Since December, reports of a Mohawk saint’s imminent canonization have peppered news media across Canada and the world.
Most know her as Kateri Tekakwitha, though the name is just one of many less-than-certain traits of a woman remembered for her intense devotion, self-mortification, and attachment to nature. Tekakwitha’s name and image adorn shrines, churches, and other public buildings across Quebec and North America. Pope Benedict XVI is expected to canonize her in 2012, making her the first North American indigenous woman to complete the Vatican’s long and multi-step evaluation of sainthood.
Two miracles must be approved by the pope before a saint can be canonized. Tekakwitha earned her second when a boy from Washington state was cured of a serious infection in 2006 after persistent prayers to the Mohawk ascetic.
Tekakwitha was born in what is now Auriesville, New York, around 1656, but made the journey to – and ultimately died in – Kahnawake, a few kilometers from Montreal. Tekakwitha found a community of Mohawk Catholics in Kahnawake more tolerant of her beliefs.
Tekakwitha is said to act as a patroness for children, those persecuted for their faith, and the environment, according to Deacon Ron Boyer of the St. Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake, where Tekakwitha is entombed and enshrined.
“The best way to find God is in nature. She didn’t praise nature, she found God in it,” he said.
Boyer shares the position of Vice Postulator with an American Monsignor. Postulators are appointed by the Catholic Church to manage cases for sainthood and investigate the miracles required for canonization.
While reports from CTV and the Toronto Star highlight claims for Tekakwitha’s nationality as Canadian or American, she died long before either country existed.
Boyer dismissed the media-reported debate over which country “owns” Tekakwitha’s memory.
“That borderline – we didn’t make that line,” said Boyer. “We look at ourselves as North American… People look up to her, native [or] non-native. She’s well-known.”
McGill History professor Allan Greer wrote a biography of Tekakwitha in 2005. He noted that claiming her citizenship for one side of the border or the other would make for an anachronistic label. “People who claim her as a Mohawk saint probably have a more reasonable claim,” he said.
As Greer’s book, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, recounts, different parties have long sought to define Tekakwitha for their own purposes, beginning just after her death. Two French Jesuit priests, impressed by the Mohawk woman’s spiritual devotion, penned hagiographic accounts of her life in an attempt to win canonization.
In 1884, the American Catholic Church, then associated with working-class immigrants, took notice of Tekakwitha’s record.
“The American church was looking for some way to Americanize themselves with a symbolic anchor in American soil,” Greer explained. “She’s as far from being an immigrant as you can get.”
The American Catholic Church’s authorities petitioned Rome to consider Tekakwitha’s beatification, an intermediary step toward full sainthood. Within a few years, romanticized depictions of Tekakwitha’s life were published that emphasized a generic native identity. Greer wrote in his book that the name “Kateri” is likely the result of an American author’s attempt to indigenize the name “Catherine,” under which Tekakwitha was baptized at age nineteen.
The French-Canadian church promoted Tekakwitha by establishing a shrine for her in Kahnawake. Another shrine exists in Auriesville, marking Tekakwitha’s incorporation into the identities of European Catholics, conservative French nationalists, and Americanizing Catholic immigrants alike, according to Greer.
“She has been assimilated into these various identities, even as she has been made to stand for the antithesis of modernity,” he writes in Mohawk Saint.
The only other native saint recognized by the Vatican in 2002 is Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Tekakwitha Conference, based in Great Falls, Montana, describes itself on its website as “the only Catholic Native American/Aboriginal Religious organization in North America.” The organization holds annual conferences to bring native Catholics together, and oversees a network of “Kateri Circles.”
Martin Loft, public programs supervisor at the Kahnawake Cultural Centre, spoke to the impact of Tekakwitha’s expected canonization in Kahnawake, saying there has been an impact “among people who are traditional-minded.
“But among people who are not – they’re not paying attention, to be honest,” he continued.
“We were known at one time as the praying Iroquois, the praying Mohawk,” he said. “Now, only a handful go to the masses.”