The move by these French priests was spearheaded by an observation made by Samuel Champlain as he traveled the breadth of the St. Lawrence River, which then broadened out to Lake Ontario. He noticed as he sailed past all the Indian villages, there were so many children of God who knew nothing about Our Lord Jesus, our Savior. He wrote, in his journal, how sad it was that most of these people would live their entire lives never having heard the name of Jesus and would die without the grace of having known Him or being a part of His Church through Baptism.
When this word came back to the Church of France, an avalanche of fervor swept across the country. But it was the newly-formed army of Ignatius Loyola, the Company of Jesus, the Jesuits,1 who took it as a call to spiritual arms. The French contingency of that order accepted the challenge put to them. They embraced St. Paul’s plea to the Christians of another time, the early days of the Church, as a call to arms. They used his words as their battle cry.
“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
But how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed?
And how can they believe in Him whom they have not heard?
And how can they hear without someone to preach?
And how can people preach unless they are sent?”2
They came over to New France, as Canada was called at that time. They came with hearts burning to spread the word of God to the Indians and to die as Martyrs for Evangelization to the New World. By the thousands they came. They set up missions, worked in the wilderness, learned the language and customs of the Indians and gently, very gently taught them about Jesus. Their progress ranged from slow to full stop. But they persevered! They had many obstacles to overcome, many of which were caused by their own people. Before the Blackrobes ever got to Canada and upper New York State, they were preceded by trappers and fur traders who cared little or nothing for the people who lived on the lands, the natives of our country. They represented nothing but a way to satisfy their greed.
These were followed by the Military, whose only purpose was to obtain and maintain control and keep the Indians in their grip. Neither group would have won any popularity contests among the Indians. What they did manage to accomplish was to create an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust for any white men. The Blackrobes became victims because of the iniquities their countrymen and others3 had inflicted upon the natives of America.
Add to that the Indians’ own culture, which was so completely different from the French settlers. Both the French and the Indians focused on the things which separated them, rather than try to find a common denominator- those qualities which could unite them. The Iroquois, who were the strongest of the Indian tribes, hated the Hurons, who traded with the French; therefore, the Iroquois hated the French. They were friendly with the Dutch and the British who were at odds and sometimes at war with the French. That could account for a great deal of the hostility between the Iroquois and the French.
But the real victims had to be the Blackrobes, the Jesuit Evangelists. They were blamed for everything. If the Iroquois attacked the Hurons, it was the fault of the Blackrobes. If the Hurons suffered drought, it was the fault of the Blackrobes. If the
crops failed, it was because of the black magic of the Blackrobes. If illness were to take its toll on the Indian population, because of strains of bacteria, brought into the continent by the French, Dutch and British, it became strangely enough the fault of the Blackrobes. To this day, there are those in Canada who blame the Jesuits for the rampant disease to which the Indian population was subjected, and because of which they died in great numbers.
But what was the justification to blame the Jesuits? They were no more responsible for spreading the viruses than any other foreigner who emigrated to the country. However, they were the most vulnerable. They were the easiest to attack and the least able to defend themselves. There came a time in 1649, after the torturous execution of John de Brebuf, Gabriel Lalemant, and others in Huronia, when the wholesale slaughter of the Blackrobes became too much for the Superiors in Quebec to accept, and so they closed down the missions, burned to the ground Saint Marie of the Hurons, the settlement which they had built as a headquarters for the missionaries, and left to go back to Quebec. The mission venture to Huronia was a failure. The wilderness reclaimed the lands in which the Blackrobes had labored and died, their blood left as fertilizer for the growth of the new missions, the fruit of the Martyrs.
In Ossernenon, which is modern-day Auriesville, New York, the first of the North American Martyrs René Goupil was martyred in 1642, tomahawked for making the Sign of the Cross on a young Indian’s forehead. At that same place, St. Isaac Jogues and St. Jean Lalande, a lay Donné,4 were martyred also. The Missionaries left and the cause seemed lost. But on that soil, in that place, the Lord was to plant the seeds of Evangelization into the blood-soaked earth, which would grow into what would be the first Native American Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, the Mystic of the Wilderness. And when she is canonized, finally brought into the Communion of Saints, she will be the first Native American, first fruit of the North American Martyrs.
