In Praise of the Resilience of Young Women

Today we celebrate the feast of Kateri Tekawitha, a young Native American woman from northeastern NY, not far from here, who was canonized not too long ago by Pope John Paul II in 1980. She lived in the 1600s. 

The first thing I’ll say about her story, to get some of the sad stuff out of the way, is that, were it not for the fur trade, and the merchants who relentlessly moved further into NY and the upper Midwest, Kateri’s life would have been profoundly different. As with so many lives of the Native Americans. 

It’s hard to read. Being Euro-centric and educated that way, I found myself thinking of famous portraits of various English noblemen and royalty and all those furs you see lining their capes, or stitched around their collars to show off their wealth for posterity.

That all came at such an enormous cost, as such displays of wealth still do today.  And one victim of that pomp and greed was the young whose life we remember today. 

On a more positive note, she was a survivor. She made the best of the only life she knew, and was a brave young woman.

Kateri Tekawitha was born in Auriesville, New York, in what used to be the Mohawk village of Ossernenan before it became a Jesuit outpost. She was born to the village chief. When she was a girl her parents and baby brother died of smallpox, and she survived but was severely scarred. She went to live with an aunt and uncle in another village. At age 13 she was eligible for marriage but refused, and soon found shelter with the Jesuits. Eventually she converted, and was taken to a Jesuit outpost south of Montreal.

A lot of Native Americans from tribes that had been defeated or badly diminished ended up living in longhouses in Jesuit villages, where they could continue some of their traditions but also converted to Catholicism.

Kateri, who (I forgot to mention) was baptized under the name Catherine, died very young--she was 23 years old. It was noted that her face cleared of its smallpox after death and had a demeanor of peace - my Protestant self doesn’t put a lot of store in that, but I know such things are important signs of beatification. In the weeks after her death she appeared to 3 people -- also part of that process.

It wouldn’t be until the 20th century that she was granted sainthood and she was added to our calendar of saints in the Episcopal Church only in 2022.

Saints’ lives point us to their virtues, and for Kateri I’d say, more than the traditional things she’s celebrated for, such as her virginity, her devotion to the Blessed Mother and to Catholicism, her virtue was being a survivor. Adapting to so much change, and pain. She was clearly a very strong young woman.

Saints’ lives also point us to the times they lived in, and cause us to consider both the world then, and now. How much are we still driven by forces that harm other people? That displace, divide families, obliterate villages. All so we can wear a fur collar (or whatever the modern equivalent of that is). There’s much to think about here. But above all, let’s celebrate the remarkable resilience of young women. Like Saint Keteri.