The Catholic Church Makes Kateri Tekakwitha the First Native American Saint Amid Some Rejoicing


During an elaborate open-air ceremony at the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Square this morning that involved a lot of fancy costumes, bejeweled bibles, Latin liturgies, and probably some bored, sleep-weary children, clandestine Sith lord Pope Benedict XVI canonized Kateri Tekakwitha (along with six others), making her the first Native American saint. While this latest instance of religious pomp and splendor hardly erases all the smallpox, violence, and atomism Catholic missionaries brought to America back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it still offers us a great opportunity to review Tekakwitha’s badass life and reassure ourselves that, if nothing else, the Catholic Church at least knows how to put on a good show for the lord, not like those boooooooring Unitarians, with their inclusiveness and sleek-modern worship halls zzzzzzz.

The lives of the saints’ generally make for exciting reading (St. Hildegarde, “Sibyl of the Rhine,” for example, corresponded with pretty much every notable 12th century figure, wrote the oldest-surviving morality play, and was quite the botanist). Since narrative drama seems, then, to be the primary requirement sainthood, Kateri Tekakwitha’s life was totally epic, tragic (she died at 24), and, of course, magical.

According to the AP, Tekakwitha, also known as Lily of the Mohawks, was born to a Christian Algonquin woman who had been captured during a raid and given as the wife to the Mohawk tribal leader. At the time of her birth (sometime smack in the middle of the 17th century), American tribes were vying for power even as they tried to fend off early colonists and their European diseases. Like smallpox. A smallpox epidemic spread through Tekakwitha’s Mohawk village when she was only a toddler. Three 17th century French traveling salesmen — known as Jesuit Priests — were held responsible by the Mohawks for the epidemic and summarily executed, probably in a really awful way like how Duncan dies in The Last of the Mohicans.

Even though Tekakwitha would be scarred for life from her bout with smallpox, she survived her traumatizing childhood experience to eventually convert to Christianity when she was 20 (the AP editorializes a bit here with the bad-tasting phrase “swapped the Totem for the Crucifix”). Tekakwitha was ostracized from her tribe for siding with the black robed interlopers and refusing to marry a Mohawk man, so she was forced to make the epically long journey to Quebec, where she joined a community of Christian women and practiced her new faith. A penchant for self-flagellation (she would pray for hours on her bare knees in a drafty church and sleep for hours on a bed of thorns) ensured that she wouldn’t live long, and she died prematurely a mere four years after her conversion.

Witnesses claimed the Tekakwitha’s smallpox scars vanished after she died, which helped foster a saintly legend. Though the first petition for her canonization in 1884 failed, she was blessed by Pope John Paul the Deuce in 1980, and, in 2006, 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner miraculously recovered from the much-ballyhooed flesh-eating affliction Necrotizing fasciitis after his parents put a small piece of Tekakwitha’s wrist bone (gross) on his body. From that point, it was only a matter of time, a ceremony of standing and sitting, and some fancy Latin incantations keeping Tekakwitha from sainthood, a milestone that has thrilled the more than 680,000 Catholic Native Americans but failed to impress the other 2.5 million Native Americans who are still pretty pissed about all the other crazy evil shit that colonizing Europeans pulled back in the 17th century in the name of religion.

Kateri Tekakwitha named first Native American saint in Vatican ceremony [AP and NBC]

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