Iroquois Virgin: 1656-1680
"Lily of the Mohawks"
"Genevieve of New France"
by Fr. N. V. Burtin, OMI
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha by Mother Nealis of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart of Saint Sophie Barat.
Up to this point, we have considered Kateri as a lily among thorns. Now we will see how God transplanted this beautiful lily and set it in a garden full of flowers giving off the sweet perfume of virtue and fertile with fruits of holiness. This garden filled with the good odor of Christ was none other than the mission recently established at Sault St. Louis, three kilometers from Montreal. First composed of a few families from the Iroquois townships, this mission had been founded in 1669 at Laprairie by Father Fremin. In 1673, 200 people had come from Mohawk country to increase the number of Catholics at Laprairie. The Confraternity of the Holy Family had been established in 1675, and in 1676 they had received the visit of Msgr. de Laval, the first Bishop of Quebec. He had previously conferred Baptism in his cathedral on the first six neophytes of this mission. This time, he Baptized 80 of them and Confirmed a great number. In 1676 the mission was moved from Laprairie to Sault St. Louis, near the Rivière du Portage, because the land at Laprairie was too low and thus unsuitable for growing corn.
Following the peace concluded between the French and the five Iroquois Nations, several Mohawks had come from their country to hunt near Montreal. They met some missionaries, who gave them religious instruction and Baptized them. The Christian Indians decided to make apostolic visits to their homeland in order to win their relatives over to Catholicism. The one who succeeded best in this endeavor was an Oneida called Okenratarihen [Hot Coals]. He was the one God had chosen to remove Kateri from the infidels' land and bring her to the Sault St. Louis mission. This mission had grown considerably over the past several years with relatives and friends of these Christians who had left Mohawk country to settle and remain at Sault St. Louis. 1 The new converts living at the Sault were very zealous in bringing their friends and relatives in Mohawk country to the Faith. They generously shared their provisions and all they had with those they drew to the mission, striving to instruct them in the truths of religion and to make them appreciate the grace God had given them by calling them from the darkness of unbelief to His admirable light. They went into their country themselves to seek them out and bring them to the Sault. The inhabitants of this Catholic village received the name Kahnawakeronon: inhabitants of Kahnawakeh, or of Caughnawaga if you will, though it is not exact, that the Indians of this mission were called Caughnawagas, or "Indians of Prayer."
Okenratarihen [Hot Coals, or Hot Powder as others would have it, for the word okenra [means both] was eminent in apostolic zeal for the conversion of his tribesmen. He was chosen as the fourth Captain of the Sault. On one of his journeys among the Mohawks called Kaniekehaka, 2 he returned to Sault St. Louis with up to 30 of them in order to have them instructed and Baptized.
Kateri Tekakwitha wanted to accompany Okenratarihen on one his journeys to the Sault. Because of her uncle's opposition, however, she was obliged to abandon this project. She spent another year among the Mohawks, never ceasing to ask God to help her fulfill her wish, and it finally came about.
One of Kateri's relatives was living at Sault St. Louis. She learned of Kateri's desire and told her husband about it, asking him whether there were not some way of going to get her and bringing her to the Sault. Her husband approved this plan and left, accompanied by some Catholic Mohawks who were on their way to Albany to buy beaver pelts. They went to Kateri's cabin as soon as they reached her village. She was filled with joy upon seeing them. Her cousin's husband told her, "I'm going to Albany [modern-day Schenectady, which means "the other side of the pines"]. I will be coming back this way soon. Wait for me and we will leave together."
"Thank you," replied Kateri, "my wishes are finally fulfilled!" She hurried to share the news with Fr. de Lamberville, telling him, "I will be leaving in a few days to go and live with the Catholics. Please be so kind, Father, as to write to the missionaries at Sault St. Louis so they will receive and instruct me." Fr. de Lamberville willingly encouraged her pious plan and told her to recommend this enterprise to God and pray fervently so that she would arrive safe and sound at her journey's end.
At this moment, Kateri's uncle was hunting in territory occupied during that period by the Flemish or Dutch, just a short distance away. Providence had allowed his absence in order to favor Kateri's escape. Her cousin's husband, Okenratarihen had come with a Huron from Loreto as his traveling companion, along with another Indian. They took Kateri with them to lead her to Sault St. Louis.
