The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha – the First North American Indian Saint: Part 3


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Source: thehundreds.com)
Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Source: thehundreds.com)

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The Jesuit mission of Saint-François-Xavier du Sault-Saint-Louis

Father de Lamberville advised Kateri Tekakwitha to go to the Jesuit settlement of Saint-François-Xavier du Sault-Saint- Louis located along the St. Lawrence river in Quebec, Canada, opposite Lachine (later Montréal).

The historic mission was first established in 1667 when the Kanienkeha’ka (Mohawk) community located to the northern part of the Territory at Kentake, now known as Laprairie, Quebec. The community moved four more times due to economic, agricultural as well as political changes.

A typical Mohawk Longhouse
A typical Mohawk Longhouse

The Jesuits had founded the mission for the religious conversion of the natives. When it began, the natives built longhouses for residences. They also built a longhouse to be used as a chapel by the Jesuits. As a missionary settlement, it attracted other Iroquois, but it was predominantly Mohawk.

In 1677, Kateri was spirited away from the Mohawk the village of Caughnawaga by her brother-in-law and a Huron of Lorette with the assistance of Father de Lamberville. Kateri and her rescuers proceeded on foot to Lac du Saint-Sacrement (Lake George). After a long and harrowing journey , of about two weeks on the Lake George, Lake Champlain, and Richelieu River corridors, they completed their 200-mile journey and reached the mission. In all it took almost three months for the whole journey.

On arrival after the long and harrowing journey, Kateri was lodged in the longhouse where her mother’s close friend, Kanahstatsi Tekonwatsenhonko, was the clan matron. Her sister (the daughter of her adoptive parents) and her brother-in-law, and many other people who had migrated from Caughnawaga lodged in the same longhouse.

In the village, she found many Iroquoian-speaking Mohawk converts and the Jesuits whom she had met in 1666.

Kanahstatsi and other Mohawk women introduced Kateri to the regular practices of Christianity. She spent hours in prayer in the chapel.

Kateri Tekakwitha. An oil painting by an unknown artist in the Main Chapel, St. Peter's Mission, Fonda NY.
Kateri Tekakwitha. An oil painting by an unknown artist in the Main Chapel, St. Peter’s Mission, Fonda NY.

Kateri made her first communion on Christmas Day 1677. She spent hours in prayer in the chapel. During the winter hunting season she continued her pious exercises while taking part in the work of the community, and she created a place of worship near a cross carved on a tree beside a brook.

Corporal mortification

According to the historian Allan Greer, most of these early native converts to Christianity were women. They followed a way they thought was integral to Christianity by devoting their bodies and souls to God and participated in mortification of the flesh in groups. There were similar practices of mortification of the flesh traditionally carried out by Mohawk warriors. Piercing the body to draw blood was a traditional practice of the Mohawk and other Iroquois nations.

Though the women in the village usually followed the directions of the Jesuits, at times, they eluded their control. The Jesuits opposed the practice of mortification of the flesh, but the women claimed it was needed to relieve them of their past sins.

Kateri learned more about Christianity under her mentor Anastasia, who taught her about the practice of repenting for one’s sins. Kateri put thorns on her sleeping mat and lay on them while praying for the conversion and forgiveness for her kinsmen.

Two French Jesuit missionaries, Claude Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec, played important roles in Kateri Tekakwitha’s life.

Father Pierre Cholenec arrived in New France in 1672, before Father Claude Chauchetière.

Father Claude Chauchetière and Tekakwitha arrived at the village in the same year, in 1677. Jesuits generally thought that the natives needed their guidance in Christianity to be set on the right path. However, Chauchetière’s close contact with and deeper knowledge of the natives in the village changed some of his set notions about the people and the differences among human cultures.

Father Chauchetière was the first to write a biography of Kateri Tekakwitha’s life in 1695, followed by Father Pierre Cholenec in 1696.

Father Chauchetière wrote that he was very impressed by Kateri, as he had not expected a native to be so pious. He believed that Catherine Tekakwitha was a saint. In his biography of her, he stressed her “charity, industry, purity, and fortitude.”

Father Chauchetière recounted the steps Kateri and some of her peers took in the name of their faith. Their mortifications were extreme, and Chauchetière says:

They covered themselves with blood by disciplinary stripes with iron, with rods, with thorns, with nettles; they fasted rigorously, passing the entire day without eating. These fasting women toiled strenuously all day – in summer, working in the fields; in winter, cutting wood. (…) they put glowing coals between their tows, where the fire burned a hole in their flesh; they went bare-legged to make a long procession in the snows; they all disfigured themselves by cutting off their hair, in order not to be sought in marriage…

Kateri Tekakwitha took a vow of chastity on the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, 1679. The Roman Catholic Church considers that on this day her conversion was truly completed and she became the “first virgin” among the Mohawk.

Father Cholenec introduced the traditional items of Catholic mortification – whips, hair shirts and iron girdles – to the converts at the village so they would adopt these items, rather than use Mohawk practices.

Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York.
Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York.

Father Cholenec quotes Kateri Tekakwitha as saying:

I have deliberated enough. For a long time my decision on what I will do has been made. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen Him for husband and He alone will take me for a wife”.

In the spring of 1678, Kateri met Wari Teres Tegaiaguenta, a young Oneida widow, for the first time. They became inseparable friends. Aspiring to devotion, they practiced mutual flagellation in secret.

Father Cholenec wrote that Catherine could flog herself between one thousand and twelve hundred blows in one session.

Tekakwitha’s dedication to the ritual mortification became more intense and consuming over the rest of her life; she included prolonged fasting, flogging, cutting, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and burning herself with hot coals.

Her spiritual directors became concerned because of her practice of self-mortifications were impacting her health and advised her to lighten the rigorous devotion. Father Cholenec suggested that she retire to the wilderness with her relations who were then engaged in the winter hunt to restore her strength, with proper diet and the fresh air in the forest.

But she replied:

It is true, my Father, that my body is served most luxuriously in the forest, but the soul languishes there, and is not able to satisfy its hunger. On the contrary, in the village the body suffers; I am contented that it should be so, but the soul finds its delight in being near to Jesus Christ. Well then, I will willingly abandon this miserable body to hunger and suffering, provided that my soul may have its ordinary nourishment.”

When Kateri and Wari Teres learned of nuns and convents for women, they asked the Jesuits for permission to form a group of native disciples, but they were told they were too “young in the faith” to form such a group. So, they created their own informal association of devout women. Wari Teres eventually left the group, supposedly due to personal issues. Kateri tried to reintegrate her into the group until her death.

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← Previous – The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha: Part 2

Next  The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha: Part 4

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