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A holy marriage gave the Church a community of native saints, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha

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File photo of members of the Tekakwitha Conference gather for sunrise service at 75th annual meeting in Fargo. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Holy marriages of Catholic men and women, united in their love of Jesus Christ, can produce an entire community of saints and change the course of history.

Because Francis-Xavier Tonsahoten and his wife Kateri Ganneaktena embraced the call to holiness, they founded a Catholic community that gave the Church of the 17th century, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, martyrs, and many other Native American men and women recognized for holiness in their day.

Both Francis-Xavier and Kateri had been captured from different nations, the Huron-Wendat and the Erie respectively, which fought wars with the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois Confederacy) and lost. Both young adults were adopted into families of the Oneida nation of present-day upstate New York. The Oneida clan mothers thought Francis Xavier and Kateri would make a good match, and so they were married in 1656 — also the same year St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born.

Francis-Xavier had received his Catholic faith in Huronia (modern Ontario, Canada) from the Jesuit priests. When Jesuits arrived in their village as part of a peace treaty with the Five Nations, Francis-Xavier welcomed them and encouraged his wife to learn from them. Kateri eventually mastered all the prayers and teachings, and would instruct them in Oneida, one of the Haudenosaunee languages, and how to translate concepts across their cultures.

Francis-Xavier and Kateri never had the joy of their own flesh-and-blood children, but they would have many spiritual children instead.

After her baptism and confirmation, Kateri began sharing the love of Jesus with her loved ones, including her dying adoptive mother who asked for baptism, and all those she met. When a group of Oneida came to Quebec City, Kateri invited them to become Christian, or “True-men who-make-the-sign-of-the-Cross.”

With this core group of Haudenosaunee Catholics, Francis-Xavier, Kateri, and the Jesuits established their Catholic community along the St. Lawrence River. These “Praying Indians” lived in long houses, prayed morning and evening prayer, went to confession, daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration, received the Eucharist frequently, and had a deep devotion to Mary, particularly through the rosary. The community moved several times from its original location at Kentaké (or La Prairie), but is known today as Kahnawake. The church in Kahnawake still bears its original name, St. Francis Xavier, and contains the bones of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, its most famous saint.

In fact, St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s path to holiness was nurtured in the final years of her life by the Holy Family Association founded by Kateri Ganneaktena and her Jesuit spiritual advisors. They saw this confraternity of lay men and women as a way to help the most spiritually committed Catholics in their community grow in holiness together in a more intentional way.  

Both Francis-Xavier and Kateri had different personalities, and Francis-Xavier could be difficult to get along with. But they loved each other deeply, prayed together, remained faithful to each other, encouraged each other in the faith, and practiced the works of mercy, particularly in generosity to the poor.

And like all the saints, they also struggled with their faults on their path to holiness. Kateri could get carried away with her zeal for Jesus, and on one occasion, lost patience and told a young woman that she might burn in Hell if she did not take Kateri’s advice. But Kateri asked this person’s forgiveness when she realized that she had crossed a line and hurt this person despite her good intentions. Similarly, Francis-Xavier could be combative with others, even with his own confessor, due to his mood swings. It was a cross that he struggled with, particularly in the years following the death of his beloved Kateri, who understood him.  

Before she passed away, Kateri recited this prayer with her husband in front of the Blessed Sacrament: “Four years ago, my God, I gave you my body and soul, and the greater part of my possessions, here is the remainder. I give it to you with all my heart. I can ask nothing of you, who have given us everything, unless it be that you take me now to be near you.”

Kateri Ganneaktena died on Nov. 6, 1673. She was hailed as “the mother of the poor, the good Christian, the pillar of the faith,” and venerated as a saint in the years after her death.

Francis Xavier never remarried, but continued the path to holiness as an elder of the Kahnawake community, either building up the Catholic faith at home, or going to war in its defense. He lived to see St. Kateri Tekakwitha join their community and grow in holiness. When Francis Xavier Tonsahoten died in 1688, at more than 60 years old, St. Kateri’s confessor, Jesuit Father Claude Chauchetière, who knew both his virtues and his faults, honored him as another Abraham who listened to God’s voice, calling him the “Father of the Faithful.”

Francis-Xavier Tonsahoten and Kateri Ganneaktena, pray for us.

For further reading: The Original Caughnawaga Indians, by Henri Béchard, S.J.

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