When it was learned in the village that the three men who had come from Montreal had left and that Kateri was no longer to be found in her cabin, they suspected what had occurred. They hurried to bring the news to Kateri's uncle right away. He flew into a great rage, immediately took his gun and three bullets and set off in pursuit of the travelers, having decided to kill them. He did all he could to find his niece; but Kateri's companions, mistrusting her uncle, had the happy idea of abandoning their canoe and hiding in the forest. Kateri's cousin went to find food in the area and left her with his companions. Her uncle arrived after Okenratarihen had already left. The latter saw him but he was too close. There was no way of avoiding him without being seen, so he simply continued on his way. But Kateri's uncle did not recognize the man he was searching for. It was as though he had a blindfold over his eyes. During this time, Kateri was praying God constantly to come to her help so that her uncle would not recognize her. Okenratarihen told them of his adventure upon his return. The uncle had returned home, no doubt thinking that he had been misinformed and would find Kateri there.
So they continued their
journey. The whole length of the way, Kateri prayed and gave thanks to
God for preserving her so miraculously. Her joy increased as they
Montreal. She was 21 years old when she reached Sault St. Louis in the
autumn of 1677.
Kateri placed Fr. de Lamberville's letter into the hands of the two missionaries of the Sault, Fathers Fremin and Chollenec. It said, "I send you a treasure; guard her well." Words could not express the joy she felt upon being in the land of light, delivered from the spiritual pains she had endured from not being able to serve God as she wished, and from the persecutions she had had to suffer in her homeland.
Kateri went to live with her cousin's family, who took it upon themselves to feed and clothe her until her death. In the cabin was an aged Catholic woman to whom God had given a rare talent for instruction. She was called Anastasia Tekonwatsionko and had known Kateri and her mother in Mohawk country. These circumstances created a true and sincere friendship between them. Anastasia taught Kateri her prayers and informed her regarding the mission's various exercises of piety, both for feast days and ordinary days. Kateri greatly appreciated the grace God had given her by removing her from the land of infidels where God was so gravely offended, by preserving her from the dangers that had threatened her during her escape, and by leading her to the Sault village where she saw so many good Catholics. Every day, even in the greatest cold of winter, she went to church before dawn and prayed in front of the door of the humble chapel, which had only a bark roof at that period. She would leave only after attending every Mass.
Kateri was no less eager to return to the chapel for evening prayers. After everyone else had left, she continued praying for a long time, motionless, more from the heart than with the mouth and with wonderful ardor. . . . The fire consuming her soul sometimes seemed to beam on her face. She remained in the chapel on Sundays and feast days, and if she had to leave for a few moments to eat, she would return afterwards: such was the charm she felt in the presence of God and from speaking with Him.
While working, Anastasia took pleasure in holding pious conversations with Kateri. They made an agreement to talk only about the things of God, and they never stopped searching for things they could do to follow the examples of the first Christians and to give pleasure to God. They acquired great purity of heart by reflecting upon the insult of sin against God and on the necessity of atoning for it by doing works of penance. Nonetheless, Kateri censured her daily activities very severely and expiated her faults every Saturday in the sacrament of Penance. It is amazing how Kateri began expiating her sins by inflicting blows on herself before placing them at the feet of the priest in church. She wept abundant tears and sighed heavily over them, although they were very slight faults. But she considered them to be very serious and regarded herself as loaded down with sins and very miserable.
Such edifying behavior would not allow the Sault St. Louis missionaries to refuse her the grace of making her First Communion, though this was usually granted to Iroquois Catholics only after a long trial period. Invited to the Communion rail on Christmas Day, Kateri approached it with sentiments of the liveliest faith and most tender love. From then on, she felt a new impulse to feed upon the Heavenly manna. The mission's neophytes, admitted to the same joy, would seek a place next to Kateri, declaring that the very sight of her inflamed them with the desire to love God and receive Him worthily.
called the Sault (rapids) Kahnawakeh, from which the English
the name "Caughnawaga." This word comes from ohanawa (rapids or
current) and the locative keh, and it means "at the rapids." The
Indian village on the south bank of the St. Lawrence kept this name
when it was later moved to its present location facing Lachine around
Before this, the village had been located on two other sites. In French
it was called Sault St. Louis, or simply the Sault. It should
be confused with the other Kahnawakeh, or rather Kendawageh, as Father
Chollenec spells it. That was one of the hamlets of the Lower Iroquois
called Mohawks (Kaniekehaka), located in the territory of what is now
After the Christmas Season, Kateri's cousin left with her husband to go hunting in the woods, and Kateri went with them. Although she was not in the village, she continued her pious devotions in the forest with as much ardor as ever.
