It’s an early Sunday morning in Rome, and Vatican Square is filling up with people. It’s October 21, and seven saints will be canonized. Amongst the tens of thousands of spectators in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, a small group of Kahnawa’kehro:non – the Mohawks of Kahnawake – cheer on their hometown saint: blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Aboriginal to ever be canonized.
Several hours later in Kahnawake, the Mohawk reserve just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, citizens will be hosting their own celebration. Dozens of pilgrims will empty out of their tour buses into the small St. Francis Xavier church. Those without seats will filter into the Kateri Tekakwitha School gym to watch the canonization ceremony, streamed from Rome. Some residents will don traditional Mohawk dress. Throughout the world, many will get down on their knees and pray.
Despite the flurry of excitement, some Kahnawake residents won’t be in attendance. Timmy Montour for example, will stay away, preferring a lazy Sunday breakfast. Tekakwitha’s canonization is, for him, “colonization. It’s a slap in the face.”
It’s a feeling that has reopened a centuries-old wound in this small Mohawk community. It is a wound that – despite the influx of pilgrims and tourism dollars and the Vatican’s blessing – stubbornly refuses to heal.
When a wave of smallpox swept across the northeast of this continent from 1661 to 1663, 4-year-old Kateri Tekakwitha was left scarred and orphaned from the virus. She was adopted by her uncle, and brought to Kahnawake in 1677, where she is buried. The conventional story of Tekakwitha’s life primarily concerns her devotion and her bouts of self-flagellation. Her myth is built on details about how she slept on a bed of thorns, or crept barefoot through the snow, lost in prayer. Like many stories about saints, she was said to have exuded the flowery “odour of sanctity” upon dying. In her last moments on earth, her scars disappeared, the story goes. She was only 24 years old.
According to Allan Greer, a professor of History at McGill and author of Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, Tekakwitha’s life has to be seen as both “an actual human life and a literary creation.” The stories of Tekakwitha’s purity and devotion to the point of self-flagellation may be truthful, but often lack the socio-historical context they need. According to Greer’s book, about a dozen Kahnawake women lived similar lives alongside Tekakwitha. Their stories remain relatively untold, let alone recognized by the Vatican.
Most of what we know about Tekakwitha comes from the voluminous hagiography of her life, written by a Jesuit missionary, Claude Chauchetière.
The account provides a window into late 17th century life. Territorial wars and smallpox were both rampant, and a new European religion was on the march.
Chauchetière, a French Jesuit, was in the midst of his own spiritual crisis. It’s easy to imagine him, huddled at a candlelit desk, writing to his brother in deep despair about his loss of faith. Tekakwitha becomes his own saviour. While he promoted her healing powers while she was alive, it is the moment of her death that brought his revelation: “the climax and turning point” of his life, as Greer describes it. Thirty years later he commited her story to the page.
Chauchetière’s hagiography is the earliest example of the long literary tradition of documenting her life. Children’s books, the Catholic publishing industry, and even Leonard Cohen have all played a part in keeping Tekakwitha’s story alive.
For Greer, Chauchetière is just as remarkable as the saint herself. “My research was as much about the Jesuit as it was about her. He creates her. She is a literary creation of this guy, and no one ever talks about that,” Greer told me when we spoke in his office.
Working in Greer’s logic, Tekakwitha was mortal until proven (or written) holy. The miracles that have enabled her canonization all occurred years, even centuries, after her life. Now that the 120-year-long campaign for her sainthood has come to a successful end, it is the people of Kahnawake who will most closely feel the effects of Tekakwitha’s newfound divinity.
Claude Chauchetière was irrelevant for the Sunday faithful who attended her canonization. Pilgrims clamoured their way through the front doors of the small Kahnawake church, some stopping to snap a photo in front of Tekakwitha’s shrine. Across from St. Francis Xavier, young boys in traditional dress rushed to welcome guests at the neighbourhood school, and guided them to the gym. Projected on the screen was the video of St. Peter’s Basilica, with seven larger than life portraits hanging from its façade. Just like the crowd in Rome, headdresses and habits speckled the crowd.
Although the canonization in Rome was already over, the stream made the event feel live, especially so when young Jake Finkbonner – a young boy cured of his flesh-eating disease by Tekakwitha – received communion on the St. Peter’s steps. When the stream froze, or sputtered, a communal groan filled the gym. All eyes were glued, praying that they would not miss a single thing.
Many Canadian Aboriginals flew to Rome for the canonization, while other local residents simply attended the mass at St. Francis Xavier. Others enjoyed the Sunday like it was any other. Regan Jacobs, a former journalist and creator and owner of Mohawk TV, was one of them. In between reprimanding her kids in her native tongue, we spoke over pancakes in the small caféeshe owns.
Acknowledgement of the canonization, regardless of one’s political opinion, is a respectful gesture toward Kahnawake’s more Christian elders, Jacobs explained. “Acknowledgement can only go so far without crossing a line,” she said.
“Not only did [the church] steal our land, they basically tried to assimilate us. But we will still give people slight acknowledgement because that’s who we are as a people. We’re understanding and loving and at the end of the day we will always rise to an occasion.”
That sentiment echoed in the remarks of Timmy Montour, a Kahnawake man sitting at a nearby table. “Respect is the main thing. You have to respect the church and the people who care,” Montour said. Montour wasn’t shy, however, about expressing his extreme distrust of what he feels are encroachments on Mohawk tradition. He cited the church, particularly its dark history of residential schools, as “responsible for mostly all of the pains that have happened to our people.” Tekakwitha’s canonization was only working to pit community members against one another. “For me, even Kateri seems like a bit of a traitor,” Montour said.
Unlike Jacobs and Montour, Concordia student and part-time worker at a general store in town Vernon Goodleaf was optimistic about the potential for increased tourism. “She’s Mohawk, and I’m Mohawk, so I’m really proud of it. Sainthood is a prestigious thing, and a good thing all around for everybody. It’ll bring good tourism here because everyone will want to check it out.” Goodleaf hoped the increased tourism would spark an even greater interest in Kahnawake’s culture, to help get rid of “the stigma attached to the reservation.”
Whether explicitly or not, the legacy of the Oka Crisis haunted every conversation I had with Kahnawake residents. The “stigma” Goodleaf described is due to the 1990, an escalation of a land dispute between Mohawks in nearby Oka and the town’s government, who wanted to build a golf course on a traditional Mohawk burying ground. During the ten-week-long standoff between armed Mohawk militants and the Canadian military, the Mohawks of Kahnawake blockaded the Mercier Bridge in solidarity, stopping traffic between the island of Montreal and the South Shore. In the neighboring town of Châteauguay, residents responded to the crisis by burning an effigy of a Mohawk warrior.
“I was really young and I didn’t really understand anything about it. All I knew was that everything was blocked off and outside was the enemy. From then on it was just no French [language],” said Goodleaf. Goodleaf has recently changed his tune and sees fluency in French as a valuable tool.
Tekakwitha’s sainthood has opened a space for dialogue, and Kahnawake is talking to itself about the future of the community. In a column in the local paper The Eastern Door, Jessica Deer writes that increased tourism may benefit existing businesses, and even provide for new ones. Kahnawake, she writes, “will have to wait and see.” Another local reporter, Daniel J. Rowe, quotes a church volunteer who says that the canonization is bringing back tourists from the United States who have been missing in recent years.
The canonization is no Oka Crisis, but the increased presence of tourists does dredge up the pain of that summer. Not all business owners are as open to change, and the Calico Cottage Quilt and Gift Shop refuses to sell anything with Kateri Tekakwitha’s image, while others are banking on it.