The priests’ faculty room at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield once housed an almost complete set of the famed Jesuit Relations (Relations des Jésuites), as compiled, edited and published by Reuben Gold Thwaites at Cleveland, Ohio, beginning in 1896. Over 70 large books make up the precious collection of primary historical documents detailing the Huron Mission dating from 1632 in New France (e.g., Quebec and present upper New York State).
The word “Relations” here signifies eyewitness accounts – logs, in other words – of what the Jesuits, who sailed the Atlantic from France to work among the Hurons, saw, heard and learned from the native Americans whom they encountered. Accordingly, these year-by-year accounts are highly valued primary historical resources for an understanding of North America in the 1600s, over a century before the United States was born.
I first discovered Thwaites’s collection of the Relations while I was a seminarian at St. Bernard’s in Rochester, N.Y. When asked by Archbishop Henry J. O’Brien in 1952 to finish out my final year of theology as a Prefect of Discipline at St. Thomas Seminary (four or five deacons usually were called back annually to teach and/or to proctor younger seminarians still in the first two years of college, or below), I rediscovered the Jesuit Relations through the set in the priests’ common room, where I passed countless rewarding hours poring over them. They are reproduced in English translation alongside the original Latin or French. Thwaites’s publication also includes a series of allied historical documents.
All of which comes to mind as we prepare for the canonization of America’s first native American, Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.”
“Kateri” means “Catherine” in the Iroquois tongue. “Tekakwitha,” according to one lexicon, indicates “she who sets things in order.” Sometimes the name is given as “Tegahkouita.” Born at Ossernenon (near present-day Auriesville, Exits 27 or 28 off the New York Thruway) in 1656 (a decade after St. Isaac Jogues was martyred), she was the daughter of a pagan, Iroquois, father; her mother was an Algonquin convert to Catholicism.
Kateri’s surname apparently refers to her habit of “holding on to objects ahead” in order to maintain balance and direction. In her youth she contracted smallpox, which permanently affected her eyesight; hence she had to proceed cautiously. Following the smallpox epidemic, the Mohawks abandoned Ossernenon for a village nearby, Caughnawaga.
When Kateri was 18, a Jesuit missionary, Father James de Lamberville, was allowed by the natives to visit Caughnawaga. Two years later, at age 20, Kateri was baptized; her Mohawk uncle gave his permission only after Father de Lamberville persuaded him.
However, Kateri’s Gethsemane years then began. Because of her newfound faith, she was veritably ostracized by the village. Food was denied her on Sundays because she chose to sanctify the day (e.g., by declining heavy labor). Rocks were thrown at her by children; threats of torture were frequent.
Eventually, Kateri’s plight became so severe that she agreed to seek safety in a Canadian enclave built for converts who had endured similar hostility. Escaping her home village with a sympathetic guide, she made her way northward through 200 miles of forests, hills, swamps and rivers to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault St. Louis, near Montreal – a two-months’ escape ordeal. It was there that Kateri received her first holy Communion.
In a hagiography I authored some years ago (Saints For Our Time, N.Y. Arena Lettres, 1976), I included a reference to Kateri Tekakwitha’s having been “the first of her nation to be numbered as a Spouse of Christ,” because she took a vow of chastity after meeting a group of nursing Sisters at Montreal.
As death approached this “Lily of the Mohawks,” I added, “she remained alone, with only a dish of Indian corn and some water… On Wednesday of Holy Week in the year of 1680, the Lily of the Mohawks passed from this world to the next, hand-in-hand, no doubt, with the Queen of Virgins – to a land where the light no longer pained her eyes…”
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.