Kateri began by drawing up a rule of life, dividing her time between prayer and work. Prayer was offered in common in the morning; then, after eating, the men went hunting for moose or beaver and returned to the cabin only at evening time. Kateri established a little spot for prayer near a stream where people from her cabin went to fetch water. She engraved the Sign of the Cross on the bark of a tree and meditated on the sufferings of Christ. There she made up for the Mass she could not attend, uniting herself to the intentions of those attending it in the village. She prayed to her guardian Angel [we found this out from one of her friends] and asked him to attend Mass for her and communicate all of its fruits to her.
As soon as the men left for the hunt, she began the work day: cutting wood, carrying water, making fancy moosehair collars, preparing food . . . which she often ate only around sundown, sometimes mixing ashes with it to mortify her taste. She was skillful at turning any conversation to pious subjects during work time. She asked those who liked singing to chant some hymns or tell a story from the lives of the Saints which they had heard during the missionaries' exhortations to the Indians.
Because of her great piety, Kateri found the time spent in the woods very long. She was in a hurry to return to the village and hear the word of God, attend Holy Mass and render her duties to Our Lord present in the Holy Eucharist. She returned with her companions around Palm Sunday, resolved never to accompany the hunters in the forest again, so she could always be in Our Lord's company and have the joy of receiving Him.
Kateri attended the instructions on the Passion of Our Lord given by the missionaries during Holy Week. She could not hold back her tears when she thought of the terrible sufferings the Son of God had been condemned to for love of us in order to redeem men, deliver them from Hell and open Heaven to them. Her love for Jesus Crucified was not a speculative love; it urged her to share in His sufferings and carry her cross in His footsteps, be nailed to the cross with Him and devote herself to all sorts of penitential practices so as to give love for love to this lovable Savior, Who immolated Himself for love of us.
It was particularly her
teacher, the pious Anastasia, who inspired her with this spirit of
She would speak often to Kateri of the inextinguishable fire and
reserved for impenitent sinners. She also told her of the great
the Saints had performed and the voluntary penances to which Catholic
of her nation devoted themselves to expiate the sins they had committed
in their homeland. These pious talks filled Kateri with courage to
in the practices of penance she had imposed on herself, which we will
An accident happened to
Kateri which confirmed her in this plan. One day while cutting down a
for firewood, a branch from the falling tree struck her so hard that
fell unconscious to the ground. Those around her thought she was dead.
But Kateri returned to her senses and was overheard saying, "Lord, I
Thee for saving me in this accident and keeping me alive. I want to use
my life only to serve Thee and do penance for my sins."
While returning from the autumn hunt with twelve Indians [of whom not one had yet been Baptized], all were so hardly pressed by hunger that they ate several of their companions to save their own lives. They began with an old man and asked Mary Theresa whether the Catholic religion allowed them to kill him, since he had willingly yielded his right to live. She dared not answer for fear they would kill her to spare the others. She thought only about her misfortune in having gone on the hunt without going to Confession first, and promised that if she ever had the joy of seeing the Sault village again, she would go to Confession and amend her life. Mary Theresa held to her word, changed her life completely and became Kateri's intimate friend. Here is how they first met.
The first chapel in Sault St. Louis was under construction, and the carpenter was working on the floor. Kateri and Mary Theresa were walking around and inside the church, not knowing or; speaking to one another. However, the spirit of faith that moved them united them perfectly. They greeted each other and started a conversation. Kateri asked Mary Theresa where the women would be placed in the chapel, and she showed her where she thought it would be. Kateri told her, "It's not this wooden chapel that pleases God the most. What He loves most of all is dwelling in our hearts. What He wants us to do is prepare an abode worthy of Him within our hearts. I am unworthy to be in church with the others, since I have had the misfortune of casting God out of my heart so often. I would deserve to be thrown out."
