Last Sunday Pope Benedict canonized a fine new batch of seven saints, and among them was Kateri Tekakwitha. Tekakwitha, as she was called during most of her life, was born in a Mohawk village in what is now upstate New York in 1656. An early brush with smallpox left her with impaired eyesight, which became the inspiration for her name – if the BBC can be trusted, Tekakwitha means “the one who walks groping her way”. As far as I’m concerned, it was appropriate in more ways than one.
I won’t recap Tekakwitha’s whole life story here – that’s what Wikipedia is for – but suffice it to say that she groped her way to Catholicism, under the guidance of Jesuit missionaries whose insalubrious presence her community had to accept as a condition of peace with France. She was baptized at age 20 and given the name Kateri, a Mohawk (or at least Mohawk-friendly) variant of Catherine. Apparently persecuted to some degree as a result of her conversion, she went groping across what is now the Canada-U.S. border to Kahnawake, which is still a Mohawk settlement near Montreal. When Kateri Tekakwitha arrived there in 1677, it was something of a gathering place for native converts to Catholicism, who explored their new faith under the guidance of yet more Jesuits. The atmosphere of cultural confusion and religious fervour killed the young Mohawk woman within about three years.
A (literally!) hagiographic account of her life describes her last years in rather anodyne terms:
During her time in Canada, Kateri taught prayers to children and worked with the elderly and sick. She would often go to Mass both at dawn and sunset. She was known for her great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Cross of Christ.
During the last years of her life, Kateri endured great suffering from a serious illness. She died on April 17th, 1680, shortly before her 24th birthday, and was buried in Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada.
Great suffering from demented religious practices would be more like it. Wikipedia mentions the arrival in New France of a certain Father Cholenec in 1672, and dryly notes:
Father Cholenec introduced whips, hair shirts and iron girdles, traditional items of Catholic mortification, to the converts at Kahnawake so they would adopt these rather than use Mohawk practices.
Kateri Tekakwitha adopted them all right, in her groping way. For better or (one suspects) worse, another female convert was there to help.
Tekakwitha met Marie-Thérèse Tegaiaguenta for the first time in the spring of 1678. Aspiring to devotion, they began to practice mutual flagellation in secret. Cholenec wrote that Catherine [Kateri] could flog herself between one thousand and twelve hundred blows in one session. Tekakwitha’s dedication to ritual mortification became more intense and consuming over the remainder of her life; she included prolonged fasting, flogging, cutting, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and burning herself with hot coals.
Even the Jesuits, apparently, thought she was overdoing it. They were proven right on April 17, 1680, when Kateri Tekakwitha died at the ripe old age of 23 or 24. In Canada, April 17 is now her saintly feast day.
To be fair, Catholicism may not have been entirely to blame. Some academics, including the Kahnawake-based Mohawk scholar Orenda Boucher, think she may also have drawn fatal inspiration from her own culture:
Mohawk men would conduct all sorts of tests of strength and willpower before going into battle, she says, and Kateri Tekakwitha was probably influenced by this, effectively fusing her native beliefs with her newfound faith – practising what [McGill Professor Allan] Greer calls a kind of “intense indigenous Catholicism”.
Perhaps she was caught in a perfect storm of Mohawk tradition, Catholic teaching, and temporal misfortune in the form of small pox and domination by the French. Through it all, she displayed a fortitude that I cannot help but respect. The journey to Kahnawake could not have been easy for a woman who had to grope her way, and it must take a will of iron to flog oneself more than a thousand times while the blood runs down one’s naked back. The wretched part is that she poured all that resilience and courage into nothing more worthwhile than the business of torturing herself to death for the sake of theological illusions, while her people continued to suffer.
Pope Benedict apparently found all this admirable enough to not only canonize Kateri Tekakwitha, but also saddle her poor shade with some special responsibilities:
“May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are,” Benedict said. “Saint Kateri, protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint, we entrust you to the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America.”
Canada’s response, in my opinion, ought to be a firm “No, thank you”. We don’t need our faith renewed, and we don’t need a ghostly protectress whose priority in life was literal self-flagellation. After all, we already have the Queen, and if we must choose a symbolic additional “protectress” from history then I would unhesitatingly nominate Laura Secord. She was also a brave young woman, in her time, and she actually did something significant to defend Canada from a dangerous enemy. Madeleine de Verchères might fit the bill, too.
I’ll try to remember to raise a glass on April 17, but it will be with a sense of bemusement and regret. Poor old Tekakwitha, whose courage deserved so much better.