George M. Anderson

The name Kateri Tekakwitha may not strike chords of recognition in the minds of many readers, nor did it in mine until I made a retreat this past summer at the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y. The shrine is dedicated primarily to eight French Jesuits who came to evangelize what was known in the 1600’s as New France. At least three of them met death at this location, the site of a Mohawk village called Ossernenon, where Kateri was born a decade later. Her embrace of Christianity and the mortified and prayerful manner of her life led to her becoming part of the shrine’s spirit—her statue dominates one of the four altars in the huge coliseum-style church erected after the martyrs’s canonization in 1930. Now Kateri too, beatified in 1980, awaits canonization.

 

Kateri’s Christian Indian mother and her Mohawk father died of smallpox while she was still an infant, and she was raised by relatives in a nearby Mohawk village. Coming into contact with other missionaries—successors to those killed—she requested baptism. Her new religion angered her relatives and the villagers, who saw her conversion as a traitorous embracing of the white man’s religion and a rejection of their own customs. Their disapprobation of her refusal to marry (she later made a vow of virginity), her long hours of prayer and her penitential practices reached persecutorial levels. With the missionaries’ help, she fled to another Jesuit outpost in what is now Canada. There she lived out the remainder of her short life—she died at 24.

Present-day spiritualities do not favor the severity of the penances Kateri undertook. But for her, they were a way of allying herself with the sufferings of Jesus and attaching herself almost literally to his cross. In this she had much in common with St. Rose of Lima, who lived a century earlier at the time of the Spanish conquests in Latin America.

Kateri’s penances went far beyond such standard practices as fasting and vigils. Walking barefoot in snow and whipping herself with reeds until her back bled were among the milder ones. Of these and other austerities, her spiritual director wrote after her death: “Although in my heart I admired her, I pretended to be displeased and reprimanded her for her imprudence.” But just as some commentators in our own times have viewed the penances of Rose of Lima as an oblique form of reparation for the crimes of the conquistadors, so might we today see those of Kateri as a form of atonement for the sins of Europeans (including missionaries) who, in their brutal efforts to take possession of the new-found lands in the 18th and 19th centuries, all but destroyed the cultures of Native American peoples across the continent.

But they were not entirely destroyed. The vice-postulator of Kateri’s cause for canonization is John Paret, a Jesuit who resides at the shrine. At the time of my retreat, he had just returned from the annual Tekakwitha conference. He explained that the conference’s goals include empowering Native American Catholics to live in harmony with both their Catholic and with their Native American spirituality. The latter, with its emphasis on reverence for the earth, has special relevance now as the degradation of the earth continues at an ever-accelerating rate. Father Paret said that Kateri is, in fact, viewed as the patroness of ecology.

Conference members pray for Kateri’s canonization. What is needed to move the process forward is the required miracle, a physical cure that cannot be explained by medical science, effected through the intercession of Kateri alone. Father Paret cited several cures that initially seemed to have been miraculous, but under close scrutiny these were rejected by the postulator in Rome. He noted that with advances in medicine and science, identifying cures as miraculous has become increasingly difficult. But given the injustices inflicted upon Native American peoples, proclaiming Kateri as the first Native American saint would underscore the value of their culture and spirituality—and serve as a form of reparation in its own right.

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.

Comments

John Vialet | 12/7/2002 - 5:50pm
As a long-time subscriber to AMERICA , I usually enjoy reading the column "Of Many Things." But  I was dismayed to read George Anderson's column on Kateri Tekawitha. Father Anderson suggests that we view the "penances" undertaken by this young woman "as a form of atonement for the sins of Europeans [who]... all but destroyed the cultures of Native American peoples...."   Father Anderson says that  walking "barefoot in the snow and whipping herself with reeds until her back bled were among the milder" "penances" Kateri practiced. Quite frankly, this is bizarre nonsense. I am sure that any staffer at AMERICA who undertook such self-destructive and masochistic practices would be swiftly conveyed to Bellevue Hospital. And I find it incredible that such clearly mentally disturbed activities can be seriously considered as desirable or useful in any way whatsoever.
Jim Conniff | 11/30/2002 - 8:37pm
Guess it's just me but surprised to find a George Anderson would be not all that familiar with name of Kateri Tekakwitha. Wasn't she famous as The Lily of the Mohawks? Ought she not to be even more renowned, and revered, these days? At least George admits the unfortunate fade. My Jesuit classmate Jim Dolan was buried at Auriesville earlier this year. Jim's in good company.

Jane Prouty | 11/25/2002 - 4:35am
I am so pleased to read about Blessed Kateri and Auriesville, the shrine of the North American Martyrs. The shrine itself, situated in the white birch tree forest on the banks of the Mohawk River, keeps us in commuinty about the Faith preached, lived, and died for there.

John Vialet | 12/7/2002 - 5:50pm
As a long-time subscriber to AMERICA , I usually enjoy reading the column "Of Many Things." But  I was dismayed to read George Anderson's column on Kateri Tekawitha. Father Anderson suggests that we view the "penances" undertaken by this young woman "as a form of atonement for the sins of Europeans [who]... all but destroyed the cultures of Native American peoples...."   Father Anderson says that  walking "barefoot in the snow and whipping herself with reeds until her back bled were among the milder" "penances" Kateri practiced. Quite frankly, this is bizarre nonsense. I am sure that any staffer at AMERICA who undertook such self-destructive and masochistic practices would be swiftly conveyed to Bellevue Hospital. And I find it incredible that such clearly mentally disturbed activities can be seriously considered as desirable or useful in any way whatsoever.
Jim Conniff | 11/30/2002 - 8:37pm
Guess it's just me but surprised to find a George Anderson would be not all that familiar with name of Kateri Tekakwitha. Wasn't she famous as The Lily of the Mohawks? Ought she not to be even more renowned, and revered, these days? At least George admits the unfortunate fade. My Jesuit classmate Jim Dolan was buried at Auriesville earlier this year. Jim's in good company.

Jane Prouty | 11/25/2002 - 4:35am
I am so pleased to read about Blessed Kateri and Auriesville, the shrine of the North American Martyrs. The shrine itself, situated in the white birch tree forest on the banks of the Mohawk River, keeps us in commuinty about the Faith preached, lived, and died for there.

John Vialet | 1/31/2007 - 9:22am
As a longtime subscriber to America, I usually enjoy reading Of Many Things. But I was dismayed to read the column on Kateri Tekakwitha (12/2). It is suggested that we view the “penances” undertaken by this young woman “as a form of atonement for the sins of Europeans [who]... all but destroyed the cultures of Native American peoples....” Walking “barefoot in the snow and whipping herself with reeds until her back bled were among the milder” “penances” Kateri practiced. Quite frankly, this is bizarre nonsense. I am sure that any staffer at America who undertook such self-destructive and masochistic practices would be swiftly conveyed to Bellevue Hospital. And I find it incredible that such clearly mentally disturbed activities can seriously be considered desirable or useful in any way whatsoever.

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