HE CAME TO VISIT HER EVERY DAY, AS SHE LAY WAITING TO DIE.
It was the spring of 1680, during the Catholic season of Lent, and Catherine was scarcely able to rise from her mat on the floor of the barkcovered longhouse. Much of the time she was alone with her illness, lying close to a smoldering fire; at her side were a carved wooden dish with her day’s supply of corn porridge and some water in a bark bowl. Only a handful of women, children, and old people remained in this Christian Iroquois village on the banks of the St. Lawrence, and during the day they were busy outdoors gathering firewood or preparing the ground for spring planting. Most of the men and many of the women were still many days’ journey to the north or the west, at their hunting camps along the Ottawa and its tributaries. They would return for Easter, laden with beaver skins and other furs to discharge their debts with the French merchants of Montreal. Then there would be solemn church services and jubilant feasting, but now Kahnawake (or Sault St. Louis, as the French called it) was generally quiet.
Catherine, also known by her Mohawk name, Tekakwitha, was about twenty-four years old at the time of her death. She came from a village on the Mohawk River, at the eastern extremity of the Iroquois country in what is now New York State. A childhood bout of smallpox had left her frail and sickly, and her health had not been enhanced by the punishing habits of ascetic penance she acquired in her twenties. After accepting Christian baptism and then, in 1677, joining in the migration from her native land north