Monday, December 8, 2014

The Death of Catherine Tekakwitha

The day-light of Wednesday in Holy Week arrived. Catherine received Extreme Unction. There were many people round her praying. One of them, of course, was her companion, Marie Thérèse. This woman, inseparable from Catherine, Catherine sent away from her. She knew that Marie Thérèse had work to do in the forest bringing in wood. Let her go out to her work. She would call Marie Thérèse if death approached. And how could she know when death would approach?

Marie Thérèse went out to her work, and sure enough, she did receive a summons from Catherine. What Catherine then said to her, Father Chauchetière, also present could not help hearing.

I am leaving you, said Catherine. I am going to die. Remember always what we have done together since first we met. If you change I shall accuse you before the tribunal of God. Take courage, despise the discoursings of those who have not the Faith. If they ever try to persuade you to marry, listen only to the Fathers. If you cannot serve God here, go to the Mission at Lorette. Don't give up your mortifications. I shall love you in Heaven. I shall pray for you. I shall aid you.

This was an Iroquois who was speaking, unmistakably an Iroquois. So strong yet so tender. A Christian Iroquois to another Iroquois: I shall aid you.

After that, she kept an Algonquian silence, or the silence of any man-born child who is dying. Father Chauchetière watched her. She seemed more to be contemplating than suffering. There was no struggle. He did notice a twinge in the neck. It was three o'clock in the afternoon. She was dead.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon that she died, and there were still some hours left before the April darkness would come to dim the dim long-house, but before the darkness came a transformation took place in Catherine's visage. A kind of glorification of this Indian girl was enacted before the Indians. It seemed not only as if her hood had at last been thrown back—it was—but as if she had torn a pock-marked mask from her face. The pock-marks were still there. Yet she shone. They had never seen her before. Thereupon the Indians behaved as they had never before behaved with one of their dead. The women did not wail. The men did not crouch about her, stoic. They pressed near to her with delight. They went farther, thought Father Chauchetière, than they should have done. They behaved like many simple, direct, peoples in the Middle Ages, of whom they had never heard, and had not the slightest desire to imitate. They kissed the hands of the empty body. They tore from its dress tatters that they could preserve as keepsakes. They did, if you wish, exactly the opposite from what their ancestors had done to their dead in the days of pagan waiting. The ancestors had given to the dead the best they had. Now they took from the dead their riches of riches. It was they who were in need. She it was who was happy. Now they were remembering the dead but in a new way.

The next day, Holy Thursday, Caughnawaga buried Catherine's body. It was a day singularly fitted for her burial, for she had had an heroic devotion for the Holy Eucharist which had been instituted on that day. And all that was connected with her burial was also fitting. At Catherine Gandeakena's funeral there had been no throwing of gifts into the grave. At Catherine Tekakwitha's there was not even sorrow. There was nothing but joy. It was not merely that a human soul, whom they happened to know and to consider holy, had gone to Paradise, there to remember them, there to plead for them. It was that one of their flesh and blood and with their ways had very visibly gone to the Christian Paradise and made it their Paradise. They could see into it more easily now. They could even take a pride in it, for from it looked down on them one who was so clearly a Christian—Catherine—and so unmistakably an Indian—Tekakwitha.

— Daniel Sargent, Catherine Tekakwitha, NY, 1936, pp. 242–244.