Segment from Catholics in America

Native Ascetic

Producer Bruce Wallace heads to the birthplace of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint, to see how she is remembered today.


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ED: Spanish Franciscans weren’t the only Catholics to colonise parts of North America. In the 1600s, French Jesuits set up missions across what is today the Northeast US and parts of Canada. Like Junipero Serra’s legacy in California, the Catholic Church’s relationship with indigenous tribes there remains complex.


But that complexity isn’t just embodied in colonizers like Serra. It’s on display in the story of Kateri Tekakwitha who was born in 1656 near the present-day village of Fonda, New York. Producer Bruce Wallace went there to trace her story.


MARK STEED: The Lord be with you.


CONGREGATION: And with your spirit.


MARK STEED: A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew.


CONGREGATION: Glory to you, Lord Christ.


BRUCE WALLACE: In many ways, the mass at St. Peter’s Chapel is pretty typical. 15 congregants take in a gospel reading, file to the front to receive communion, and join in prayer and a hymn.




But the chapel’s visual cues hint at a less typical Catholic story. To the right of the altar, a painting depicts a Native American origin tale. The altar itself is draped with a rug woven in orange and red geometric patterns, and a big frame drum sits beneath it. And then, on the wall right behind the priest, a painting of an indigenous woman clasping a rosary and holding her hands in prayer. This is Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. The chapel is part of a shrine to her. Friar Mark Steed arrived five years ago to oversee it.


MARK STEED: And I was here for a couple of years. And then, all of a sudden, the pope decided to canonize blessed Kateri. He must have heard we were fixing up the shrine. I figure that’s the only reason he wanted to do it.


BRUCE WALLACE: There were a few other reasons, too. We’ll get to those in a bit.


The shrine sits here because Tekakwitha was born nearby in 1656. There’s a museum below the chapel, and an archaeological site that some think are remains of one of Tekakwitha’s childhood homes. After a museum tour, volunteer Helen Carpenter points me toward the site.


HELEN CARPENTER: Go to the top of the hill. And then, you have to cross the road. OK? Don’t forget to cross the road. And be careful. OK. The spring is over to the right. And we had Jake Finkbonner was here.


BRUCE WALLACE: In 2006, Finkbonner, a kid in Washington State who’s part Native American, recovered from a life-threatening bacteria after his supporters prayed to Tekakwitha. The Vatican ruled it a miracle, a major step on her road to canonization.


HELEN CARPENTER: And he actually was reaching down into the water to make contact with the person who had to helped to heal him.


BRUCE WALLACE: Much is unknown about the woman Finkbonner reached out to her at this spring. Here’s some of what we do know. Tekakwitha’s mother and brother died from smallpox when she was six years old. The disease left her nearly blind and her face badly scarred. French missionaries set up shop in her village in 1667. And eight years, later she joined a wave of indigenous conversion to Catholicism.


Soon after, she followed that wave to an Iroquois missionary settlement near present-day Montreal. Allan Greer, a McGill University historian and Tekakwitha biographer, says a relationship with the French missionaries was different than you might expect.


ALLAN GREER: It’s not just imitating the colonizer. It’s not submitting to the colonizer. It is trying to appropriate that which looks useful.


BRUCE WALLACE: Tekakwitha and a group of fellow female indigenous converts discovered a Catholicism not seen from the pews– a mystical, acetic faith practiced by people with special knowledge. And that was the knowledge they wanted.


ALLAN GREER: These women were not satisfied with the role of lay people who accepted the spiritual leadership of priests. They wanted to get what the priests had and what the nuns had.


BRUCE WALLACE: So they interviewed former patients of a nearby missionary hospital, and learned about the self-depriving practices of the nuns there. Then they mimicked them, going without food and sleep, sometimes whipping themselves. Tekakwitha added Mohawk-inflected rituals, too, including burning herself with hot coals, similar to a practice warriors used to prepare for battle.


