Insight into Kateri of the Mohawks

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Yard sales are great places to find interesting old books at unbelievably low prices. For example, a recent find about Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) gives even more insight about why this Indian lady was so special the French Jesuits who settled New France. 

Twenty-five cents purchased an old paperback book titled, "Kateri of the Mohawks" (1962), by Marie Cecilia Buehrle. 

Surely, another life of Kateri Tekakwitha may seem unnecessary. What’s particularly interesting is how this specific book was written many years prior to the recent July 14th feast day awarded to Kateri Tekakwitha on the Roman Catholic Church calendar when she was elevated by the Pope to the status of "blessed". The general public today knows more about her life then when this old paperback was first published. People who study her life automatically learn how her Mohawk people lived because her life story is actually a study in Mohawk culture.

All the facts about Kateri’s life are written in accounts by French Jesuit priests. Father Cholenec, was her confessor and Father Chauchetiere was her spiritual director. By 1744, about 64 years after her death, the French Jesuit Father Francis Xavier de Charlevoix called her "New Star of the New World". Some of her other nicknames are "Sainted Savage", and "Lily of New France". Her shrine and museum are located near Fonda, in upstate New York.

Buehrle writes about Kateri’ life because she is a human mystic. Unlike many other saints, people can easily identify with her life. She struggled when she was orphaned and physically handicapped from the smallpox infection that killed her parents. Also, she had the disadvantage of being badly scarred, not pretty, and her eyes were apparently damaged from the smallpox. Being an orphan meant strong role models were missing in her life. 

So, for many reasons, Kateri lived her unhappy life apart from others. Therefore, her thoughts were likely different than other Mohawk girls who typically wanted to marry and continue the tribe’s matriarchal traditions. Curiously, Kateri was strongly opposed to marriage. In fact, her opposition to marriage was so strong that neither her own personal security nor her duty to obey the desires of her adopted parents could change her mind. Culturally, this stubbornness was an economic burden to her family because a husband automatically became another provider in the family. 

She was very shy, actually a recluse, when she first met the French Jesuit priests who eventually converted her to Christianity. Kateri was ten years old when she heard the word "Rawenniio"; the name given by the Mohawks to the God worshipped by the Jesuits. Father James de Lamberville baptized her in 1676, on Easter Sunday. 

Most interesting in this biography is the detail in Buehrle’s vivid description of Kateri’s death. Eyewitness accounts about her death tell a strange story about her face becoming beautiful after she died. In fact, her face was too beautiful to cover in the traditional method of draping the body. Many miracles were also reported after her death.

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Published on October 8, 1998
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland Maine and Juliana L'Heureux