They talked together for a long time, opening up their hearts to each other and speaking about their past lives. That was when Mary Theresa decided to fulfill the promise she had made to God when she had been in danger of being killed and eaten in the forest by her traveling companions. They promised never to leave one another, to help each other by pious conversations to serve God well and seek what was most pleasing to Him. They held faithfully to this promise and never lost their mutual sentiments of a sincere and inviolable friendship.
God was reserving a harsh new battle for this elite soul, a battle that would serve only to give greater luster to her virtue and assure her a new triumph. It was now her cousin's turn to try and get her to do something her relatives back home had never succeeded in obtaining: she tried to persuade her to get married, less in Kateri's interest than in her own. This ambitious woman had no doubt that Kateri, held in such high esteem by all, would be able to make a distinguished match . . . indeed, she had already chosen a pious young man endowed with all sorts of good qualities. By this means, she felt she would be able to see to Kateri's future and assure her happiness as well as her own.
She was not unaware of Kateri's intentions, however, and of her great love for virtue. But she did not get discouraged for all that, thinking herself capable of overcoming Kateri's stubbornness and getting her to share her ideas.
So then, she came to see her one fine day, beginning by complimenting Kateri on the joy her holy life brought her and the esteem in which she was held in the village to which God, in His mercy, had led her. Then she entered frankly into the matter at hand and asked her, "Have you thought about what I mentioned to you the other day?"
"I've thought about it," Kateri replied, "and if you want me to love you and consider you as my relative, never speak to me like that again."
"But Cousin, where do you get such an outlook? Why do you have such an aversion to getting married? Our women usually want it so much, especially the young ones, since in this way they are provided with the food and clothing the body needs. Are you, single-handedly, going to be able to do something that others have never even thought about doing? Isn't that an excess of presumption on your part, to think that at your age you are safe from the devil's snares and have nothing to fear for your salvation? I am old, and so is my husband. Who will take care of you when we are no longer here? Out of pity for us and for yourself, give up your project and follow my advice."
Kateri answered her briefly, thanking her for her good intentions and telling her that since this was a serious matter, she wanted time to think about it. Her cousin was unsatisfied with this answer and got help from the pious Anastasia, who exercised a mother's influence over Kateri. To their urgings, Kateri replied that she simply did not want to get married.
Kateri went to see the priest immediately and told him what had happened. After consoling her, the missionary advised her not to hurry in a matter of such consequence, but to pray fervently in order to know the Divine Will.
"Father," answered Kateri, "I've thought it over long enough and made my decision long ago. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus. I have chosen Him as my Spouse, and He alone will have me for a bride. I'm not afraid of hunger, and I will be able to provide myself with enough to eat and wear by my own work."
Kateri spoke these words with a holy ardor that was reflected on her face. She was preparing to leave when Anastasia suddenly appeared and began complaining that Kateri would not obey either herself or her own cousin. The priest reproached them for condemning such a holy resolution instead of praising it. Later on, Kateri entreated him to come to her aid so that she might hold to the promise she had made to Our Lord of giving herself wholly to Him, asking him to use his influence over her cousin and Anastasia in order to get them to end their opposition.
The missionary told Kateri, "My child, no doubt your plan is very praiseworthy, but you have to take the time to think it over. Reflect on it for three more days, pray the Lord to enlighten you and tell you what He wants of you. And when you are fully decided, I will be on your side and help you as much as I can."
"Thank you, Father," Kateri replied. "I will think it over again." She left, but then returned after very little time, saying, "Father, I have decided. My resolution is made. It's useless to reflect any longer. I have chosen Our Lord Jesus Christ as my Spouse, and all I want is to belong to Him alone!"
Recognizing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in her manner of acting, the missionary told her, "Rest easy, I will help you so that they will no longer urge you to get married, and you will be able to live freely the kind of life you wish."
Coming out of this painful combat, Kateri gave thanks to God for strengthening her and giving her victory. Although she was ill, she devoted herself with renewed ardor to fasting and practices of penance, which did not prevent her from working like the others. When autumn came, those who were taking care of her left for the hunt. The missionary advised her to accompany them in order to renew her strength, but here is what she replied:
"Father, no doubt the time spent in the forest would be good for my body because I would eat better and work less, but my soul would suffer from hunger and become weak there. On the other hand, if I stay here, my body will have to suffer a few privations but my soul will savor true happiness at the feet of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Whom I will be able to visit and receive in my heart. I set more store on the food of His grace, which will strengthen my soul and keep it alive, than on bodily food."
