“If I only knew then what I know now.” This is what I said to Emund Matatawabin, former Cree Chief at Fort Albany, author and winner of the Order of Canada. He responded that he thought this would make a good title for a song. I had contacted him through Facebook messenger because I could not get the people of Fort Albany out of my mind and heart. This was the place of one of the most notorious residential schools in Canada.
When I was 18, I went to teach guitar on the Cree Reserve at Fort Albany. It was an incredibly spiritual experience that I have carried with me my whole life. I went there on a mission with the Sisters of St. Joseph and another young person. I remember being in the back of a church in Moosonee and there was a prayer card on a table describing St. Kateri Tekakwitha. I had not heard of this holy person revered in Indigeonous communities, and there was her image in a stained glass window. Years later, I would be singing with children, parents and staff in the gym at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic School, celebrating the canonization of this holy person.
St. Kateri became known as the Lily of the Mohawks, a contemplative Mohawk mystic who is revered by Catholics and pilgrims far and wide. Born in 1656, her father was a Mohawk Turtle Chief and her mother was an Algonquin woman who became a Christian. Kateri was orphaned at a very young age. Like many of her people, her parents and brother died of smallpox. Kateri was taken in by her uncle and his family. She had a deep faith early on, having listened to her mother tell her stories about Jesus. This was not tolerated in the Mohawk community where fear of Christianity was the result of illness and violence. Yet, her devotion to God never waned.
Eventually, after Kateri was baptized at age 20 and received Communion, she was shunned by the community and had to escape. Accompanied by Fr. Lamberville, she fled to St. Francis Xavier mission at Sault Saint Louis, near Montreal, where she would live out her days in deep devotion to Christ in prayer and sacrifice.
St. Kateri is a model of deep faith and courage. She suffered much illness due to smallpox, including visual impairment and deep scarring of her face. She also suffered alienation from her community. Her life and faith were well documented by Jesuit priests, providing a beautiful legacy. She died in 1680, at the tender age of 24, and her last words were “Jesus, I love you.” St. Kateri Tekekawitha was canonized in 2012.
Like many Catholics, I struggle with the history of colonialism, residential schools and the suffering imposed on Indigenous people in the name of Christianity. As Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn sings, “It left me crying just thinking about it, how they used my Saviour’s name to keep you down.” Was St. Kateri’s heart breaking as she watched history unfold? Does she weep in prayer at the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women or at the lack of clean drinking water in some communities?
This is a saint who gives us so much hope. She is named the patroness of Canada, which is fitting. Perhaps her intercession can help to bring this country closer to reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Her story describes prejudice, alienation and intolerance, but also resilience and fortitude. St. Kateri is a link between the beautiful culture of Indigenous people and the Catholic community. She is adored across the Americas by many Indigenous communities. The National Shrine of Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, New York, attracts pilgrims of all faiths. The Tekakwitha Conference in New Mexico has participants from all over North America from more than 100 tribes. In Ottawa, Kateri Native Ministries is partnered with St. Paul University to offer a Pastoral Leadership program.
What I know now saddens me. However, my faith speaks of hope for all people. My memories of Fort Albany are of a faith-filled, creative and earth-centred people. And I continue to be inspired by the lives and stories of the communion of saints.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us.
Jan Bentham is a retired Religion Coordinator with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. She is a musician, serving in music ministry at St. Ignatius Parish in Ottawa. She currently works at St. Paul’s University with the Catholic Women’s Leadership Program.