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Anglicans Online last updated 29 March 2015
review for Anglicans Online
Cast in relief on the massive bronze front doors of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City are depictions of four “Saints of New York:” St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, “Mother of the Immigrant;” St. Isaac Jogues, “First Priest in New York;” St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint; and “Ven. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks.” The only member of the group who is not yet canonized is the last, to whom Allan Greer turns his subtle, intelligent attention in the new Mohawk Saint. Greer aims decidedly at writing a biography rather than a hagiography of the woman he calls “Catherine Tekakwitha,” combining her baptismal name—Catherine of Siena was her patron—and her adult Mohawk name. (He rejects the appellation “Kateri” as grounded in “fin-de-siècle primitivism.”) Greer writes a fascinating portrait of Tekakwitha’s indigenous and French Catholic world, as well as a chronicle of the later reception of her life both inside and outside the church.
Since two Jesuit hagiographies are the primary sources for Catherine Tekakwitha’s life, it is difficult to separate biography from legend. We do know that she was born to an Algonquin mother and an Iroquois father not far west of today’s Albany in a village on the St. Lawrence called Gandaouagué. She was orphaned by smallpox but survived it herself, and became an adopted prisoner of the Mohawks during one of the dizzying number of internecine tribal wars of the mid-sixteenth century. At 19, Tekakwitha was baptized by a French missionary. She was dead before her 25th birthday, exhausted by fever, fasting, rigorous asceticism and the wasting effects of childhood smallpox.
Almost immediately after her death, French and indigenous Catholics alike began to pray to her, invoking her assistance (particularly for healing of obstetric and gynecological problems), painting and distributing portraits of her and making pilgrimages to her grave. She was neither the first nor the last young Mohawk woman who died in an air of extraordinary devotion relatively soon after conversion. Nor was she alone in her enthusiasm for Counter-Reformation Catholic spirituality and ascesis; in fact, Catherine was one of a small but not inconsiderable number of women in her band who formed a close-knit circle of female penitents who refused to marry and engaged in mutual religious exhortation and flagellation. Greer examines these practices in light of the scholarship of Carolyn Walker Bynum on women and asceticism, drawing conclusions that have been controversial for some reviewers. He demonstrates, however, that her cult grew rapidly, effectively and with remarkable tenacity thanks to the official support of Jesuits who knew her and lay Catholics from a remarkable cross section of society in New France. Jesuit Claude Chauchetière’s decision to model Catherine’s Life on the early virgin saints of the church quickly cemented the details of her brief life and “extraordinary career at Kahnawake as a Christian ascetic and holy woman.”
Pope John Paul II beatified her in 1981, and a number of campaigns today petition for her canonization. Almost always known as “Kateri Tekakwitha,” Catherine is the subject of shrines, websites, statues, bumper-stickers and knickknacks; throughout the United States and Canada she is a potent symbol of Native American Catholicism. Greer is careful to point out where popular images of Tekakwitha diverge from facts delineated in the earliest versions of her life, but finds as far away as New Mexico a strong devotion to her as a woman who was able “to remain fully native while becoming fully Catholic.”
For a modern reader, much of Tekakwitha’s life strikes a strange and unsettling note; intentional exposure of the body to fire, snow, flagellation and deprivation in the pursuit of holiness resonated both with contemporary Jesuits and Mohawks better than they can with us. An alien fixation on death “actual, anticipated, feared, and desired” is also common to the Jesuits and their converts in this period. Elements of exoticized and eroticized mysticism flowing from sources like these have inspired authors from Chateaubriand (Les Natchez) to Leonard Cohen (Beautiful Losers). At the end of Greer’s analysis, however, the compelling objective image of Catherine Tekakwitha remains—as a woman of prayer and uncompromising faith in Jesus Christ, of heroic virtue, inner stability and strength in a period of extraordinary cultural upheaval.
In addition to being the first modern scholarly book to examine the life and cult of Catherine Tekakwitha herself, Mohawk Saint is really a double biography, covering the saint in parallel with her French contemporary and first hagiographer, Claude Chauchetière (1645-1709). Chauchetière’s own upbringing, sense of missionary vocation and decision to enter the Society of Jesus figure largely in the development of the book. Greer finds important trajectories from Chauchetière’s childhood in Poitiers to his spiritual crises on arrival in New France and their eventual resolution through personal encounters with Catherine Tekakwitha. After Catherine’s death, Chauchetière’s visions of her fueled his conviction that her brief life was among the holy first fruits of the Jesuit mission.
Greer is at his best in reconstructing the Algonquin-Iroquois-Mohawk Catholic sacred world, peopled by individuals with beautiful names like Marie-Thérèse Tegaiaguenta, Anastasie Tegonhatsiongo, Catherine Gandeacteua and François Tsonnatouan. Since the author fashions his biographies not in terms of conversion, colonisation or discovery—but rather around the central idea of contact, in which indigenous and European cultures meet and are mutually changed by the encounter—he can portray Native American Catholicism not as a religion imposed by Europeans on an unwilling, unwitting population, but rather as a substantial faith and spiritual practice adopted and adapted by the Mohawks and Iroquois themselves. This is borne out not just through Catherine Tekakwitha’s life and spontaneous posthumous cult, but through the history of Sault St. Louis/Kahnawake, “a Jesuit mission, that is to say an instrument of directed religious change, and a self-governing Catholic Iroquois community.” In Greer’s compelling reading—reminiscent of the Paraguayan Jesuit reducciones—Jesuits and Iroquois were at Kahnawake “improvising, compromising, and making the best of situations they neither created nor fully understood.”
There are a few slips of the pen when Greer seems strangely unfamiliar with ecclesiastical language—for instance, he refers to Catherine Tekakwitha “receiving the ceremony of baptism” rather than just “being baptized.” He also spends little time speculating on why Tekakwitha’s cause has been so long in the works despite widespread and substantial devotion over a period of centuries. But the book is on the whole well written and shows a deep, penetrating familiarity with the wide range of primary sources and modern analytical material on early Jesuit missions in North America. One of the book’s most intriguing and interesting features is its reproduction of eight of Chauchetière’s evocative pen-and-ink drawings of mission life in New France; they come close to being worth the price of the book on their own. As a glimpse into the lives of two individuals from a remarkable time largely absent from narratives of religious and secular history, Mohawk Saint is a very welcome title.