The United States is a land drenched with the blood of Catholic martyrs — most of them lay men, women, and children from American Indian nations.
Shortly after St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s death, the “Lily of the Mohawks” appeared in a vision to her confessor: on one side, appeared a church tipped over, on the other side, an indigenous Catholic was burning at the stake. St. Kateri appeared to predict the wave of martyrdoms that would afflict the Church in North America within a generation, as hundreds of American Indian Catholics up and down the eastern coasts of North America would freely suffer and die, rather than reject the Catholic faith. The vast majority of these indigenous Catholic martyrs — many at the hands of English settlers and their non-Christian indigenous allies — are already part of a cause known as the Martyrs of the La Florida Missions.
Four martyrs became the “roses” in the garden of Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Catholics that produced the “Lily of the Mohawks,” a community today known as Kahnawake. Their names are Stephen (Etienne) Tegananokoa, Frances (Françoise) Gonannhatenha, Marguerite Garongouas and Stephen (Etienne) Haonhouentsiontaouet. Just like the martyrs of today, such as the Coptic martyrs in Egypt, they tried to live ordinary lives in times of upheaval, but one day were called to make the ultimate choice for Jesus Christ with their lives.
The indigenous nations that lived in this northeast region of the U.S. and Canada had unique civilizations that were close-knit, agrarian and family-based societies that had traditional moral codes, valued hospitality, worshipped only the Creator, and reverenced his Creation. These civilizations, however, took incredible shocks to their way of life and values, as catastrophic deaths from diseases introduced through the arrival of Europeans, warfare over trade goods desired by European traders made more deadly by the introduction of firearms, and then “mourning wars” intended to avenge deaths and adopt captives into their nations to replace loved ones lost in these trade-induced wars. Finally, the deliberate introduction of alcohol addiction by European traders, determined to maximize profit by exploiting indigenous peoples, took a heavy toll as more communities saw traditional family life, work ethic, personal and sexual morality, break down.
The Haudenosaunee Catholics, or “Praying Indians” as they had been known, saw the Catholic faith as consistent with their ancestor’s teachings on the Creator, and lifting up the best of their native cultures and traditions. The name for Christian was “True-Men Who-Make-the-Sign-of-the-Cross.” In this chapter of European-indigenous contact, the Jesuit priests and brothers who shared the Catholic faith recognized the faith must take indigenous roots in North America, and live through their own beautiful indigenous culture.
This Catholic indigenous way of life attracted these martyrs, who loved Jesus and Mary, and did their best to live a happy and holy life as God had called them, by taking care of their family and relatives, and actively participating in the life of the church and the community.
The First Kahnawake Martyr
Stephen (Etienne) Tegananokoa was the first martyr from Kahnawake, as St. Kateri’s Haudenosaunee community later became known. He was a husband, and father of six children. He was born Huron-Wendat, but later adopted into the Kanien\'kehá:ka, commonly known as the Mohawk. The Mohawk are one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, which also includes the Seneca, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Tuscarora. However, at the time of the Kahnawake martyrs in the 1690s, the Tuscarora had not joined the Haudenosaunee confederacy, so it was known only as the Five Nations.
The growing numbers of Haudenosaunee that had left their respective nations to become Catholic and live together at Kahnawake around the St. Francis Xavier mission [at the time of the 1690s, modern-day Kahnawake’s location was Sault St. Louis on the St. Lawrence River], created deep divisions. Many Haudenosaunee of the Five Nations saw this exodus to practice the Catholic faith as a threat to their own nations’ survival as their populations had suffered drastic losses.
Stephen, his wife Suzanne, and a mutual friend, had gone out to hunt, when they became captured by an armed band of 14 Cayuga, who brought them to Onondaga, the capital of the Haudenosaunee confederacy [near modern Syracuse, N.Y.], on their way back home.
Stephen was ritually tortured in Onondaga, but in the indigenous cultures of the Great Lakes at this time, the spirit one displayed in meeting death was just as important as how one met life. When Stephen was told that he was going to die because he “abandoned” the Five Nations, he invited others to join him, and said “I am willing to give up my life for a God who shed his blood for me.”
According to the account of his martyrdom in 1690, some of the crowd chewed off Stephen’s fingers and tore out his nails, and then told him to pray to God. Stephen said he would, and made the sign the of cross. Some other men tore off the rest of his fingers, and shouted, “Pray now to God!” Stephen made the Sign of the Cross again, so they took off his hand, and told him to pray again. Stephen made the sign of the Cross again — with the stump of his hand.
Toward the final moments of his martyrdom, the crowd told him to recite the traditional death song, which includes the words, “May despair and rage strangle my foes!” Instead, he continued to offer his prayers, while they burned him horrifically.
