parents and badly damaged her eyes. The smallpox virus, inadvertently introduced by Europeans, so ravaged indigenous populations that communities undertook new social formations. Amid this upheaval, young Kateri found solace in the Christianity introduced by Jesuit missionaries. In 2012, more than three centuries after her death, the church named her a saint.
Tekakwitha grew up in a tangle of cultures, Native American and European. Unlike the Spanish in the New World, the French made inroads not as conquerors but as commercial and religious agents. Small cadres of Jesuits set up lucrative trading partnerships. These efforts often created or aggravated riva
lries among the affiliated Iroquois groups of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The disruption extended to their enemies—the Huron, Ottawa, and Algonquin—who inhabited the swath of land from Michigan to the New York coast. Native American society was a patchwork of tribal remnants fighting to survive imported disease and the colonial ambitions of France, the Netherlands, and England.
In his sensitive cultural biography Mohawk Saint, historian Allan Greer describes the Mourning War Complex, a paroxysm of grief and combat in which tribes tortured captives in ritual remembrance of lives lost. A tribe could replenish itself by adopting those who survived or were spared. Tekakwitha’s own mother, a Christian Algonquin Indian captured and adopted by the Mohawks, had been taken as a spouse by the girl’s Mohawk father.
Tekakwitha was a frail child, quiet and dutiful, at least on the surface. By adolescence, she had established herself as an independent member of her extended family. She performed traditional women’s duties, preparing furs, food, and needlework, but refused repeated appeals to marry—a bold move in a matriarchal culture that absorbed men as husbands and hunters.
Local Native American religion shared aspects of the Christian traditions of self-denial and mortification: abstinence from sexual activity and fasting to sharpen one’s sense of purpose in battle. Both traditions incorporated wise elders, distinctive dress, incantations, ritual mortification and accessories such as beads, smoke, and incense. However, Christian emphasis on celibacy and on devotion that isolated a worshipper from his or her family kept most natives from converting.
Tekakwitha, however, enjoyed that spiritual space, an interest encouraged by a Jesuit visiting her village when she was 18. Two years later, with a Christian relative’s help, she fled her village for Kahnawake, a Christian community of indigenous people near Montreal led by four men, two Mohawk and two Huron. There she found common ground with other native women, especially a young Oneida widow who shared her interest in Christianity. The two formed a secret society that gradually admitted more members to gather in the woods to perform ritual flagellation—more than a thousand beatings at a time—and other forms of ascetic worship. Greer suggests that the self-inflicted pain can be seen as a way of commanding life’s cruelty and sorrow, assigning to suffering a sacred purpose.
Kateri’s commitment caught the eye of Claude Chauchetiere, a Jesuit who found in her life a curious parallel to his own religious awakening in France. Details of Tekakwitha’s life are known through biographies that Chauchetiere and fellow Jesuit Pierre Cholenec published in the 1690s. Chauchetiere had praise for Tekakwitha’s industry, asceticism, and chastity. But the intensity of her mortification regimen shocked him; he urged, to no avail, that she shift to more conventional ordeals such as hair shirts and nail-studded belts. Tekakwitha went barefoot in snow, put ashes in her food, and, when she learned one could fashion a bed of thorns, made one and used it. As for chastity, she confided to Father Chauchetiere, “I hate men. I have the deepest aversion to marriage.”
The intensity of Tekakwitha’s ascetic faith attracted curiosity and respect. Upon her death from a feverish illness at 24, her appearance was said to brighten visibly, a glow noted in the case made for her elevation to sainthood. The canonization campaign relied on posthumous instances in which relics associated with her were noted for curative powers. Emulating her mortification, women from her village known as Kateri’s Sisters kept her memory alive. White settlers invoked her help in overcoming suffering and illness.
Tekakwitha’s reputation percolated for centuries. In 1884, adherents established a 10-acre shrine to her not far from her birthplace. The facility also honored martyred Jesuits Isaac Jogues and Renee Goupil; the men, among the earliest members of the Society of Jesus to come to Canada, were killed by Mohawks in the 1640s in that same vicinity. A biography in English, Lily of the Mohawks, appeared in 1891. In 1930, the church canonized Jogues and Goupil. As a native figure hallowed by Catholicism, Kateri Tekakwitha had long helped win Native American converts, who championed the case for her sainthood. Beatified in 1980, Tekakwitha was canonized in 2012. Her Jesuit biographer, Father Claude Chauchetiere, called her “a holy bee, seeking to gather honey from all sorts of flowers.”