ALLAN GREER: So here we have indigenous North American women drawing on both European and Native American cultural groups to create their own spiritual practices.


BRUCE WALLACE: Tekakwitha died in 1680 at the age of 24, likely a result of these hardships inflicted on a body already weakened by her earlier bout of smallpox. A Jesuit missionary who had been with her in her dying moments spent the next 15 years researching her life and promoting her as a saint.


ALLAN GREER: At first, this seems like a preposterous idea, because the whole colonial enterprise– and I’m talking about Spanish, Portuguese, French, et cetera– is predicated on the assumption that Europeans are spiritually superior to savage heathens.


BRUCE WALLACE: The effort languished until the late 1800s. By this time, Tekakwitha’s roots in New York had been rediscovered. And the US Catholic church was looking for some heroes. It was a time of deep anti-Catholic sentiment, when many associated the faith with poor immigrants crowding into urban slums. Tekakwitha, of course, represented the opposite.


In 1884, a letter to the Vatican from American church leaders set her on the long road to canonization. Not surprisingly, the indigenous people in Kahnawake, the Canadian missionary settlement where Tekakwitha died, have mixed feelings about her.


Orenda Boucher is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottowa and is writing her dissertation about Tekakwitha.


ORENDA BOUCHER: The few times they asked people in my community, my elders, about who she was, they rolled their eyes, and said, oh, I don’t want to talk about her, because she’s one of them. And I understood pretty early on that people saw her as a problematic figure that we had never fully dealt with.


BRUCE WALLACE: Boucher thinks the indigenous residents of Kahnawake should deal with her. In the last half century, many in her community have left the Catholic faith and started reexamining elements of native spirituality. She sees Tekakwitha as a guide to inhabiting both Catholic and indigenous worlds.


ORENDA BOUCHER: She never fully got away from living in the longhouse. She was adding onto it with this Catholicism. So I think that by reclaiming her narrative and reclaiming her story is part of my way of decolonizing history, and trying to understand why or how we ended up in this particular situation that we’re in now. She’s the conduit for all of that for me.


BRUCE WALLACE: Since the canonization, Friar Mark Steed, director of the shrine in Fonda, New York, has started to think about how his Franciscans can work more fully with American Indians– both the ones that live down the road and the ones that lived up on the hill back in Tekakwitha’s day.


MARK STEED: Get a lot of people who come in here, and they said, I don’t believe what’s here. There’s something here I just can’t put my finger on. I said, well, if you really want to put your finger on it, go up to the dig. That’s where they lived. One woman came back and said, I had to get out of there, because I was frightened to death. She said, I felt like they were all around me. I said, they were. It’s their land. They believe that those spirits are still alive. And so do we.


BRIAN: Bruce Wallace brought us that story. Earlier, we heard from Stephen Hackel, a historian at the University of California Riverside. His book is Junipero Serra, California’s Founding Father.


PETER: It’s time for us to take a short break. But stay with us. When we get back, a genre of 19th-century literature is born in a discredited exposé about nuns.


BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.

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Note to Teachers:

This lesson focuses on the work of anti-Catholic groups to ensure Protestant domination. Understanding the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity is key. Neither the Know Nothings nor the Ku Klux Klan could prevent participation by Catholics in American government. Despite tolerant attitudes expressed by American leaders, individual heroes seem to be lacking in this story. Change seems to have come about largely through the collective energies of Catholics in America who proved themselves to be American and Catholic.

There are a number of primary and secondary sources included in this lesson for students to analyze. Students will interrogate texts and artifacts and pose questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. As they do so, they are asked to reach an understanding of the times that produced the sources and use the information gathered to formulate statements about the issues based on the evidence they have examined.

These lessons contain an abundance of information about the difficulties experienced by Catholics in America over three centuries. Used in their entirety, they show progress in America towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation, and at the same time, the lessons illustrate the difficulty of bringing about social change.