The Woman Who Never Gave Up

The Life of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne

The Woman Who Never Gave Up

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Kaskasia, Michigamea, Cahokia—strange-sounding Indian names peppered the priest’s conversation as he sat in the Duchesnes’ study in France and told of his work in far away North America.

As young Philippine listened to Father Jean-Baptist Aubert, a new desire began to burn in her heart: to be a missionary among the Native Americans. Little did she realize that it would take more than sixty years for her dream to be fulfilled. Many thwarted hopes and deferred dreams marked the long course of her life, but Rose Philippine Duchesne learned to recognize and embrace in these disappointments the plans God had for her.

Under the Shadow of a Revolution. Philippine was born in 1769 into the respectable and civic-minded Duchesne family in Grenoble, in a French province bordered by the Alps. When she was eighteen, she entered the Visitation convent, Sainte-Marie-d’en-Haut. But just as Philippine was preparing to make her final vows, her father refused to give his permission because he was concerned about her future safety.

Monsieur Duchesne’s fears proved well-founded as the church became a victim of the French Revolution. Begun in 1789 to champion the rights of the “third estate,” or general population of France, the revolution soon took a violent turn, imprisoning members of the “privileged” first and second estates (clergy and aristocracy), banning Catholic worship, and confiscating church properties. In 1792, the revolutionary government forced the Visitation sisters to close their convent. Twenty-three-year-old Philippine, disappointed that she had never taken her vows, reentered the world outside the cloister.

For the next twelve years, Philippine trod an extraordinary path. During the Reign of Terror, when countless priests and nuns were led to the guillotine, she risked her own life by caring for priests who managed to avoid capture and go into hiding. While she followed a personal routine of prayer and meditation, she also cared for the sick and dying and taught street urchins.

When the political scene began to stabilize, Philippine was able to gain the legal title to her former convent, where she tried to regroup the scattered Visitation sisters and reestablish their community life. Her efforts failed, however, and in 1804, their spiritual director suggested that Philippine and three friends apply to the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Progressing along God’s Pathways. The Society of the Sacred Heart—an order dedicated to teaching young girls—had been founded a few years earlier by Madeleine Sophie Barat. Barat had hoped to help revive Catholic life in France as the country recovered from the revolution. Mother Barat visited Philippine, who was thirty-five by this time, and accepted her and her companions into the society, convent building and all. Thus began a devoted friendship that lasted nearly fifty years.

Though a full ten years younger than Philippine, Mother Barat did not hesitate to counsel her new sister. She recognized Philippine’s headstrong impetuosity and through the influence of her friendship, sought to help the older woman become more patient and gentle.

With her years of experience and deep life of prayer, Philippine became a trusted support to Barat as the young society expanded. She was the order’s first general secretary and was placed in charge of their first convent and school in Paris. Yet all this time Philippine never lost sight of her childhood dream to be a missionary in America. For fourteen years, even though she encouraged this desire, Mother Barat kept Philippine in France, where she felt the society most needed her strength and talents.

Then, in 1817, it seemed that Philippine’s dream would finally be fulfilled. When Louis Dubourg, Bishop of Upper and Lower Louisiana (an area that also encompassed Missouri) came to France seeking priests and religious to serve in his vast mission territory, Philippine fell to her knees and begged to be sent out. Finally, Mother Barat consented, and at the age of forty-nine, when many women would prefer security and comfort, Philippine threw herself into a demanding and even dangerous adventure. She was dismayed, however, by Barat’s decision to appoint her “superior” of the four sisters who set sail with her.

Striking Roots in America. The story of the next twenty-three years is one of courageous steadiness and perseverance, and again of expectations thwarted and dreams deferred. After an eleven-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and a six-week steamboat trip up the Mississippi River, the sisters met Bishop Dubourg in St. Louis, Missouri. There he informed them, to Philippine’s great disappointment, that instead of establishing a mission to Native Americans, they were to establish a school for the daughters of Missouri settlers, a work he judged more immediately crucial.

Just a few weeks after their arrival in St. Charles, Missouri, Mother Duchesne and her sisters opened the first tuition-free girls’ school west of the Mississippi. They endured the hardships of rugged frontier life: a harsh climate, cramped lodgings with little privacy, frequent shortages of money and supplies, and devastating illnesses such as cholera. But they also established schools that offered an impressive academic curriculum as well as a solid grounding in the Christian faith. The tuition from boarding schools for wealthier girls helped cover the costs of orphanages and running free day schools for poorer students. This work was especially dear to Philippine because it recalled her work during the Reign of Terror when she had helped the poor of Grenoble.