So she remained in the village all winter, satisfied with eating cornmeal mush. Ill as she was, she never stopped inflicting privations and mortifications of all sorts on herself, depriving herself of all that might satisfy her taste and even giving herself harsh scourgings, following the example of the Saints. There was a remarkably fervent piety in the St. Francis Xavier Mission of Sault St. Louis then. As in all fledgling Catholic communities, there was a wonderful and healthy flowering of the supernatural life, caused by an abundant effusion of the Spirit of God.
Among the facts we are about to quote, several are more to be admired than imitated. Men who judge everything by the senses and according to the spirit of the world are incapable of appreciating them. Saint Paul says that for them, it is a folly they understand nothing about; they blaspheme against what they do not know. But Catholics who know the sublime operations of the Holy Spirit [which have shone in the stories of the Martyrs and penitent Saints] will understand and admire the courage and generosity of these fervent Catholics of Sault St. Louis.
After suffering on earth Himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ-----impassible and glorious in Heaven-----continues suffering in His members. According to Saint Paul's expression, they make up and complete in their flesh the Passion of their Head, so that it may be applied to them and for the good of His Mystical Body, which is the Church. In the Iroquois Nation where crime abounded, the grace of God called down by voluntary expiations had to superabound. Besides, the Indian converts were exposed to receiving all sorts of tortures from their pagan countrymen in case they were captured and brought back to their homeland. Thus, they wanted to exercise themselves in suffering in advance so as to deserve the grace of perseverance.
They knew very well that the sins of their past life had been erased by Baptism. However, knowing by the light of faith the gravity of an offense against God, they treated themselves with a holy cruelty. They were in the habit of binding their loins with iron belts several days of the week, bloodying their bodies with frequent scourgings, rolling in the snow, walking barefoot, and diving into icy water in winter. Their ardent desire to please God spurred many of them beyond the bounds of wise discretion, and the missionaries were often obliged to moderate them. Nonetheless, this was a sight worthy of admiration. What a difference between the vice-ridden, evil drunkards they had been and these new Christians who had become chaste, temperate and mortified after their conversion! Only the Catholic religion-----by its doctrine, priestly ministry and Sacramental grace-----is capable of working such changes. These occurrences alone provide a palpable demonstration of the reality of the supernatural. Just a few years after Kateri Tekakwitha's death, several neophytes from Sault St. Louis refused to go to the land of their ancestors to take part in the war between the French and Indians. They were captured by their former countrymen [in spite of the promise made to them by which they were to be able to practice their religion freely], taken to Iroquois country and cruelly Martyred in the sacrifice of their lives as witnesses to their Faith.
The piety of the Catholics of Sault St. Louis' St. Francis Xavier Mission shone at home and away by their words and deeds, and above all by their diligence and admirable fervor in prayer. Kateri distinguished herself from all the others by her piety and mortification. She was always looking for the thing most pleasing to God and trying to imitate what she had heard about the austerities practiced by the Saints.
Kateri had occasion to go to Montreal and spend several days there, and she saw the nuns of the Hotel-Dieu [the hospital] serving the sick with charity and devotion. She discovered that they were virgins who had renounced their wealth and worldly pleasures to consecrate themselves to God. She immediately thought of imitating them. Upon returning to her village, Kateri went to see the missionary and ask him to receive the consecration she wished to make to God of her body and soul in church, following the example of the nuns, whose profession the bishop had received. Her director of conscience opposed her request at first because it was a new and unheard-of idea among the Indians. However, after reflecting and considering Kateri's truly angelic life, he no longer hesitated in judging that the Holy Spirit had inspired her with this thought, and he finally ceded to her pious request.
Kateri made the vow of virginity in public on the feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin around 8 o'clock in the morning, while the missionary celebrated the Holy Sacrifice at the altar in the presence of the Indians, as the neophytes approached the Communion rail. She implored the Blessed Virgin to personally present to Her Divine Son this sacrifice she was making of herself and her resolution to walk in the footsteps of the Queen of Virgins. Kateri prayed fervently for a long time. From this day forth she was on earth only in body; her conversation was in Heaven and her life approached that of the Angels. The earth seemed like just a place of exile that she was in a hurry to leave in order to be united to God, the sole object of her love.