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Mohawk Virgin

Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekak­witha and the Jesuits

By Allan Greer

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 249 pages

Price: $35

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Over 300 books in 20 languages have been published about Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha since she died at age 24, on April 17, 1680. Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint is unique in that it is a learned work (40 pages of endnotes) by a non-Catholic intended to challenge the prevailing view of Iroquois conversion to Christianity. Recent scholars tend to regard Jesuit missionaries to New France “as a malevolent force” that embodies Christian European civilization. Greer challenges this view by focusing on “two intersecting lives” — those of the Jesuit Claude Chauchetiere and Catherine Tekakwitha.

Chauchetiere was the junior missionary at Kahnawake, the Indian village near Montreal where Tekakwitha spent her last years. Both he and his colleague, Breton Jesuit Pierre Cholenec, wrote biographies within a few years of Tekakwitha’s death. Chauchetiere’s was entitled The Life of the B[lessed] Catherine Tegakouita, Presently Called the Holy Indian Woman. Based on his recollections and interviews, it consisted of 127 manuscript pages drafted in 1685. In addition, he composed an illustrated chronicle of Kahnawake in 1686 and finally a spiritual autobiography in 1695, in the form of a long letter to his brother, also a Jesuit. Not one of these works was published till long after his death. The Life was printed only in 1887. Greer declares that “Together these writings constitute an unparalleled body of source material, a double window looking into the Iroquois Christian world” and “into the world of the French Jesuits who penned them.”

Cholenec’s biography of Tekakwitha, written around 1696, was published in abridged form in 1717, filling 92 pages of the Jesuits’ annual mission publication, Lettres édifiantes et curieuses. Like Chauchetiere’s work, it was remarkable in being “a full-scale vita sanctorum dedicated to a woman who remained to the end Mohawk in her appearance, her language, and her way of life.”

Tekakwitha’s mother, an Algonquin and “a devout, baptized Catholic,” was captured by Mohawks near Three Rivers (between Montreal and Québec) and taken to live in Gandaouagué in New York, near Fort Orange (later renamed Albany). She died in the 1662 smallpox epidemic, from which Tekakwitha, age six, emerged weakened and scarred. Thirteen years later, in 1675, as part of a group of Mohawk converts, Tekakwitha received Baptism and took the name of Catherine, for St. Catherine of Siena. Many of the Mohawks who had been baptized earlier had moved north to Kahnawake, but Tekakwitha stayed for two more years, though she was rebuked for laziness for not working on Sundays. When an older sister by adoption sent her husband to escort Tekakwitha north, she left and arrived in Kahnawake in 1677. Up to then, she had never seen a church or received Communion, and she had only three more years to live.

Chauchetiere was also an orphan. He lost his mother at age nine, and his father at age 16, in 1662, the same year Tekakwitha’s mother died. In his studies to become a Jesuit, he dropped out of theology a year before getting his degree, after deciding to be a missionary. By then he was highly educated, with three years of philosophy behind him, as well as three years of theology and five years of teaching. Chauchetiere would later see Providence in the fact that he and Tekakwitha arrived at Kahnawake at the same season in the same year — 1677. Greer notes another remarkable convergence: When he died in New France in 1709, at age 63, it was on the same day that Tekakwitha had died in 1680 — April 17.

Kahnawake consisted of 22 longhouses (with around 50 inhabitants each) in two rows, plus a wooden house for missionaries and a chapel. The villagers were mostly Mohawk, along with Oneida and Huron. Unlike the Indians under Spanish rule, these natives were not part of a “colonial labor system,” did not “work for wages,” and kept a “high degree” of independence.

After making her First Communion on Christmas Day in 1677, Tekakwitha became devoted to the Eucharist, coming to daily Mass at the break of day and taking frequent Communion. While everyone in the mission came to daily Mass, she would return during the day to pray, and Fr. Cholenec recalled that whenever she prayed, “her eyes were always filled with tears.” When the clan mother Anastasia tried to get Catherine to marry, Cholenec spoke to the young woman and found she had “renounced marriage in order to have none other than Jesus Christ as her spouse.” After hearing this, he supported her decision.

In 1678, Chauchetiere records, there was a circle of 13 Indian women at Kahnawake (Tekakwitha among them) who aimed at “the highest level of perfection.” They had given themselves to God “in a spirit of great poverty,” depended on “charity for their food and clothing,” and served the sick and the poor of the village. Without the knowledge of the Jesuits, these new Christians used extreme penances, such as great fasts and exposure to cold. Greer observes that this behavior was confined to the late 1670s and early 1680s, when war was looming between kinfolk, the Mohawks of New York and Canada. Their radical asceticism, he suggests, might have had “meanings for the Indians that French Christians could not fully comprehend.” In the 1690s the Five Nations rose in war and came near to destroying Kahnawake. The Jesuits attributed the survival of the mission to “Catherine’s protective presence”; and the Bishop of Québec, who came to pray at Tekakwitha’s tomb, compared her to St. Genevieve, whose penances saved Paris from Attila in A.D. 451.

