By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published October 20, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
At least 2,000 Mohawk tribe members have gathered in Rome today (Oct. 20) in anticipation of the canonization of one of their own, a 17th-century Mohawk maiden named Kateri Tekakwitha. On Sunday (Oct. 21), she will be the first Native American ever canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Her path to world renown wasn't an easy one. Two scientifically inexplicable miracles had to be investigated and approved before the Vatican would officially recognize her as a saint. According to the Associated Press, the second miracle happened when a dying boy of Lummi tribe descent, Jake Finkbonner of Ferndale, Washington, recovered from a flesh-eating strep bacterium infection in 2011 after children across the U.S. prayed for Kateri to intercede with God for his life to be saved.
But long before then Kateri suffered greatly for her love of God as did the tribe of her mother, a band of Algonquins who had converted to Christianity. The following story comes from the research of her distant cousin Norm Léveillée, genealogy websites, and accounts of her life.
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Chief Sachem Carolus Pachiniri had led his Weskarini band of Algonquins, consisting entirely of Christians, for most of a decade. The French called his people the Little Nation, and a French fort and Jesuit mission offered protection. When marauding Iroquois attacked, Algonquin braves and French soldiers would fight back while families sheltered in the fort. But a surprise attack around 1652-1653 left many defenders dead, and women and children enslaved.
Among them would be the mother of the future saint, a woman who may have been called Pittaraskiwassi (Algonquin for “flower of the earth”) among the Weskarini. But the Iroquois renamed her Kahontake (meadow). She became the wife of the Iroquois chief of the Turtle Clan, and bore him first a daughter, in 1656, and then a son.
In 1660, the deadly virus smallpox ravaged the Iroquois village of Ossernenon (now Auriesville, New York) and Kahontake, her husband, and her son died. Her daughter survived but pockmarks scarred her face and her eyes became oversensitive to sunlight, which earned her the name Tekakwitha ― “she who gropes for her way slowly.”
Tekakwitha’s uncle became both clan chief and her guardian, and he detested Christianity because of the way French settlers treated natives, the rise of European diseases, and other bad omens. Yet Jesuit missionaries, who natives called Black Robes, would nonetheless visit the Iroquois after the clan moved across the Mohawk River to form a new village, Caughnawaga. The Turtle Clan had relocated only after French soldiers and hostile braves crushed several fortified Mohawk villages, including Ossernenon, in 1666.
Tekakwitha’s uncle never permitted her to listen to the Black Robes until 1667 when circumstances forced him to show them hospitality for three days. During that time 11-year-old Tekakwitha, an excellent cook, prepared their meals as hostess of the longhouse. The visit surely stirred thoughts of her mother’s faith, which she knew about through her mother’s friend Anastasie.
In 1674, Rev. Jacques de Lamberville, SJ, accidentally came to the chief’s longhouse for information, and 18-year-old Tekakwitha seized the opportunity to ask about the Black Robe’s God. She explained that her mother had been a Christian, and she wanted to learn more.
The encounter gave first voice to the desire that would become her lifelong quest and catchphrase: “Who will teach me what’s most pleasing to God so I may do it?”
The priest agreed to teach her, but did so in secret for fear of the chief. In time, Tekakwitha revealed her growing devotion to the Christian God to her uncle, and pressured him to allow her to become a Catholic. He eventually consented so long as she never tried to leave the village.
His dark-haired niece would be baptized on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1676, at St. Peter’s Mission near her village. She adopted a new name, Kateri, after Saint Catherine.
Her public commitment to a foreign god would not be welcomed in her village. Children mocked her with words and stones if she left the chief’s longhouse, and adults referred to her as “the Christian” or “the Algonquin.” Some beat her. Because she refused to work on Sundays, her uncle would not allow her to eat all day as punishment for her “laziness.”
Once a young brave raised his tomahawk to kill her, but when she quietly knelt, ready to die for her God, her behavior so confounded him that he left her.
In July of 1677, Kateri slipped away from Caughnawaga. For the next two months and more, she walked more than 200 miles across woods and swamps to the mission of St. Francis Xavier, near Montreal. She received her first Eucharist on Christmas that year.
For years she would spend hours daily in prayer and ministry in her new village of native Christians, Kahnawake. Though illiterate, she remembered everything she’d been told about the life of Jesus and his disciples, and frequently held others spellbound as she shared those stories.
Kateri Tekakwitha died of poor health in 1680 at age 24, and her last words were “Jesus, I love you.”