As I was leaving St. Peter’s Chapel Friday, a white van with New Jersey plates pulled up. Nine young, smiling nuns filed out. They were dressed in the white and blue-striped saris of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order. They opened an off-kilter screen door and entered the dusky chapel. I followed, conspicuously tall, pale and bareheaded at the end of the line. The sisters walked to the front of the church, knelt before a cross and sang “O What Could My Jesus Do More.” I listened for a minute then left them alone.
I had come to the National Shrine of Kateri Tekakwitha, south of the Adirondack Park in Fonda, expecting signs of anticipation. Pope Benedict XVI canonized the Mohawk-Algonquin woman this morning, the first Native American saint.
But until the nuns arrived I had the place to myself. The chapel occupies the second story of a red clapboard building housing a Native American exhibit on the first. I put $2 in the slot of a box and went to light a votive by a wooden statue of Kateri in buckskin and long loose braids. There were no matches, no holy church-candle smell; the votives were electric—push down on a plastic covering and a light clicks on. I knelt and realized that nothing from childhood religious instruction prepared me for what prayer to say before this most proximate yet entirely new kind of saint.
Kateri was born around 1656 in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon, where Father Isaac Jogues was killed ten years earlier. Ossernenon was in the vicinity of present-day Auriesville, where there’s another shrine, across the Mohawk River from Fonda. Smallpox killed Kateri’s parents and left her with scars and impaired sight as a young child. Jesuit missionairies instructed and baptized her in the Catholic faith in Fonda.
Kateri was devout and, the story goes, other Mohawks treated her poorly. So she left home to live among the “praying Mohawks,” the Christianized Indians of the Kahnawake Reservation, upriver of Montreal on the St. Lawrence.
In his 1949 New Yorker article “The Mohawks in High Steel,” Joseph Mitchell wrote, “Kateri is venerated because of the bitter penances she imposed upon herself; according to the memoirs of missionaries who knew her, she wore iron chains, lay upon thorns, whipped herself until she bled, plunged into icy water, went about barefoot on the snow, and fasted almost continuously.” She is credited with miracles of healing.
The stories of the saints, strange and bloody as they can be, were introduced to us as children to humanize the catechism and provide role models of strength and selflessness. Kateri was popular and venerated long before she was canonized. My mother, as an Irish girl in Buffalo in the 1930s and 40s, felt an affinity for Kateri, whom she calls Catherine, her Anglicized name.
Kateri Tekakwitha died in 1680, at age 24. Her remains are entombed at St. Francis Xavier church, on the Kahnawake Reservation, Quebec.
Listen to a conversation between NCPR’s David Sommerstein and Mohawk historian Darren Bonaparte about Kateri’s significance among Native Americans here.