The North American Martyrs, eight Jesuits and their associates who were killed by warring Indian tribes in the 17th century, are the first saints of North America and we celebrate their feast today. I’ve visited Auriesville in New York State and the Midlands in Canada where they were martyred; both places are stirring reminders of heroic faith and bravery.
The missionaries came to the New World hoping and expecting a new Pentecost among the native peoples of this land, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, disease and political maneuvering made the native peoples suspicious of the foreigners and the seed of the gospel seemed to fall on hard ground. The martyrdom of the eight Jesuits witness that resistance.
Letters back to France from the early Jesuits–marvelously preserved in “The Jesuit Relations”–often express the disappointment the missionaries felt over their scarce harvest. But it didn’t stop them; they were well grounded in the mystery of the Cross.
Not far from Auriesville, near Fonda, NY, is the Indian village called Caughnawaga. In the spring of 1675, after the Jesuits were killed in Auriesville in 1646, Father Jacques de Lamberville visited Caughnawaga . The priest entered a lodge where a young Indian girl Kateri Tekakwitha was alone because a foot injury prevented her from working in the fields. She spoke to him of her desire to receive baptism and on Easter, 1676, the young Indian girl was baptized and took the name Kateri, after St. Catherine of Siena, the mystic and a favorite patron of Christian Indian women. She was 20 years old.
Her uncle and relatives in the long house reacted to her conversion to Christianity and pressured her to marry and follow their ways, even when opposed to her beliefs. The early Jesuits considered it a miracle for a Christian to resist family and tribal pressure such as Kateri experienced in Caughnawaga. Yet, her early biographer says “She practiced her faith without losing her original fervor and her extraordinary virtue was seen by all. The Christians saw her obeying their rules exactly, going to prayers everyday in the morning and evening and Mass on Sunday. At the same time she avoided the dreams feasts and the dances,” practices endangering her belief. (The Life of the Good Catherine Tekakwitha, Claude Chauchetiere, SJ , 1695)
Father de Lamberville finally recommended that Kateri escape to the newly-established Indian Christian village in Kahnawake near Montreal, where she could live her faith more easily. In 1676, aided by other Christian Indians, she made the dangerous journey northward. There she lived a fervent life of prayer and faith; she died and was buried on April 17th, 1680.
She will be canonized as a saint October 21th in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” (Tertullian)
- Fr. Victor Hoagland, C.P.