Fifteen minutes after Tekakwitha died on Holy Thursday, April 17, 1680, both Jesuits at Kahnawake witnessed that her face “appeared more beautiful than it had been when living.” The scars of smallpox had disappeared. Then, six days after her death, Chauchetiere had a vision that lasted for two hours: he saw her “surrounded in glory” and in ecstasy. Chauchetiere wanted to bury the Mohawk virgin inside the church, but Cholenec at first refused, though the flow of pilgrims to her tomb would soon convince him to place her remains inside the newly rebuilt mission chapel.

In January 1681 Chauchetiere was summoned to the bedside of a dying 40-year-old French habitant named Claude Caron. He stopped to pray at Tekakwitha’s grave, asking God to give him a sign of her holiness by healing this man. Then he asked Caron “to have recourse to the dead Mohawk woman,” the dying man agreed, and a healing occurred within the hour. When news of this miracle spread, devotion to Tekakwitha increased. Now hardly a week passed without a “significant” cure in some French settlement. There is a register from the mid-1690s that lists names, dates, and circumstances of 28 local miracles. It is in the handwriting of Fr. Pierre Rémy, a Sulpician priest who started off a skeptic but became a believer after being cured of a stubborn ear infection at her tomb. In 1696 Rémy witnessed the cure of a little Lachine boy so crippled he could not stand up. His mother dedicated him to Tekakwitha at her tomb, hired an Indian woman to say nine Ave Marias daily for nine days, and at the end of the novena her son was able to walk.

After 15 years of curing French settlers, Tekakwitha came to the attention of Canada’s urban elite in 1695, when Chauchetiere was summoned to give the last rites to a prominent man in Montreal. Once again he invoked Tekakwitha and the dying man revived. Now even members of Louis XIV’s court began to seek the intercession of the Mohawk virgin. Strange to say, the Catholic Iroquois of Kahnawake did not invoke her for healings. Greer thinks this might be because they had no tradition of seeking favors from the dead.

Cholenec’s and Chauche­tiere’s biographies are “mutually reinforcing” except on one point: Cholenec claims that on March 25, 1679, he allowed Catherine to promise “perpetual virginity” to Christ, while Chauchetiere laments that Catherine was not allowed to take such a vow. Greer remarks that Cholenec may be “adjusting raw historical data to the demands of religiously meaningful discourse.” This amounts to saying that he is lying. It’s possible the vow she made was private and that Chauchetiere laments the absence of a public ceremony.

In 1724 Cholenec’s biography was published in Mexico City as La gracia triunfante en la vida de Catharina Tegakovita, india iroquesa, and a century later Chateaubriand wove her story into his novel Les Natchez. Thus her name began to spread across the globe. American bishops adopted her in 1884 as the saint who could show that the Catholic Church was rooted in American soil. From now on there would be two major shrines: one in Auriesville, N.Y., where she was born, and one in Kahnawake, where she died. There would also be two vice-postulators for her canonization, one in the U.S. and one in Canada. It was in 1932 that her formal process got underway, and she was beatified in 1980, 300 years after her death.

A central figure in the canonization process was Fr. Clarence Walworth of New York. His niece Nelly discovered Chauchetiere’s manuscript, caused it to be published, and then, in 1891, published her own Life and Times of Kateri Tekakwitha, a feminist work depicting Tekakwitha engaged in a “thoroughly modern quest for personal autonomy,” God having a rather minor role in the process. This book is where Kateri comes from — it is how Nelly imagined the Iroquois pronounced the name Catherine.

Greer considers Tekakwitha’s greatest miracle to be the one she performed in Chauchetiere’s soul: Her death unleashed a “profound revolution” in him and led to “prayers, visions, biographical research, and experiments in miraculous healings by which he sought to determine whether he had indeed witnessed the death of a saint.” Chauchetiere devoted fifteen years of his life “to repaying his debt to the Mohawk virgin, testing, proving and proclaiming her holiness, but also writing about other, living, Christian Iroquois with the warmest admiration.” He believed that what he had written about Catherine could be said “of several Indian men and women now still living.” In his eyes, Iroquois converts were like the early Christians.

Today the heartland of devotion to Tekakwitha is not French Canada or New York, but New Mexico, home to dozens of “Kateri Circles,” in which Pueblo, Apache, and Navaho women revere the Mohawk virgin “for her ability to remain fully native while becoming fully Catholic.” Greer visited them and also the Tekakwitha Conference, in Great Falls, Montana, which is dedicated to her canonization and is under the control, since the 1970s, of “Indian laity.”

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