Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits

Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits

Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits

Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits

Synopsis

The daughter of a Algonquin mother and an Iroquois father, Catherine/Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) has become known over the centuries as a Catholic convert so holy that, almost immediately upon her death, she became the object of a cult. Today she is revered as a patron saint by Native Americans and the patroness of ecology and the environment by Catholics more generally, the first Native North American proposed for sainthood.
Tekakwitha was born at a time of cataclysmic change, as Native Americans of the northeast experienced the effects of European contact and colonization. A convert to Catholicism in the 1670s, she embarked on a physically and mentally grueling program of self-denial, aiming to capture the spiritual power of the newcomers from across the sea. Her story intersects with that of Claude Chaucheti re, a French Jesuit of mystical tendencies who came to America hoping to rescue savages from sin and paganism. But it was Claude himself who needed help to face down his own despair. He became convinced that Tekakwitha was a genuine saint and that conviction gave meaning to his life. Though she lived until just 24, Tekakwitha's severe penances and vivid visions were so pronounced that Chaucheti re wrote an elegiac hagiography shortly after her death.
With this richly crafted study, Allan Greer has written a dual biography of Tekakwitha and Chaucheti re, unpacking their cultures in Native America and in France. He examines the missionary and conversion activities of the Jesuits in Canada, and explains the Indian religious practices that interweave with converts' Catholic practices. He also relates how Tekakwitha's legend spread through the hagiographies and to areas of the United States, Canada, Europe, and Mexico in the centuries since her death. The book also explores issues of body and soul, illness and healing, sexuality and celibacy, as revealed in the lives of a man and a woman, from profoundly different worlds, who met centuries ago in the remote Mohawk village of Kahnawake.

Excerpt

What drew me to the “Mohawk Virgin,” Catherine Tekakwitha, was the desire to learn more about the native experience of contact and colonization. Historians are well acquainted with the cataclysms that engulfed the Americas and their indigenous peoples following Columbus’s voyages: the bloody conquests, the devastating epidemics, the advent of wonderful new tools and weapons that could lead to commercial dependence, the introduction of a strange religion, Christianity. But how did these vast, impersonal processes play out at the level of specific, individual lives? surely generalizations about colonial war, disease, economic upheaval, and religious change can provide only an imperfect sense of what it was like to live through these unpredictable upheavals. I was hoping to gain a better understanding of the larger processes of colonization by taking as my subject not “Indians,” not even “Iroquois” or “Mohawks,” but a particular native person.

Until now, the history of Native Americans of the colonial period has been written largely in terms of faceless collectivities: “the Arawaks” greet Columbus on the shores of Hispaniola, the “Narragansetts” suffer defeat in Metacom’s War, a faction of “the Mohawks” aligns itself with the French and accepts Catholicism, and so on. the names of a few native leaders such as Powhatan, Pontiac, and Moctezuma are familiar enough, but the flattened portraits that emerge from European source materials provide hardly a hint of how these individuals—much less the millions of Indians who were not recognized as leaders—thought and felt. and as is always the case in history, the evidence, such as it is, tends to focus on men and male concerns. Hence my interest in Catherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman of the early colonial period whose short life happens to be more fully and richly documented than that of any other indigenous person of North or South America in the colonial period.

After she died in 1680, two French Jesuits became convinced that the young woman they had known merely as one of several pious converts was . . .

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