Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the Saint Who Ran Towards God

In her dreams, she sees her Algonquin mother, though not yet her mother, still just a young woman, and she is running.  Through the smoke and the confusion, her mother runs from the attacking Mohawk warriors, she runs to the safety of the woods, hoping to find a place to hide.  In all her dreams though, just as in real life, her mother never makes it. She is snatched up by an invader just as Kateri is jolted awake.

The smell of death has hung over the village for months.  First comes the fever, then the vomiting, then the sores, thick on the body from head to feet. Kateri sees her mother, and her father, and her baby brother succumb to the smallpox, then she sees no more as the disease invades her body. The little four year old survives, but is badly scarred, has damaged eyesight, and is barely aware that her father’s people are quickly carrying her away from her village, across the river, and to a new home.

It is nearly harvest time. The fields of winter squash and corn that the women have carefully tended to all summer should have helped feed the village during the lean months. But the harvest will never come. Instead, the squash will char and boil in their skins and the corn will burn in the fields, for the French have come. They have set fire to the fields and to the longhouses and to the wigwams. Ten year old Kateri flees with other members of her family, her path lit by torches of flaming corn.

Kateri is seventeen, well into a stage of life when a woman should marry.  Her adopted mother and aunts worry about her, and hide their worry with mockery.  They invite a suitable young man from the village to their home, encourage Kateri to sit down next to him.  They’ve made a corn dish that signifies a women’s openness to marriage. They press the food into Kateri’s hands, press hard because she is unwilling to take what they’re offering.  Now they nudge her elbows, hiss instructions into her ears. “Give it to the young man. Show you’re interested in marriage. It’s time. It’s past time. Offer it to him.”

Kateri endures their nudging and commands as long as she can, then arises suddenly, spilling the dish on the floor. She runs from the cabin, runs through the fields of squash and corn, once again verdant and green, and hides from her adopted mother and aunt and the young man and the entire village. In the days to come, the women of her family will respond to her flight with increased mockery and insults and assigning the hardest of chores to her, but eventually it will pass; they will resign themselves to the fact that marriage is not for Kateri.

The irony of the situation is not lost on Kateri. The girl who has spent so much of her life running, now confined to longhouse cabin due to an injured foot. The other women are out harvesting corn, and Kateri knows she should be with them. Instead, she is here, with the ones too young or too old or too injured to help. There is one other there, not of the village. A priest named Lamberville. Such men were not totally uncommon in Kateri’s home of Caughnawaga. After the French burned the village, along with several other Mohawk settlements, part of the peace agreements insisted that the people welcome these priests.

So the priests were tolerated, if not exactly welcomed. Kateri’s uncle forbid her from dealing much with them. He had already lost one daughter to their new religion. She had followed the path of this Christian god and it had taken her out of the village, across the river, and all the way to a mission village in Montreal. Kateri tried to be dutiful, but her ways seemed to constantly meet with the priests.

Kateri’s cousin wasn’t alone in her conversion to Christianity.  Kateri’s own mother had been a Christian, and in her short life, the girl had seen the conversion of many people. When Kateri was 13, Mohican warriors, numbering in the hundreds, had laid siege to her village.  There was a priest known as Fr. Pierron living among Kateri’s people at the time, and during the battle he never rested. He tended to the wounded, buried the dead, and carried food and water to the warriors defending the village.  Kateri and other village girls helped him where they could, and the priest’s actions impressed her deeply.  

Her people withstood and eventually won the battle, taking nearly twenty Mohican prisoners.  For two days Kateri watched the prisoners being tortured, and for two days she watched Fr. Pierron beg her people to stop.  Her people ignored the priest’s pleas, so instead, Fr. Pierron began feverishly instructing the doomed Mohicans about Christianity.  Kateri wasn’t sure how much the prisoners heard, but she listened to every word. Just before death took them, all twenty agreed to allow Fr. Pierron to perform a baptism.

Following on the heels of that conversion, Kateri witnessed the great chief Garacontie take the path of the Christian god.  Then word came that another tribal chief had done so as well. So try as she might to obey her uncle’s orders to stay away from the priests and their god, Kateri felt so many paths led to them.

All this, and more besides, Kateri told Fr. Lamberville in the longhouse that day, sitting with an injured foot.  She told him that all the running she had done in her life had been taking her closer and closer to the Christian god, and that she wanted to run even closer.  The priest listened carefully, and when the young woman was done speaking, he began instructing her in the catechism. Despite family outcry, Kateri continued being instructed in the faith, and on Easter Sunday, 1676, she was baptised. 

For the remainder of her life, Kateri would continue running on her path toward God. She would take a vow of perpetual virginity, take up severe penances for the atonement of sins, and demonstrate a life of heroic virtue to those around her, both indigenous and European. When she died, four years after her baptism, witnesses watched as the smallpox scars that had twisted Kateri’s face since childhood miraculously vanish.

Kateri Tekakwitha, known as the Lily of the Mohawks, became the first Native American to be canonized in 2012.

St. Kateri, pray for us.

image: Kateri Tekakwitha by Cocoabiscuit via Flickr / (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Cari Donaldson lives on a New England farm with her high school sweetheart, their six kids, and a menagerie of animals of varying usefulness. She is the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories, and has a website for her farm, Ghost Fawn Homestead.

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