by Fr. N. V. Burtin, OMI
The blessed child whose sanctity was later to cast such a bright light on the new Sault St. Louis mission was born in the Mohawk Nation in 1656, in the Iroquois townships that now make up part of New York State. Father Chollenec [Jesuit missionary and one of Kateri's Confessors] calls the little village where she first saw the light of day Kendawag, according to the Mohawk dialect of that time. This term seems to be equivalent to the modern Iroquois word "kahnawakeh" [near the rapids]. Indeed, there is a rapids in the Mohawk River near Auriesville.
The Iroquois village first called Ossernenon was the scene of St. Isaac Jogues' Martyrdom. The French burned this village during Count de Tracy's campaign against the Iroquois in 1666. It was then moved to the other side of the river and is called Funda on modern maps.
Kateri's mother was a Catholic Algonquin whom the Iroquois had taken prisoner near Three Rivers during their wars against the Hurons and Algonquins. They took her to their country, where she was married to an Iroquois pagan by whom she had two children. Kateri's mother died when smallpox ravaged the village of Gantawagneh in which they were living. Her only regret was leaving her children without Baptism. Kateri's father also died, and she was at the point of death herself at the age of four.
Kateri recovered her health, but the dreaded disease left its marks on her face [which disappeared upon her death-----Web Master], and her eyes were so strongly affected that she almost lost her sight. She could not stand very strong light and was obliged to keep herself constantly wrapped in some sort of covering. This favored her desire to live unknown. Later on, she often thanked God for having granted her this grace, which she regarded as a preservative against the dangers of sin. Although she was not yet a Catholic, Kateri was prepossessed with the grace of God and had a natural inclination for modesty from the time she was very young.
not feel the
effects of the corruption of the Iroquois pagans she was living with:
was meek, patient, chaste and innocent. That is the testimony of those
who knew her from the time of her childhood. She did not remain idle in
her hut, but busied herself carrying little bundles of wood, preparing
the fire and going to fetch water. She dressed in the manner of young
her age, wearing a necklace around her neck, bead bracelets on her
and rings on her fingers and in her ears. She renounced all these
after her Baptism and imposed harsh penances on herself to chastise her
body, which she said she had loved more than she should have.
While Kateri went on living this very innocent sort of childhood, the Mohawks learned that the King of France [whom they called "Onontiyo Kowa"] had formed the plan of sending troops into their townships to destroy their villages. Fearful, they sent several of their chiefs to Montreal as envoys to draw up a peace treaty with the French. The governor general agreed to their conditions in the name of the king, and peace was concluded between the French and Indians.
It had not been very long since three Catholic priests had been killed by the Indians out of hatred for the Faith and the French, so the governor general suggested to the chiefs that they bring priests into their country and treat them well. The Jesuit Fathers Bruyas, Fremin and Pierron were named to go to Iroquois country because they knew the language. They stopped at the village of Kentawag, where Kateri was living. Her uncle, one of the principal elders in the village, received them in his home and told his niece to take care of them. Providence was working all these events in Kateri's interest so that she would meet the man who was later to confer the grace of Baptism upon her.
The three Jesuit missionaries remained in Kateri's village for just a few days. It was impossible for them to instruct her in detail on the Catholic religion or prepare her for Baptism, which she desired ardently from then on.
During the years before her Baptism, Kateri distinguished herself by the work-filled and virtuous life she led in her uncle's home. She was endowed with remarkable talent for all the tasks Indian women performed. She made porcelain bead collars that the elders used for wampum in tribal business. She prepared eelskin and bark strips the Indians used to make ribbons, reddening them by applying the color with sturgeon paste. She treated the bark used to make mats and produced the boxes, cases and buckets the Indians used to draw water with. She made pestles for grinding corn and prepared the racks used for spreading it out. She made very exquisite objects from porcupine quills and moosehide. She also occupied herself with sewing, which many Indian women had learned from their captives or from the wives of Catholics who had come from Europe.
