She Who Bumps into Things, or The Lily of the Mohawks: First Native American Saint

Oct 19

The Lily of the Mohawks, as portrayed in stained glass at St James Catholic Church in St. Paul. As of Oct. 21, 2012, you may just call her “Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.”
The words on the glass are from The Song of Solomon:
“As a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.”

On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI canonized seven new Roman Catholic saints, among them the very first American Indian to be raised to sainthood, an Algonquin-Mohawk woman called Kateri Tekakwitha, who has been venerated by Catholics for more than 100 years as “The Lily of the Mohawks.”

I’m not sure if the story of Tekakwitha, who died, at 24, in 1680, is inspiring. But it sure is heartbreaking. Orphaned at 4 by a smallpox epidemic that killed her parents, left her scarred and nearly blind (“tekakwitha” apparently means “she who bumps into things”), the Lily of the Mohawks became known for her piety, her ceaseless praying (she prayed for hours, on her knees, in the snow), her announced vow to remain a virgin, her self-mortification, which included cutting, burning and flogging herself, and her early death.

As a boy growing up in St. James Catholic Church in St. Paul, I used to stare at the stained glass window featuring The Lily of the Mohawks beneath one of the Beatitudes, which seemed picked especially for her: “Blessed Are the Pure in Heart, For They Will See God.” “Lily” was gorgeous, not looking much as she was described by contemporary accounts that commented upon her facial scars and her habit of wearing a blanket over her head to hide her disfigurement. But looking as beautiful, perhaps, as she was said to have been transformed in death, with her scars miraculously disappearing — the first of many healings and miracles attributed to her. The miracles have increased since she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. Now, she is no longer “Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha,” but Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.

Illustration of early account of how Native Americans were treated by Catholics colonizing in New Spain.

Surprisingly, there has been little criticism or opposition to her sainthood. I say surprisingly, because there is a long and complicated history between Rome and tribal peoples in the Americas, stretching back to Christopher Columbus, sent by Catholic Spain to colonize the New World and, in the process, beginning five centuries of enslavement, torture, disease and forced conversion. John Paul II asked forgiveness in 2000 for some of that history in the Americas, as well as around the world, acknowledging at a Mass of Pardon that “Christians…have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions…” And his successor has apologized to members of “First Nation” communities — tribes — in Canada for the church’s history of abusing Indian students in Catholic boarding schools. But there really has not yet been a formal church apology for the five centuries of brutalization that began with Columbus and which nearly extinguished native cultures and practices in the New World. So there are many layers of deep hurts, and complex emotions that remain between the Church and its 1 million U.S. Catholic native believers.

Update: Indian Country Today published this critical look at the canonization on Saturday, Oct. 20.

A number of Native American delegations from across the country are expected to travel to Rome for the canonization. Still, the meaning of the suffering and the faithful persistence — in essence, the survival of native peoples — is not easy to comprehend, as hinted at by this New York Times piece from July on the upcoming sainthood. Fittingly, one of the miracles credited to Tekakwitha is the recovery of an Indian boy from Washington State who survived a near-fatal bout with flesh-eating bacteria.

All Saints Day is coming up Nov. 1. This year, whatever it means, a Native American will be among the hallowed for the first time. That’s a good start, perhaps, to finding forgiveness for 500 years of persecution.

The official Catholic biography can be read here

Saint Kateri Tekwitha, from the only portrait of her during her life.