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Virgins and Saints along the Mohawk

I've written before on the cultural differences I've encountered since moving from the West to upstate New York. As I've stated before, there's a real sense of Old World here, opposed to more New World sensibilities out yonder.

Here, our communities are divided up into not just towns and cities, but "villages", many of these communities even have Old World names: Poland, Russia, Rome, to name just a few. I won't go into the cultural culinary curiosities. And don't get me started on the bizarre wedding party rites.

One of the most visible cultural dynamics is the presence of the Virgin Mary. In upstate New York's Mohawk Valley, where I live, Virgin Mary statues and icons are everywhere: restaurants, atop buildings and institutions, gas stations, affixed to mailboxes on rural roads. The Blessed Virgin Mary hangs out in windows, looms large over cemeteries, and watches over her flock from backyard altars. She's always made of concrete or plaster.

This is not Mexico, and this is not the fantastical, glorious Virgen de Guadalupe; here, the Holy Mother is unadorned, plain. There are no bright plastic flowers, nor are there colorful candles in jars, no milagros. Generally, there is no sense of "shrinage."

When we first moved here, my son and I would spot a backyard Madonna statue/altar, and just be in awe. Now, of course, because of their ubiquity, they're just part of the landscape; the novelty has worn off. I have to admit I do still love going to the Catholic Bookstore in downtown Utica—because Catholicism is so foreign to me, having grown up in the Bible belt—in Holy Rollin' Topeka, Kansas, then living the entirety of my adult life up until now in very Mormon Salt Lake City, Utah—Catholicism's aesthetics and accoutrements seem exotic and magical.

The gigantic display of thousands of little prayer cards featuring saints are like missing pieces to long lost improbable tarot decks; the little vials of holy water in plastic containers are just…impossible. There are stickers of saints—a couple years ago while visiting, I purchased a small one of Padre Pio, and stuck it on the back window of my car.

It stayed there for months and months, normal, without incident, until one day when I happened to sell a video about Padre Pio an Amazon. The same day, the sticker started becoming discolored around Padre Pio's face—the next day, the entire sticker turned completely black. A coincidence certainly, but odd nonetheless.

While book scouting at a library sale here, I came across a pamphlet called Kateri, Lily of the Mohawks. The rendering on the front showed a young woman dressed in colorful Native American garb, with an unmistakable Virgin Mary twist.

Kateri Tekakwitha is somewhat of a local saint (although she still awaits official canonization) and legend in the Mohawk Valley area. A 17th century woman, Kateri was born to a Catholic Algonquin woman, and a Mohawk warrior father.

The legend narratives state that severe scars (from childhood smallpox) on her face were said to disappear at the time of her early death at age 24, revealing a very beautiful woman. The Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha's miracles were said to have occurred during and after her death, with many healings at her funeral and thereafter.

Looking through various websites dedicated to Kateri, I notice a sense of folksiness and passionate embellishment, both aesthetically and rhetorically, that is generally lacking in the usual restrained Roman Catholic manifestations in the area.

Kateri is of and for Catholic-converted aboriginal populations people— perhaps not dissimilar to the place of the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico, with her original appearance and direct interaction with the aboriginal Mexican, Saint Juan Diego, who, like the hopeful-Saint Kateri, lived in the 17th century, and dealt with and had a hand in the spread of Catholicism as well.

It seems the Catholic Saints and manifestations that sprung from the indigenous Americans still retain a sense of their origin and place, even just visually. There are Trickster-like qualities within these visual and narrative dynamics as well—which isn't surprising considering all the strife and oppression associated with the imposition of Christianity.

For example, according to a website I found, there's a book entitled A Lily Among Thorns, that addresses the issue of the historical correctness of the Kateri legend, and calls for her Mohawk repatriation. Kateri seems to be somewhat liminal—floating between the poles of Catholicism and Native American, and not due solely to her parentage.

Another Trickster quality of sexual rebellion, is somewhat present with both Kateri and the Virgen de Guadalupe. Kateri's legend is quite dependent and focused on her sexuality, and idealized feminine beauty (and/or lack thereof, in both instances.) The image of Virgen de Guadalupe is notoriously vulva-like in appearance. Blatant goddess narratives and imagery have emerged within the conservative, rigid framework of Catholicism.

A note: The accompanying photos are just a sampling of statues and icons in the area. I will soon have more posted at my beamships equal love blog.

Sources and Further reading:

Contact Richelle Hawks

Visit Richelle's blog: Beamships Equal Love