Kateri would not attend the dances or games that the Indians enjoyed.
could not watch a person harming someone, even a slave, without feeling
hurt herself, and she would have considered it a sin to go and watch
of war being burned according to the barbaric custom of the Indians of
Although Kateri was still a pagan, she was prepossessed with the grace of God and displayed a natural love for purity at a young age. No doubt, she knew nothing about the excellence of this virtue or the way it had been practiced by the Blessed Virgin and a great many Saints, but she felt no inclination at all towards marriage.
This point of view was not shared by Kateri's relatives, and they formed the plan of marrying her off so she would not become a burden to them. She replied with a formal refusal as soon as they mentioned this to her, giving her youth as a pretext and asking for time to think it over. They did not insist at the moment, but soon afterwards returned to their project and caught her by surprise.
They told a young man to enter her cabin and sit by her side. Then they told Kateri to give some "sagamite" to the youth: by this act, they wanted to oblige her to consider him as her husband. However, she left the cabin instantly and went to hide in the fields, saying that she would not return until the young man had left.
in a land where celibacy was a disgrace drew down a harsh persecution
her from her family. In vain did they reproach her for her stubbornness
and the insult she had given her relatives. In vain did they later
to get her married despite herself, and nothing could overcome her
or shake her firm resolve not to marry.
Kateri was treated like a slave from then on, loaded down with the vilest and most difficult tasks. All her relatives scoffed at her. However, she suffered all this ill treatment with firm patience, peace of soul and meekness, continuing to render them the services they required of her, no matter how difficult they might be.
It was around this time, after the conclusion of peace between French and Iroquois, that the Mohawk mission was founded. A few Indians who had gone hunting near Montreal in 1666 became the hub of this mission at Laprairie, which was transferred to Sault St. Louis a few years later. In the beginning it was just a little parish composed of French and Indians, the Indians living in only two or three cabins. Seven Oneidas [whose leader was Francis Xavier Tonsahoten; his wife's name was Mary Gandakteua] formed the foundation of this mission. They spent the winter of 1667 in Laprairie beneath the same roof as the French. According to Father Chauchetière [another Confessor of the Saint-----Web Master], this cabin was a simple lean-to shack made out of straight planks.
Their numbers increased little by little, thanks to the arrival of other Oneidas related to the original ones. After the winter hunt of 1668, they came to Laprairie in the springtime. From there Father Raffeix, S.J., took them to Quebec City, where Father Chaumont finished their instruction. Msgr. de Laval Baptized them, thus laying the cornerstone of this spiritual edifice whose structure was so admirable.
The good odor of the virtues of these fervent Christians spread far and wide, even into Iroquois country. Curiosity drew the Iroquois to Laprairie, while some even came as the devil's henchmen in order to corrupt the others. They were all caught in the Gospel's net, however, and in less than a year there were four cabins: among others, that of Onontageh, who had been Baptized in France and to whom the king had given his name and a beautiful silver medal that he always wore around his neck.
Kateri had lived as an infidel for 18 years when God, Who looked mercifully upon her, inspired Fr. Jacques de Lamberville [whom the Indians called "Onnesent"] to think about going to settle in her village. She was in the habit of helping the people of her cabin with fieldwork every spring, but that year a sore foot had obliged her to remain in the house. The missionary did not enter this cabin, particularly because of Kateri's uncle, whom he knew to be hostile towards the French. While allowing his people to pray in their country, her uncle used all his influence to prevent them from going to the French colony in Montreal to practice the Catholic religion. One day, however, Fr. de Lamberville was passing by Kateri's cabin and decided to enter in. Her heart leaped for joy at the sight of this priest of the Gospel.
Her vain apprehensions vanished and she heard only the voice of God calling her. Kateri spoke to several young girls around her of the deep impression Fr. de Lamberville's instructions had made on her.
Reading into the soul of the young Indian maiden, the priest soon knew of her sincerity, innocence and courage. Kateri told him of her ardent desire to be Baptized, but she did not hide the fact that she would encounter obstacles from her uncle and other relatives because they feared she would leave the country as so many others had. However, she added that she was firmly decided to become a Catholic in spite of every obstacle.
