More than three centuries ago, a humble young Mohawk woman with poor eyesight and an exceptionally loving heart lived in a longhouse at the edge of the forest near a big river. In the 17th century, her home was Indian land, but now we call it Montgomery County.
Early this morning, in St. Peter’s Square, nearly 2,000 miles away from the Mohawk Valley, that young woman, revered as Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, was canonized and became the first American Indian saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
For hundreds of years, stories of Kateri’s life and the miracles that followed her death have been told in books and passed down through generations.
But do we know what she looked like?
Paintings and statues
The beloved “Lily of the Mohawks” has been depicted in countless paintings and statues, and every one shows a different image.
Images of Kateri Tekakwitha
One can find many images of Kateri Tekakwitha across the United States and in Canada.
In our region:
• St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands
In Auriesville, at the National Shrine of North American Martyrs, one can see more than 20 Kateri statues and dozens of paintings. She was born in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon near present-day Auriesville.
“That’s the authentic one,” says Beth Lynch, the shrine’s museum/event coordinator, pointing to a framed print in a small museum on the shrine’s grounds.
Painted in the late 1600s by Father Claude Chauchetiere, a Jesuit missionary who knew Kateri, it shows a somber woman in a white tunic, her narrow, pale face draped by a black veil that falls to her ankles.
Chauchetiere said that five days after she died at age 24 in a Jesuit mission south of Montreal, an ecstatically joyous Kateri appeared to him for two hours. A few years later, he painted the 41-by-37-inch portrait. Today, the image, reproduced on prints and postcards, is one of the most treasured and well-known Kateri images, the only one created by someone who knew her, and the original painting is in St. Francis Xavier Church on the Kahnawake Mohawk Reservation near Montreal.
There are two statues of Kateri in the Coliseum, the shrine’s rustic round church built in honor of three French Jesuits, the first Catholic saints of the Mohawk Valley, who were tortured and killed in her village 10 years before she was born.
Next to an altar, there’s a bigger-than-life-sized wooden statue of Kateri with her hair in two long braids, holding a lily, a symbol of purity. Near a church door, the other statue is white, about four feet high, and criss-crossed with strands of colorful beads.
While Kateri’s face is never the same, visitors recognize her images because she is almost always dressed in Native American clothing.
“They are used to seeing the braids, the buckskins, the beads and the feathers,” says Lynch.
When Kateri was a little girl, a smallpox epidemic killed her parents and brother and left her with a scarred face and damaged eyes.
Many images depict the saint with a blanket or shawl over her head or shoulders.
“The light hurt her eyes, so she would shield her eyes from the sun,” says Lynch.
And in almost all images, her complexion is unblemished.
“It’s her beatific state,” Lynch says, describing how when Kateri died, those around her reported that her scars disappeared and her face became radiant.
And the braids?
“Mohawks didn’t wear braids,” Lynch says.
In those days, Mohawk women wore their hair long and loose; married women sometimes wore a long, single braid. In her devotion to Jesus Christ, Kateri refused to marry and was ridiculed for that choice.
Robert Renaud, an award-winning artist who lives in West Carthage near Watertown, has painted three acrylic images of Kateri. One painting was presented to Pope Benedict XVI and is in the Vatican’s permanent art collection. In 2006, Renaud’s image of a gentle girl surrounded by nature, a scene devoid of crosses, halos or other religious symbols, was also used to create a commemorative postage stamp for the 350th anniversary of Kateri’s birth.
“I’ve never liked the ones that make her look Hollywood,” says Renaud.
Today, during a canonization celebration in Auriesville, the artist will unveil the third painting at the shrine’s museum and sign prints of his first two Kateri paintings.
“This one is different. It incorporates more Native designs,” he says of the latest work. “And it’s more realistic of her. I’m really trying to make her look Mohawk.”
“Hidden Aspirations,” his second Kateri painting, illustrates a story about her that he read in a book by the Rev. Frances Xavier Weiser.
Kateri refused to witness the torture of a prisoner. Instead, she was ordered to make her aunt a wampum belt. In the painting, Kateri is outdoors, working on the belt, a dog at her side, as she and the animal listen to screams in the distance.
For Renaud, who grew up near Syracuse, studied art at Alfred University and now teaches art at Carthage High School, his spiritual connection to Kateri was part of the painting process.
“I asked her to help me out. I did some reflecting and praying,” he says.
In Fonda, at the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a large painting of Kateri hangs in the small wooden chapel, above an altar covered with a colorful Native American-style blanket. During the brutal French and Indian War, Kateri moved across the Mohawk River to an Indian settlement in what is now Fonda, and when she was 20 years old, on Easter Sunday in 1679, she was baptized there.
In the altar painting, her long dark hair is loose and she wears a brown dress over deerskin breeches.
“I don’t know where it came from,” says Friar Mark Steed, the shrine’s director.
All he knows is that the artist’s name was Lang. Other information is believed to be on the back of the canvas, but the painting is too fragile to be lifted from the wall.
On the exposed wooden beams of the chapel, murals depict scenes from Kateri’s life.
“Those were done by Native people, local people,” Steed says. “The natives like the images to be authentic.”
Images of Kateri are more about artistic expression than representation, Steed explains.
“I’ve seen lots of art of her. Some of it is unappealing. Some of it is very stark. It’s based on who you are as the artist. But is it important to base them on authenticity or inspiration? Icons inspire people.”
For that reason, one of his favorite images is a popular image by John Steele. “She’s filled with some kind of delight. And he portrayed her out in nature.”
Commissioned by the late Tom Constantino, founder of the Noteworthy Co. in Amsterdam, that painting was presented to Pope John Paul II when Kateri was beatified in 1980.
“You are looking at the spiritual not the representation,” says Jim Lewis, a Troy woodworker who specializes in images, designs and furniture for sacred spaces.
In 2002, his company, Icarus Furniture, was commissioned to make wood inlay panels of Kateri Tekakwitha and saints Isaac Jogues, Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe for an American Saints Mausoleum in St. Agnes Roman Catholic Cemetery in Menands.
“For Kateri, it was as if she was sitting on a stone shelf in a background of woods,” says Lewis. “We made her out of solid wood. We cut pieces out like a jigsaw puzzle, in a technique called intarsia. Then you carve each individual piece and assemble them. We used cherry for her skin. Walnut for her hair. Pine for some of her robes. She is holding a birch cross with natural birch bark on it.”
Each 6-and-a-half-foot-tall panel has a heavy frame with a shelf at the bottom to hold candles or flowers or the hands of a person who is praying.
View of another world
Sacred artworks are “a view into another world,” Lewis says.
As with Renaud, the art-making process has a “spiritual essence” for Lewis. “We pray and meditate,” he says. “You learn to follow your instincts and not to question it.”
Icarus, now known as Springwood Studios, has designed and built furniture for more than 75 churches, chapels, synagogues, meditation spaces and Buddhist shrines in the Capital Region and beyond.
“You’re making things that could last a hundred years or four hundred years, and they will set the tone for the way people use the space, the way people think.”
Lewis has been thinking about Kateri more and more, especially earlier this month, as the canonization drew closer.
“To me, my connection with Kateri, it feels so real. So internal and so private. I just feel her as a warm presence,” he says.
“She was so incredibly steady and persevering in the face of all the pain, all the difficulties she had. She just kept on truckin.’ ”