Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Kateri Before Saint Kateri

In the Year of Our Lord 1654 an Iroquois army plunged into the Erie homeland, destroying their main villages of Gentaienton and Rigué. Erie survivors fled deep into the woods and disappeared thereafter from the pages of history, as the triumphant Iroquois returned home with spoils and captives. Among these latter was a young Erie woman named Gandeaktena—and it would later be said that the “misfortune of her country proved the blessing of the captive.”

Gandeaktena was adopted into the Oneida nation of the Iroquois, and was present in 1667 when the Jesuit Jacques Bruyas came to preach in their village. Moved intensely by the Gospel message, her husband Tonsahoten, a fellow captive of the Huron tribe and a Christian, encouraged her to follow her inclinations. She began meeting with Bruyas for instruction, helped him learn the Iroquois language and attended chapel regularly.

Her pagan relatives attempted unsuccessfully to dissuade her from Christianity, but they only served to increase Gandeaktena’s desire to leave the Oneida village and settle among the French where she could worship in freedom. So later in 1667 she assembled a little band of seven souls and journeyed to Montreal over the ice. Baptized by Bishop Laval, she took the name Catherine (or Kateri in Iroquois), and then moved with her husband to establish a brand new settlement near Montreal called La Prairie or Caughnawaga.

From these humble beginnings sprang the great Iroquois mission at Caughnawaga which became renowned for its piety and religiousness. “He has gone to La Prairie,” would become the Indians’ catchphrase for conversion.

Catherine Gandeaktena’s virtues played no small part in the reputation of the famous mission she founded. Called by the Indians the “Mother of the Poor”, the “Good Christian” and the “Pillar of the Faith”, her cabin was a haven for the poor and discontented, and she instructed and catechized many who lived in or passed through the village. So great a charity beat in her noble heart that her confessor had to prescribe limits to it—she was accustomed to “give the best of what she had, and in a quantity which was even excessive.” Catherine founded the Confraternity of the Holy Family, a group of very devout converts, who said as many as 20 rosaries per day and were the mainstay of the mission’s Catholic life.

After five years of devoted charity, Catherine convinced her husband to give away the last bit of wampum they owned, offering them first before the Blessed Sacrament:

“My God, four years ago, I gave to you my Body and soul, and the greater portion of my goods. Here is what remains to me; I present it to you with all my heart. What should I now ask of you after having given you my all, unless it be that, from this moment, you take me yourself, to place me near you?”

The very next day Catherine was struck by a headache and fever. She sensed with joy that the Lord had answered her prayer. Loved ones crowded around her bedside as her husband attended her needs, and the ministering priest had her pray for her own recovery. But she quickly added:

“It has been impossible for me to say from the heart what I have just uttered with the lips. Why ask to remain on earth, since God is calling me to heaven?”

Soon after receiving the last sacraments Catherine became delirious. Her husband continually exhorted everyone to say rosaries on her behalf, and after 8 days of their “unceasing prayer” she slipped into a final peaceful coma.

Catherine Gandeakteana died to this world on November 6, 1673. Her husband distributed all her remaining goods to the poor, asking only for prayers for her soul. It was generally believed however, by Black Robe and Indian alike, that her soul had attained the final bliss of heaven.

Only a few years later another Catherine, surnamed Tekakwitha, would seek refuge at Caughnawaga, and her own reputation would eclipse that even of her predecessor. But it was the holy example of Catherine Gandeaktena that prepared the seed-bed for Saint Kateri’s arrival, by founding a flourishing community of Christian Iroquois at Caughnawaga, the very soil in which the “Lily of the Mohawks” would bloom.

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