The mythic story of the “Lily of Mohawks” Kateri Tekakwitha’s miraculous healing powers and devotion to the Catholic Church has created much debate surrounding her possible canonization. An internationally cherished figure, her lasting legacy yearly draws pilgrims to the St. Francis Xavier Church on the Mohawk reserve in Kahnawake, Quebec. Once a safe haven for indigenous people wishing to practice Catholicism free from persecution, reluctance now exists amongst Kahnawake’s own residents as to whether she truly deserves sainthood. Her miracles, albeit inspiring in story, are viewed with ambivalence by much of Kahnawake’s population.
A wave of smallpox killed Tekakwitha’s parents and brother when she was four, leaving her face completely scarred. Adopted by her uncle, Tekakwitha was introduced to Jesuit missionaries and her passionate spirituality lead to her eventual baptism in 1676. Her fellow Mohawks ostracized her for her devoutness, causing Tekakwitha to flee from upstate New York to Kahnawake in 1677. In the last three years of her life, Tekakwitha devoted herself completely to God, accepting Jesus as her only husband. Stories often glorify her self-flagellation, sleeping on beds of thorns, or praying barefoot in the snow to emulate Jesus’s suffering. The most significant of these folk tales is the disappearance of her scars in the moment of her death. After her final words, “Jesus, I love you!” (or “Jesus! Mary!” as other sources say), Tekakwitha’s smallpocked face cleared, leaving a rosy complexion. Her body is said to have exuded the “odour of sanctity” that emanates from the body of saints. Tekakwitha was only 24 years old.
A resident of Kahnawake since birth, Michael Loft, of the Indigenous Access department at McGill, offered a more scholarly opinion of Tekakwitha. In speaking about her chastity, Loft explained, that “In her own way, she was an early feminist. She was a headstrong woman who was going to do what she wanted.” Despite a Catholic upbringing, Loft remained primarily indifferent to Tekakwitha. Influenced by the community’s elders, Loft “heard from the traditional people, who gave me mixed messages as a young man about her status. I was lead to believe she was almost not a real factor amongst us. I didn’t grow up like, ‘Woah, she’s almost a saint.’ She was not a cultural hero of any sort for me. Only as a I grew older did I realize that she was practicing some pretty important things.”
Loft’s view parallels that of many Mohawk people in Kahnawake – an appreciation for Tekakwitha rather than a worship of her. Interestingly enough, after enduring multiple eye surgeries, Loft prayed to Tekakwitha. He jokes, “I don’t know if it was [Tekakwitha] or the miracle of modern medicine, but those things drive you to prayer. I was so happy after and I thank her for that.” However, like many Mohawks I spoke to, Loft remains essentially indifferent to Tekakwitha’s legacy: “She is more important to the rest of the world than to us…but if anything gets you that deep in life, can’t be anything wrong with it.”
A local legend or a gift from God? Kahnawake’s librarian Cathy Rice explained that such clear distinctions don’t exist. For Rice, to understand the debate from an outsider’s perspective is difficult. She asked, “Do you know the way you recognize your family, your brothers, your aunts? That is how I look at everyone here [on the reservation]. Everyone is much more aware of each other’s sensitivities and acts accordingly. It’s not a conflict; it’s just how it is. We acknowledge the differences in opinion.” In Rice’s case, she doesn’t believe Tekakwitha should be a saint. For her, religion is “too compartmentalized and controlling…and trying to elevate her to sainthood is against [Mohawk] philosophy and culture.” She emphasized the Harvest Festival and the Mohawk way of “incorporating spirituality into all daily activities and giving thanks.” However, she too views Tekakwitha as a strong woman. For Rice, “[Tekakwitha] did what she had to do. There will always be battles we have to contend with, even today. Encroachments on our land, for example are still happening today. She did what was best in the moment.”
A mile from the library in Kahnawake, the steeple of St. Francis Xavier dominates the skyline from downtown. A stone block bears Tekakwitha’s name and dates of birth and death in the front yard with the St. Lawrence River behind. Despite passing pickup trucks, the space feels sacred. A museum in the left wing of the church features old chalices and rosaries amongst moccasins along with a small room dedicated to Tekakwitha. Paintings depict her with braided hair and hands clasped in prayer. It is also completely empty – a true reflection of the prominence of Catholics in Kahnawake.
Ron Boyer, a former colleague of Cathy Rice and the deacon who leads services at St. Francis Xavier, described his efforts in promoting Tekakwitha’s canonization. He blamed the Vatican for her stalled sainthood, not God. Canonization is not, in fact, the process of “making” someone a saint, but simply the recognition that they always have been one. He explained the Vatican’s suspicion as to why Tekakwitha only experienced an act of God (the disappearance of her scars) after death. However, he reassured me the Vatican was just “taking their time” after Brother André’s canonization this past October. Boyer already views her as a saint – so why the rush, one may wonder? He responded quite simply, “It would fill the seats!” Dependent on the charity of church-goers, Boyer’s plea for Tekakwitha’s canonization was at least in part financially motivated. Upon asking him about the many non-believers in the community, he explained, “Oh…they’re disenchanted.” Disenchanted, discouraged, plain old “hurt,” Boyer truly believed all of Kahnwake felt Tekakwitha was a saint in their hearts. In his view, they simply weren’t “healed.”
Leaving Tekakwitha’s chapel, I encountered a woman buying prayer cards. A pilgrim from Indiana, she explained that “My daughter has learning disabilities and I am praying to Tekakwitha for her, or for my own strength.” She believed her prayers were “just asking a favour. A big big favour.” Before I had left, she had bought up the store’s entire supply of cards.
For the Catholics on the reserve, Tekakwitha’s canonization may seem like an opportunity to legitimize their faith before their peers. Catholicism remains a contentious issue on the reserve, with its echoes of colonialism: out of a population of 8,000, only 150 residents regularly attend St. Francis Xavier. Surely, Tekakwitha’s canonization would be an economic benefit for the church as well as Kahnawake tourism. However, her saintly status may only further suppress Mohawk tradition. Tekakwitha remains a controversial figure, but many of the proponents of her canonization are Mohawk themselves, and across the Americas, Catholic indigenous people have adopted Tekakwitha as a symbol of their faith. Tekakwitha’s legacy doesn’t require the approval of the Vatican to be legitimized.