Monday, March 26, 2012

The Lily of the Mohawk and The National Shrine of the North American Martyrs

Last Sunday on our way home from the conference in New York, Lorna and I took the "back way" through the Mohawk Valley of New York state. History leans in on every side in this region that is rich in the stories of the Native Americans who made it their home, the wars with the French and the English over the territory, the coming of settlers and the mission settlements of the Jesuits. It was easy to imagine the land as it once was; the rolling hills, large rich river valley, the tumbling river, game and virgin timber in abundance, and native settlements with their longhouses and fires scattered across the land.

It was a place of turbulence in the late 1600's; the native tribes warred with each other and also with the influx of French and English. Battles, skirmishes, and ambushes were the order of the day. Captives were taken by all sides, and one of these captives became the mother of a young woman who will soon be the first Native American to gain sainthood in the Catholic Church.

Born to a Mohawk chief and his Algonquin wife around 1655, Kateri Tekakwitha was an orphan at a young age. She grew up in those times of great change, a time of war, fighting and the influx of Jesuit missionaries who extolled the Christian faith and worked among the Native Americans to try to convert them.

Kateri's mother had been a convert to the Christian faith when young, but she was captured in a war with the Iroquois and taken away from her home to live in the land of the Mohawks.When Kateri was very young, both parents and her brothers were claimed by smallpox. Kateri herself was scarred badly on her face, and often kept her face covered with a blanket to hide the scars.

Her uncle took her in to raise her, and she lived in his village when she met the "Blackrobes"--the Jesuits. She was fascinated by these white men and their message, but her interest was discouraged by her uncle. She eventually converted and was given the name Catherine. Kateri resisted marriage, vowing that she was married to Christ and would remain a virgin.

Kateri had heard of convents where women lived in a sacred environment to practice their religion. She wanted to live such a life and worked with her mother's close friend Anastasia to make this dream a reality, although the Jesuits were, for some reason, not in favor of this effort. The Christian women of the village Kahnawake, a missionary settlement founded by the Jesuits, lived together in a longhouse where they practiced their religion. Kateri, among others, employed mortification of the flesh in an attempt to atone for the past sins of her people, even though the Jesuits also disaproved. She did eventually change to walking on hot coals instead of drawing her blood by sleeping on thorns and other methods.

Kateri died at the very young age of 22. Just after her death, it was reported that all of her scars disappeared and she became beautifully smooth-skinned as she lay in her coffin. She allegedly appeared to two or three people (depending on the account of the events) after her death, telling them that she was on her way to heaven. The Jesuits told people who were ill to pray to Kateri and many claimed to have been cured. Relics from her grave were also used in healing the sick. Her bones were burned and used to build a chapel in her honor. Miracles continue to be reported, the most recent in 2006 when a boy in Whatcom, Washington was on the verge of death when prayers were offered to Kateri and he recovered to the amazement of his family and doctors.

So, on October 21, 2012, Kateri will become the first Native American to be canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church. Many celebrations are planned at her shrine, and the people we spoke with there are very excited about the coming events. 

Kateri has been called the "Lily of the Mohawks" because the lily is a symbol of purity. There are two shrines that honor her; we stopped at both of them on our travels through the Mohawk Valley.

Our first stop was at the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, which was built in 1885. It is situated high on a hill overlooking the beautiful valley below.


The shrine is built like a coliseum, with rows and rows of seating around a four-sided altar.

There are statues of three early Jesuit martyrs around the altars, as well as the statue of Kateri in the above photo. The grounds are extensive, over 600 acres, with a chapel, gift shop, and statuary. It is a peaceful, serene place.

Some distance further along our journey, we found Kateri's shrine, near the little village of Fonda, NY (yes, Henry Fonda's ancestors were there).

Lorna and I both felt the peace and sanctity of the chapel. The good brother who cares for it graciously let us in even though it wasn't open.

Carvings on the rafters traced Kateri's history.

A peaceful window reflects the sun shining on this rural shrine; a restful,contemplative stop for the traveler that offers a look at a part of history that most of us might not never have heard about.

In October I expect this shrine will be a busy place, with many visitors and events to celebrate the canonization of Kateri. I am glad to have seen it in what is probably its usual state--quiet, with only the sound of birds and passing traffic to mar the tranquil atmosphere.

7 comments:

Marie said...

Wow! I love this story! I had never heard of Kateri before, and this was fascinating! Love the beautiful shrine! The pictures are gorgeous!

Joy@aVintageGreen said...

I was so drawn in to your narrative about Kateri that I forgot I was reading a post. I could almost hear you telling her story. Wow.

Ronda said...

I love the way you take the side roads in life!

Granny Sue said...

Marie, I had not heard of her either. It was astonishing to hear from the volunteers at the shrine that she would soon be a saint. That is a rare thing indeed.

Granny Sue said...

It is a compelling tale, isn't it Joy? Especially when we found the place on a foggy, quiet Sunday when the valley had a look of another time.

Granny Sue said...

Ronda, I love that way of putting it: "taking the side roads of life." Perfectly describes what I do! And I think you do the same.

Rowan said...

Interesting post - surprising what you find when you travel slowly.

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