Kateri Tekakwitha: Saint or Victim?

Her last words were “Jesus, I love you.” Kateri was a sickly child who died young. Smallpox killed her parents, left her half blind and her face scarred.

Kateri

To everyone’s amazement, Kateri was transformed in less than an hour after dying. A Jesuit priest wrote in that “This face, so marked and swarthy, suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful and so white that I observed it immediately.”

Word of the apparent miracle spread quickly in 1680 but it took centuries before she was canonized as a saint. Her bones were spread almost as fast as the word. “Relics,” as her bones are called, were divided and distributed all over North America and some even made it as far as the Vatican.

Her transformation from swarthy to white may have seemed miraculous to the Jesuit missionaries, and to some Catholic native communities. But for Mohawks in the town of Kahnawake, it’s a bit much writes Mark Abley in Canada’s History magazine. One Mohawk woman told Abley “men wouldn’t talk about Kateri and women would roll their eyes.”

Many modern Mohawks who adhere to the Longhouse traditions see Kateri (Catherine) as victim of colonialism. How else would they consider a woman who left her native community to travel with priests?

“The French instilled in her a foreign religion that promoted ideals contrary to the Iroquois Confederacy to which the Mohawks belonged,” explains Abley. This was the very church that was trying to remove the indian in the Indian.

As miraculous as it seemed, the transformation of Kateri from a swarthy Indian to a “porcelain icon” was not enough for her to be designated a saint. It took the cure of a boy from the Coast Salish nation in Washington. The boy’s father heard of the “Lily of the Mohawks” as a child, so when his son contracted a deadly flesh-eating disease they prayed to Kateri for deliverance.

A Mohawk nun heard of the boy’s plight and took a relic to the boy’s bedside and placed Kateri’s bone on his leg. Miraculously, the boy recovered. That became enough for Kateri’s canonization in 2012.

While there are Indian “Kateri Circles” in 25 American states and she is revered in Guatemala, reverence is at an all-time low in her home town. An ordained Ojibway deacon who lives in Kahnawake says that the attraction of the Catholic Church as fallen off dramatically since he arrived in 1957. “When I arrived here, I’d say the reservation was ninety-eight per cent Catholic.

Now they have trouble raising enough money to maintain the church that holds Kateri’s remains. Residents were at first worried that her canonization would lead to a tourist circus but after a few weeks, visits dropped off and that suits most inhabitants just fine.

Even Quebec, once-dominated by the church, wants nothing to do with the show. When Leonard Cohen wrote Beautiful Losers in the 1960s, every taxi in Montreal had a plastic Kateri on the dash. Cohen had a character in his novel implore: “Catherine Tekakwitha, I have come to rescue you from the Jesuits.”

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2 Comments

  1. “How else would they consider a woman who left her native community to travel with priests?”

    Could consider her a strong-willed independent woman, an idea which threatens some. But it is false to say she “travelled with priests.” When she moved she travellled with other Native Americans. Priests were few and far between.

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