Within twelve years, the sisters opened six schools in Missouri and Louisiana. They were staffed by sixty-four sisters: fourteen from Europe and fifty from the Mississippi Valley who had joined the society. Under Mother Duchesne’s leadership, the Society of the Sacred Heart had clearly taken root in American soil. Yet, blinded by her own humility, she had little sense of the success of her efforts. She often considered herself a failure, especially as superior, and repeatedly wrote to Mother Barat asking to be relieved of her office. However, many others saw things differently. Philippine was constantly praised both for her hard work and for her deep prayer life.

Although Mother Duchesne ungrudgingly embraced her role as teacher and superior, she never abandoned her dream to go to the Indians. Day after day, she continued to pray that God would grant her desire.

On the Banks of Sugar Creek. In 1841, when Philippine was seventy-one years old and in poor health, a Jesuit missionary named Peter De Smet proposed that the sisters start a school among the Potawatomi, a tribe among whom there were already some Catholic converts as a result of the Jesuits’ labors. From France, Mother Barat wrote to Mother Galitzin (the new superior in America who had recently replaced Philippine) and asked her to include Philippine in the mission venture. “Remember that in leaving for America, good Mother Duchesne had only this work in view,” she wrote. “It was for the sake of the Indians that she felt inspired to establish the order in America. I believe it enters into the designs of God that we should profit, if possible, by the opportunity offered us.” Philippine was, of course, delighted.

When the other sisters questioned the prudence of including Philippine because of her age, Fr. Peter Verhaegen —another Jesuit missionary—insisted: “If we have to carry her all the way on our shoulders, she is coming with us. She may not be able to do much work, but she will assure success to the mission by praying for us. Her very presence will draw down all manner of heavenly favors.” When the group arrived in Sugar Creek, Kansas, five hundred braves rode out in gala dress to welcome them!

Weak and ailing, Philippine could not take up the demands of teaching or even master the Potawatomi language. “If Alexander the Great wept on the shores of the ocean because he could not carry his conquest further,” she wrote, “I might weep also at the thought that my advanced age prevents me from saving so many poor people.” But she did what she was able to do best: She prayed. And as Fr. Verhaegen had prophesied, God poured out immense grace upon the mission.

Philippine spent long hours before the Blessed Sacrament in the log chapel. As she knelt before the tabernacle, lost in prayer, many of the Indians would come into the church to watch her. Noiselessly they would approach her, kneel, and kiss the hem of her worn habit or the fringe of her old shawl. They were also deeply touched by her kindness as she sat with the dying to comfort them.

“The Indians had the greatest admiration for her, asked her to pray for them, and called her Quah-Kah-Ka-num- ad—‘Woman-who-prays-always,’” wrote one of the sisters. “Every-one admitted that a great number of baptisms resulted from her prayers. Almost every Sunday afternoon three or four men or women and their families were baptized, and Mother Duchesne inscribed all their names in the register.”

The Designs of God. But Philippine’s joy would be short-lived. Concerned about her poor health, Bishop Peter Kenrick of St. Louis considered it unwise for her to remain in Sugar Creek. Mother Barat soon concurred and wrote to ask her “eldest daughter” to make her “greatest sacrifice” and return to Missouri.

Mother Duchesne arrived back in St. Louis on June 29, 1842, exactly a year from the day she had set out for Sugar Creek. In a letter from this time, she poignantly described her acceptance of God’s plan: “I cannot put out of my mind the thought of the savages, and my ambition carries me even to the Rockies. I can only adore the designs of God, who has taken me from the thing I had so long desired.”

Philippine spent ten more years at St. Charles, where she had established the first school. She remained interested in all the society’s foundations and filled her days with prayer and whatever small services she could do: teaching a few French-speaking students, sewing vestments for her missionary friends, mending for her community. When she died on November 18, 1852, her old friend Fr. Verhaegen was present to give her the last sacraments.

Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. The State of Missouri named her first among the women on its Pioneer Roll of Fame. The inscription on the plaque reads: “Some names must not wither.” And among the Potawatomi, Quah-Kah-Ka-num-ad is still remembered with great fondness and reverence.

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