“Courage, brothers, burn me well! Don’t spare me: my sins deserve much more than anything you can inflict on me. The more you torture me, the greater the reward prepared for me in Heaven!”
At the last, he entrusted himself to Jesus Christ, and asked Him to forgive his killers before he died.
Stephen’s wife, Suzanne was spared death, and eventually was able to make the journey back home to her children.
The Second Martyr
When war came to Sault St. Louis, then under siege in 1692, Frances Gonannhatenha jumped into a canoe, with two other Catholic women, to go find her husband who had gone fishing on the St. Lawrence River. They successfully evaded their enemies, and found him, but less than a mile away from the safety of their town they were captured. Her husband was killed on the spot.
All the captives underwent ritual torture, including the gauntlet. Frances’s sister could have spared her life, but instead condemned her to death. But she proclaimed that she was a Christian, and happy to die in the land of her birth, just as Jesus Christ had done.
At one point, a relative who had wanted her to leave the Christian community, removed the crucifix that hung around her neck, and carved a cross in her chest in its place.
Christian witnesses reported she said, “I thank you, brother. I could lose the cross you have taken from me and you are giving me one that I shall only lose with life itself!”
She urged her relatives to become Christians, and that the pains of Hell were much worse than the tortures she was enduring at their hands. For three days, Frances suffered beatings, burnings, scalping, and finally was stoned to death.
The Third Martyr
Another martyr was Marguerite Garongouas, a 24-year old wife and mother to four children, including one infant. Marguerite was captured in 1693 by two Onondagas, possibly relatives, who brought her back to their nation. According to accounts of the time, she was the daughter of the Todadaho, the chief of the Onondaga nation and keeper of the council fire of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee.
Marguerite’s tortures were horrific.
At one point she asked for water, and then refused it, telling her torturers, “My Savior was thirsty dying on the cross for me, why shouldn’t I endure the same discomforts?”
At a break in her torture, she told a fellow Christian prisoner that she had asked God for the grace to resemble Christ. She believed her prayer was being answered in her broken body, and that she would receive a happy death.
At twilight, Marguerite was scalped, and severely beaten as she prayed, but still clung to life. At last, her fellow Onondagas threw her into the fire. Shortly thereafter, a heartrending scene followed, as Marguerite’s infant son was also put to death — the Haudenosaunee Catholics who witnessed the death of mother and child believed Marguerite had asked God to allow her innocent son to be united with her in Heaven.
The witness of this daughter of the Todadaho, however, ended up convincing other Onondaga that the Christian path was true, and they joined the numbers of Catholic Haudenosaunee.
The Fourth Martyr
The fourth martyr of Kahnawake was Stephen (Etienne) Haonhouentsiontaouet. He was also a Mohawk, who chose to live at the St. Francis Xavier Mission. He was taken prisoner, but he was not killed — instead his family adopted him back into the nation. They struggled with the question of how Stephen could be both Catholic and Mohawk — whereas Stephen encouraged his relatives to join the Haudenosaunee Catholics at Kahnawake. However, they did not want to leave, and after a while, agreed to let Stephen return.
However, three other young men who had been drinking, grabbed their hatchets and set out to kill him for preferring the Christian village to their own. They caught up with Stephen, and confronted him. He told them that they were masters of his life, but he would rather lose his life than his faith. Stephen realized they were going to kill him, but the young men granted his request for a few moments to pray. He thanked God for being able to die a Christian death, and in his final breath, he asked God to show mercy on his killers. At that moment, the young men struck him with their hatchets, splitting his skull.
Martyrs: the seed of faith
The blood of the Kahnawake martyrs showed their fellow Haudenosaunee the great spiritual power the Catholic faith could produce in ordinary men and women. These martyrs understood that the way they met their deaths would provide the most critical witness to their faith, because in their culture, how one endured torture and death showed one’s true strength of spirit. Their stories would be passed down orally, as their culture, and also come to us when the Jesuits wrote down their accounts. Large numbers of Haudenosaunee throughout the Five Nations became Catholic. Some would join Kahnawake, others would remain in their own villages, as the numbers of Catholics grew, and Jesuit priests came to offer the Mass and sacraments for them.
The challenge for Catholics today is to look back at the history of their ancestors in the Catholic faith in North America, pass on their stories, and to ask for the grace and courage to live joyful Christian lives, sharing the Gospel, and to be faithful to the end as the indigenous martyrs did in times of great uncertainty and tumult.
Stephen Tegananokoa, Frances Gonannhatenha, Margaret Garongouas, and Stephen Haonhouentsiontaouet, pray for us!