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Reviewed by:
  • Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits
  • Mark Destephano, S.J.
Allan Greer . Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xvi + 250 pp. index. illus. map. $30. ISBN: 0–19–517487–9.

{brt}Although zeal for explicitly hagiographic works is quite rare in today's academia, interest in the saints and their worlds has in no way diminished. In fact, as Allan Greer's masterful work proves, the study of the lives of the saints, approached from a historical and sociological point of view, is perhaps more rewarding than ever. In his preface, Greer explains how he came to focus on "a Mohawk woman of the early colonial period whose short life happens to be more fully documented than that of any other indigenous person of North or South America in the colonial period" (vii). His approach seeks to transcend the commentaries by and about the men of the period, so as to give us an insight into several worlds: those of the French settlers, the French Jesuits, the Mohawk and Iroquois peoples, and the indigenous women.

What is especially intriguing about Greer's study, however, is his absolute [End Page 881] fidelity to sources from the period, and his particular hermeneutical project to make them shed light on numerous aspects of the French and Mohawk experience in the New World. He quips that, "I found myself in the unaccustomed role of literary critic, attempting to analyze, critique, and decode enigmatic texts" (viii). Perhaps it is precisely this "unaccustomedness" that makes Greer's reading of the texts so powerful, so fresh, and so timely. Greer does indeed focus on individual "lives," and by addressing the specific concerns of each, gradually creates the mosaic that is the life of Catherine Tekakwitha (Kateri Tegakouita [1656–80]), "Saint of the Mohawks."

The end of Kateri's life sets the stage for Greer's narrative, as he recounts the Mohawk's "Beautiful Death" (chapter 1), and how it inspired Jesuit fathers Claude Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec to make her known to the world. As Greer shows, the Jesuits were of very different temperaments, and their decisions to open their consciences and reveal Catherine's story were only made after long and painful discernments. Both Jesuits had independently authored biographies of Catherine, and Greer uses them to reconstruct the principal events of the Mohawk's life. In particular, Greer focuses on the histories of the Jesuit missions in New France that Chauchetière had written, as well as on the priest's autobiographical notes. Greer presents many of Chauchetière's original drawings and uses them as the basis for much of the book's sociological commentary. He evinces how and why this narrative of the "beautiful death" of an "American savage" is so unique. Not only did it treat the life of a woman, but it also explored the spiritual and intellectual struggles of the French Jesuits who chronicled it. What is more, Chauchetière's work is significant because of the general resistance of the continental French to the idea that an indigenous person might achieve spiritual greatness on his or her own.

Mohawk Saint is also a study of three seemingly unrelated places, one of them in the Old World and two in the New: Gandagouage, where Kateri was born (chapter 2), Poitiers, where Chauchetière was born and raised (chapter 3), and Kahnawake, where the two met (chapter 4). In this section of the book Greer integrates his investigation of the biographies of the protagonists with extended analyses of the social, political, economic, and religious environments of the societies in which they grew, worked, and prayed. In his studies of Gandagouage and Poitiers, Greer seeks to identify similarities between the religious beliefs and practices of the Mohawks and the French. These chapters also supply us with abundant sociological data that humanizes the characters being portrayed and helps us to appreciate the rich interaction between the various native cultures and the French. Indeed, this is one of the central theses of the book: "My point is that it is much harder than we usually care to admit for scholars of the twentieth and twenty...


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pp. 881-883
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Archived 2009
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