Kateri Tekakwitha – Her life recounted by John O’Kane Murray (1877)
The Saintly Mohawk Maiden.
The sublime influence of Catholicity on the life of the Indian is nowhere better illustrated than in the saintly subject of this brief sketch. She is the Indian virgin par excellence. While the great chiefs and lordly sachems of her once powerful and warlike race are forgotten, the name of this simple and pure-souled girl is held in honor and veneration. More than one able pen has told the charming story of her heroic and innocent life. I shall chiefly follow Father Cholenek, S.J., (her confessor, under whom she made her first communion, who gave her the last sacraments, and was present at her holy death) in his long and interesting letter to his Superior concerning her.
Catherine was born at Caughnawaga, the chief town of the Mohawks, situated on the Mohawk river, in 1656, about ten years after the martyrdom of Father Jogues at the same place. Her father was a heathen Mohawk chief; her mother, a Christian Algonquin. They had two children—a boy and a girl. The Iroquois missions had not yet been opened by the Jesuits, and no opportunity had arisen to have the children baptized, when the ravages of the small-pox carried away Catherine’s father, mother, and little brother, leaving her an orphan at the age of four years. She was taken into the family of her uncle, one of the leading chiefs of the tribe.
The small-pox having weakened her eyes, she was unable to bear the glare of light, and hence was obliged to remain whole days shut up in the wigwam. By degrees she began to love seclusion, and thus her modesty and purity were partly shielded from rude contact with a corrupt and savage society. As she grew older, she became very active and serviceable to her aunts. She ground the corn, went hi search of water, and carried the wood; for such, among the Indians, were the common employments of young girls. The rest of her time she spent in the manufacture of various little articles, for which he possessed an extraordinary skill. Her industry guarded her innocence. Among the Indian women, idleness was the source of an infinite number of vices. They had an extreme passion for gossiping visits, and showing themselves in public places, where they could display all their trinkets and finery—a sort of vanity not by any means confined to civilized nations.
In 16?7, Father Freinin and two other Jesuits visited the Mohawk castles for the purpose of establishing a mission among that tribe. They arrived at a time when the people were plunged into all sorts of social riot and intemperance. No one but Catherine, then eleven years of age, was in a fit state to receive them. She lodged the missionaries, and with singular modesty and sweetness, attended to all their wants. The dignified and courteous manners of the Jesuits, and their regular habits of prayer—all deeply impressed this simple child of the forest. Bhe never forgot this first sight of the noble blaekgowns. She even intended to ask for baptism ; but her modest reserve prevented her, and in a few days the priests directed their steps to other villages in the valley of the Mohawk.
When the young maiden became of marriageable age, many trials beset her pathway. Her relations’ wishes were not hers. These sensual and ignorant savages understood not the lofty motives which inclined her to a single life. She admired, loved purity long before she understood the excellence of that beautiful virtue. Hence she was persecuted as an obstinate girl— treated as a slave. But arming herself with a sweet patience —constant as it was admirable—this simple child, amid the forests of New York, baffled the rude efforts of her bitterest foes.
Father James Do Lamberville, S.J., came to erect a mission at Caughnawaga, in 1675. With a secret joy Catherine attended the daily prayers and instructions. Her long-cherished desire of becoming a Christian was increased; still she feared the hostility of her pagan uncle, in whoso power she entirely was. Even her timid modesty sealed her lips. But an occasion to open her heart soon presented itself. Some days after Lamberville’s arrival, while most of the village were in the field or woods, he began to visit the cabins to iustruct the sick, and such as remained. A wound in Catherine’s foot had kept her at home. Joy lighted up her girlish countenance as the good priest entered. At once she confided to him her desires, the long-treasured wish of her heart to be a Christian, the opposition of her friends, their intention to compel her to marry, to which she was strongly disinclined. Delighted as the missionary was to have discovered such simplicity, candor, and courage, he was far from hastening her baptism. The winter was spent hi instructing her, and in examining the character she had till then borne. Even her enemies paid their tribute of respect to her really beautiful character. With a holy joy she received baptism on Easter Sunday, 1676, and was named Catherine, •which signifies pure. She was then in her twentieth year.
“Faithful to her conscience,” says Dr. Shea, “when unaided by the Gospel light, Catherine, as may easily be supposed, now gave her soul entirely to God. Her devotions, her austerities, her good works, were at once determined upon and perseveringly practiced in spite of the obstacles raised by her kindred. Sundays and holidays beheld her the sport of their hatred and cruelty ; refusing to work in the fields, she was compelled to fast, for they deprived her of food. She was pointed at by the children, and called in derision ‘ the Christian.’ A furious brave once dashed into the cabin to tomahawk her, but awed by her calm and dignified mien as she knelt to receive the blow, he slunk back as from a superior being.” Worse than all—more painful than all—black calumny raised its “viper-head ” against her. She bore the dreadful trial with sublime meekness; and her sweet innocence finally lived it down. But she sought peace, and that inestimable blessing was not to be found in the society of the corrupt pagans of her native town. Her Christian countrymen, it will be remembered, had formed a village on the banks of the lordly St. Lawrence, near the rapid above Montreal. For this she sighed, as for the promised land. Finally, after many adventures and dangers—one of which was a miraculous escape from the tomahawk of her furious pagan ancle—she reached the new Caughnawaga,* in Canada.
Here, as she grew in age she advanced in grace and virtue. Having seen the nuns of Ville Marie, and learned their mode of life, she desired as far as possible to imitate them, and consecrate herself to God, not by a simple promise, such as she had already made, but by a vow of perpetual virginity.
“Who will teach me,” she would exclaim, “what is most agreeable to God, that I may do it?” Her confessor tried her a long tune before he would consent to let her pronounce the desired vow, which she finally made on the Feast of the Annunciation with great fervor, after receiving holy communion. From this to her precious death, her path was far from being one of roses. But her beautiful life was drawing to a close. She took sick in the fall of 1679, and her weakness increased as the winter passed away.
When Holy Week arrived, she sank rapidly, and several days before, informed her confessor of the moment, day, and hour at which her death •would occur. On Holy Wednesday, 168?, about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, after receiving the last sacraments with seraphic devotion, she breathed her last. Just before departing she sweetly murmured the names of Jesus and Mary.
Thus died Catherine Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, the Guardian-Angel of the swift and mighty Rapid, near which are her tomb and the great cross that towers above it. Soon this became a point for pilgrims, “where the prelate and the viceroy came alike to kneel and pay homage to exalted virtue, as they invoked on themselves and their charge the blessings of Heaven.” Many -well-authenticated cures have been wrought by her intercession; among others that of Father Colombiere, canon of the Cathedral of Quebec, in 1696; and Du Luth, Commander of Fort Frontenao (Kingston), who, by a novena to her in 1696, was cured of the gout which tormented him for over twenty-three years.
On the 23d of July, 1843, a majestic cross, twenty-five feet high, was erected over Catherine’s tomb. There, were assembled the Indians of Caughnawaga, headed by their missionary and chiefs. Hundreds of French, Irish, English, and Americans gathered around to witness the imposing ceremony.
The cross was blessed by the Vicar-Qeneral of Montreal, and “then slowly raised amid the chants of the church, the thunder of the cannon, and the mingled shouts of the men of many climes and races.”
How did she walk this Ban-dimmed earth Bo purely,
Her white robes gathered from Its tarnish free’t
How did she guide her fragile bark securely
O’er the wild waves of life’s tempestuous sea t
Ah! ’twas her ceaseless care to “walch and pray”—
To call on Him whom win.la and waves obey
A Popular History of the Catholic Church In The United States
John O’Kane Murray, 1877