June 22 The First Native North American Saint
Today we remember the beatification of Kateri Takakwitha, a Mohawk woman. Born in 1656 in what is now New York state, she belonged to the Mohawk Nation, part of Iroquois Five Nations. Though her mother was not born a Mohawk, she was adopted into their society, presumably after being captured in war, and married a Mohawk man. Four years after her birth a smallpox epidemic hit her village, killing both her parents and leaving her permanently scarred and visually impaired.
While her mother had been Christian, after her parents’ death she was raised by her uncle, an important, and very anti-Christian, member of the village. The area saw activity from French Jesuit missionaries and Kateri’s encounters with these men, known as ‘black robes’ among the Iroquois, enthralled her. Often visiting her in her longhouse, in self- imposed isolation because of the marks that small pox had left on her, the missionaries told her with tales of female saints such as Catherine of Siena, the power of their Lord in comparison to the Iroquoian shamans, and His will that the meek shall inherit the earth. And so, at the age of 20, she was baptized, taking the Christian name of Catherine, but soon suffered harassment from the non-Christian members of her village. She was used to being treated as an outcast because of her pockmarked features and had been unable to join the other women in the cornfields, At the advice of one of the priests, Pierre Cholenec, she sought a new beginning in the town known as Kahnawake by the Iroquois and Sault St. Louis by the French. Cholenec later wrote, he “wanted to transplant this flower to a better ground, where it could take root surely and be out of danger of corruption.”
She refused to marry and on one occasion, she was even said to have “left the lodge and hid in the fields,” when she was introduced to a potential groom. Probably inspired by the stories of Catherine of Siena, lifelong chastity was seen as strange in Iroqouian culture. Although periods of self-control and abstinence were thought to physically and spiritually strengthen the individual who practiced them. The Jesuits did not allow her to take a vow of chastity until just a year before her death. A constant tension with the Jesuits was the intense mortifications that she practiced. From standing barefoot in the snow, to bathing in a river in the middle of winter, to holding hot coals between her toes, she sought to punish her body. The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, had practice extreme mortification in his youth that had a lasting a deleterious effect on his health. It was a key part of their spirituality to counsel moderation. However what they failed to comprehend, however, was the deep psychological, sociological, and spiritual place that torture held in Iroquian society. Through a process known as Mourning Wars, Iroquoian nations captured and adopted foreigners into their villages as a means of augmenting their populations in the face of deaths caused by war and disease. As part of the adoption ceremony, the adoptee was tortured, breaking down their old identity, before they were given the “water-of-pity” to purify themselves and accept their new identity in their adopted land. It may be that by torturing herself, Tekakwitha sought to wash away her old identity so that she may be adopted into her new society, the Christian village of Kahnawake, before she could receive the baptismal waters.
Mere days after her death, French colonists and Native American converts alike began crediting her with miraculous intercession. The missionaries would keep detailed records of their work and send them back to Rome, called a Historium Domus, a history of the house. According to Jesuit records, she appeared to the living in visions, worked healings, and performed other types of intercession. According to Cholenec,on the sixth day after the death of Catherine,… a virtuous person worthy of belief, being in prayer at four o’clock in the morning, she appeared to him surrounded with glory, bearing a pot full of maize, her radiant face lifted towards heaven as if in ecstasy.” She has become a symbol of Native American pride, especially among Catholics, in a post-colonial world. She was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI at Saint Peter's Basilica on 21 October 2012