Kateri is born – the Seed Bears Fruit
In Trois-Rivieres, today a part of French Canada, in the province of Quebec, a young Indian Maiden of the Algonquin tribe was raised under the mantle of the French Jesuits.
She was baptized in Trois-Rivieres and lived with French settlers for a time.
When the Jesuits pulled their missions back to Quebec in 1649, as a result of violent raids by the Iroquois and the outrageous executions of the Blackrobe missionaries, the Algonquins were left on their own and came under the domination of the Iroquois.
Kateri’s mother was taken prisoner and brought down the Mohawk river with the rest of the Indian captives.
She landed in Ossernenon, a beautiful Mohawk village in what is today, Auriesville, in upstate New York.
It was in Ossernenon that Kateri’s mother ( an Indian Maiden of the Algonquin tribe) met her husband, a chief of one of the villages. They married, and settled down there. Now, we have to remember that Kateri’s mother was as much a captive as she was the wife of the chief. Nothing is known about her relationship with her husband or the people of the village. She was a foreigner, who spoke a different language, and had different customs. We’re sure that she was not able to practice her Christian religion, because the Blackrobes (Jesuit Missionaries) had not yet returned to this area. How she must have grieved, especially over the loss of her Lord Jesus in the Eucharist.
She and her husband had two children, Kateri, born in 1656, and her younger brother. They lived a comparatively peaceful life in Ossernenon. Her mother tried to impart in the children at least the virtues of Christianity, if not the actual beliefs of the Faith, to the best of her understanding. She also tried to incorporate the teachings of the Church with the positive values of her Indian background, even though her Algonquin beliefs varied somewhat from the Iroquois or Mohawk.
Kateri was a beautiful child, possessing the best features of both mother and father. She was very loved by her parents, and respected as the daughter of a chief of the village. But all that was to come to an end swiftly when she was about four years old. A deadly epidemic of Smallpox erupted, and swept through the village like wildfire. It had no respect for age, sex or position. Kateri’s mother died first, then her brother and her father. Kateri’s mother had always prayed for the baptism of her children, and possibly they were baptized with the Baptism of Desire. But in her lifetime, Kateri’s mother did not see her children officially baptized. Kateri’s brother was never baptized. It would be 16 years after her mother’s death that her prayer for Kateri would be finally answered.
After the death of her family, the most difficult period of Kateri’s life began. She was taken in by her uncle, her father’s brother, who was made head chief of the village. However, as much as he loved Kateri, the uncle’s personality was different from Kateri’s father, from what she could remember of her father. Her actual upbringing was put in the hands of various aunts who loved her as a relative, but they were definitely not her mother.
The Smallpox epidemic had devastated the village and Kateri personally. In addition to losing her family, she was permanently scarred from the disease. Her face, beautiful before the Smallpox hit her, became extremely pockmarked. Her eyesight was severely affected to the point of being almost blind for the rest of her life. She walked with her head down, mostly to protect her eyes from the sunlight, but also because she couldn’t see clearly in front of her. It worked out to her favor after her baptism as she then walked in this manner, as an expression of humility. It was because of this condition that she was called Tekakwitha. Her uncle looked at her as she struggled to walk around, in the early days after her eyesight was affected. He called her Tekakwitha, which means literally “She pushed with her hands.” But Tekakwitha has a very special meaning among the Mohawks. It means the ideal woman, one who works hard and keeps everything in good order: a prudent, industrious, provident, loving wife and mother. The chief didn’t know it, but he was prophesying about the qualities Kateri would possess when the Lord put her to work for the Kingdom.
Ossernenon was considered an evil omen to the villagers. It had been the scene of almost total destruction to the people there. Everywhere they looked, they could see in their minds’ eyes the bodies of loved ones who had died from the epidemic. In addition, Smallpox was still ravaging the tribe. The chiefs determined it was best to leave Ossernenon, because evil spirits were there.
Her uncle, as main chief of the village, supervised the building of the new village, with the palisades for protection and the longhouses6 for living. They chose a spot on a hill facing the river, about a mile to the west of Ossernenon. It was called Caughnawaga, which meant “by the rapids.” In addition to being very beautiful, it was a very strategic location. From this vantage point, they could see their enemies approaching. This is where Kateri spent her childhood…. Reference: “Visionaries, Mystics and Stigmatists.”
Blessed Kateri’s Feastday is July 14