The priest admired Kateri's firmness of resolution, but he did not fulfill her wishes right away. He put off her Baptism for several months, instructing her perfectly during this period on the truths of salvation and teaching her good morals and behavior. The people in her cabin and village paid tribute to the pious catechumen's virtues. Even those who had scorned and mistreated her at first held her in the highest esteem.
Fr. de Lamberville finally decided that he should hold off no longer. Judging her well instructed and disposed, he decided that she would be solemnly Baptized on Easter Sunday, 1675, along with two others. She was given the name Kateri which means Catherine. The Holy Spirit took possession of this elite soul in Baptism, made her His beloved spouse, and in four years raised her up to the highest degree of sanctity.
Kateri was not like many other Indians who, after Baptism, let themselves be won over by the human respect, bad examples and solicitations to evil they encountered from their fellow tribesmen. She never relaxed from her first fervor and her virtue was recognized by everyone, infidels and faithful alike. Not only did she avoid going to songfests, dances, drunken orgies and other licentious gatherings of the pagan Indians, but she subjected herself with great fidelity to the rule of life and pious practices that the missionary prescribed for her, to the point of winning his admiration.
For several months after her Baptism, Kateri was able to devote herself in peace to the practices of her religion without being bothered. But this calm was not to last long. The Holy Spirit says that when a soul wants to enter the service of God and give itself to Him for good, it should be prepared to undergo all sorts of temptations and trials. This was how it was with Kateri. Those who lived in her cabin were the first to persecute her. She saw several people who loved her turn against her because her behavior was a reproach to them. She was the butt of jealousy, calumny and foul play and was accused of hypocrisy. They even set traps for her innocence in order to cause her to lose the esteem of her missionary director. But all these persecutions served only to draw forth her strength of soul with greater brilliance, and God brought her victorious through these trials.
Kateri continued devoting herself to her practices of piety with ever greater fervor, spending all day Sunday in prayer. Her relatives reproached her and said she had gotten lazy since becoming a Christian, because she no longer went out to work in the fields on Sunday like the others. In order to force her to do so, they would give her nothing to eat on that day, hiding the food that had been prepared so that hunger would force her to go and work in the fields. But she preferred to go without food rather than profane the Lord's Day. [Emphasis added]
Since they did not succeed in overcoming her by these means, Kateri's relatives adopted another method, arousing the children against her. They would pursue her, screaming and yelling, whenever she would go to the chapel to pray. The children would mock, throw stones and point at her, saying, "There's the Christian going by!" They called her this name out of derision, because she was the only one in her cabin who was Baptized.
Far from becoming sad over such scorn, Kateri considered herself happy to have something to suffer for God. She suffered a great deal from jokers, drunkards and all the enemies of prayer, and from her uncle as well. He thought up a way of getting her to abandon her good resolutions: a young man was brought into the cabin armed with a tomahawk and a fiery look; he raised his ax above Kateri's head to frighten her, but she showed no sign of emotion. At this sight the young man ran off, seized with terror.
Kateri was well occupied with work during the summer and fall seasons, but she had some free time in winter. However, she always had something to suffer from her aunt, who viewed her attachment to religion with great sorrow. She observed Kateri's every word and act in order to comment on them.
It was the Indians' custom to call their uncles "Father," but one day Kateri forgot to use this name for her uncle. Her aunt was offended and went to see Father de Lamberville to tell him that Kateri, whom he held in such high esteem, was just a hypocrite and had spoken to her husband in an improper manner. The priest did not believe this calumny because he knew the wickedness of its author. He even reproached her in such a way as to set her back.
Nonetheless, he did speak to Kateri and ask her whether she was deserving of her aunt's reproach. Kateri was horrified over this accusation and replied firmly and modestly that she had never even had the thought of doing what she was accused of, and that she hoped God would give her the grace never to commit such a sin.These trials made Kateri's life hard and her perseverance difficult, so she began thinking about leaving her homeland and withdrawing among the Catholics of her nation who had settled near Montreal in the hope of serving God in peace. She prayed to God continually to remove her from her troublesome situation. There were many obstacles to the execution of this project: her uncle, an enemy of the Catholic religion, watched her closely and it would be difficult to escape him. We will see how, by dint of prayer and total abandonment into the hands of Divine Providence, she was able to work it out.
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