SYRACUSE, N.Y. Sister Kateri Mitchell grew up hearing stories about Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17th-century Mohawk woman who will be declared a saint in the Roman Catholic Church on Sunday.
She has long admired Tekakwitha for her faith and her ability to bridge Native American spirituality with Catholic traditions. In 1961, Mitchell, a Mohawk, joined the Sisters of St. Anne, and since 1998 has served as director of the Tekakwitha Conference in Great Falls, Mont., a group that has spread Tekakwitha’s story and prayed for her canonization since 1939.
Doug George-Kanentiio, also a Mohawk, was brought up Catholic. He left the church at 14 when he began to practice Native American longhouse traditions.
“It took me a while to begin to adopt a different approach to this, not one based on history, but compassion for a young woman who was determined she was going to emulate the suffering of Jesus Christ,” George-Kanentiio said.
Some see Tekakwitha as a story of commitment and strength and an affirmation of Native Americans’ place in the Catholic Church. Others view it as the result of the excesses and arrogance of colonialism, the suppression of Native American tradition and culture, and the remnants of a missionary tradition that forced its narrow understanding of faith on others.
Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and an Algonquin/Christian mother in a Mohawk village in what is now Auriesville, N.Y. When she was 4, her parents and a younger brother died in a smallpox epidemic. The illness left her scarred and nearly blind.
She was baptized by a Jesuit missionary in 1676. Some Mohawks tormented her for her conversion, but she committed herself to Christianity and a life of virginity, practicing extreme acts of devotion, including self-flagellation. She fled to a Mohawk/Catholic village in what is now Montreal, and died there in 1680 at age 24.
According to the Vatican, prayers to Tekakwitha for her intercession were responsible for the inexplicable cure of a 6-year-old Native American boy in 2006 in Washington state who developed a flesh-eating virus.
The church typically requires verification of two miracles for sainthood. In 1980, Pope John Paul II waived the requirement for Tekakwitha’s first miracle, citing the difficulty of confirming details of incidents said to have occurred hundreds of years ago.
Tekakwitha is the first Native American named a Catholic saint.
She was born during a time of independent Indian nations interacting with the Dutch and French, said Allan Greer, a McGill University professor and author of “Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits.”
“She is an active and aggressive cross-cultural explorer,” Greer said. “She is in a way trying to capture their secrets. She was on a mission to get access to what empowers Europeans in a spiritual sense.”