“Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I give you my heart, my soul, and my life – oh, yes, my life, generously.”
– Dying words of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne.
Our Patroness was born August 29, 1769, in Grenoble, France. She was the daughter of Pierre Francois Duchesne, a successful lawyer and a leader of the French Revolution and Rose Perier, an intelligent, practical, Christian woman. When the saint was twelve, she was sent to boarding school at Ste. Marie d’en Haut. Here she was educated by the Visitation nuns and drawn to their life of contemplation. She entered their congregation at the age of eighteen, but shortly thereafter, the Revolution in France forced the Nuns to disperse. For eleven years, Philippine nursed prisoners, found shelter for orphans, and helped give food to the poor. Finally, she gained title to her old convent and with several others, opened a boarding school.
In December 1804, she joined the Society of the Sacred Heart upon meeting Madeline Sophie Barat, the foundress of this Society. Many times during the next eleven years, St. Philippine Duchesne shared with Mother Barat her dream of becoming a missionary to the American Indians. The Dream was ignited when Bishop Du Bourg visited the motherhouse in Paris to beg for Nuns to establish schools for the Indians and French children in his diocese of St. Louis. Mother Barat gave consent to St. Philippine Duchesne, who pleaded on her knees for this mission.
On March 14, 1818, the saint left Bordeaux with four other nuns on the sailing vessel Rebecca which has an immortal place in the story of her life. The Atlantic crossing was a stormy and hazardous journey which lasted seventy days. St. Philippine Duchesne compared the noise, confusion, and terror to Judgment Day. Finally, on May 29, 1818, they anchored in New Orleans. After spending several months with the Ursulines there, they sailed up the Mississippi River on the steamboat Franklin to St. Louis, a trip which took 40 days.
Upon their arrival in St. Louis, they discovered Bishop Du Bourg had rented a frontier home for them in St. Charles which was a settlement of about 500 families. Here, St. Philippine Duchesne opened a school in a log cabin which was the first free school west of the Mississippi. The school at St. Charles did not meet with much success as parents were reluctant to send their children to school in this remote village. After a year at St. Charles, the Bishop moved them to Florissant where he assured them they would obtain students. For three months until their new house was ready for occupancy, the nuns and the five children who had accompanied them lived on the Bishop’s farm in a log cabin far more miserable than their home in St. Charles.
Progress was made at Florissant. Both a free school and a boarding school and later a novitiate were established. Life in these schools was much like that of the schools in France, although St. Philippine Duchesne realized that life on the American frontier was different from life in Paris and exceptions had to be made. With an increase in the religious community, new schools were established: Grand Coteau, Louisiana in 1821, St. Michael’s in Louisiana in 1825, City House in St. Louis in 1827, and in 1828 St. Charles was reopened. Even though her schools were prospering, the saint did not forget her desire to work with the Indians.
Finally in June, 1841, at the age of seventy-one, she had the opportunity for real mission work with the Indians and went to serve the Potawatomi at Sugar Creek, Kansas. She was old, in poor health, and unable to learn the language, but made a deep impression on the Potawatomi who named her “The Woman Who Prays Always”. Frail health forced her to return to St. Charles where she spent the last decade of her life.
In her thirty-four years on the American Frontier, St. Philippine Duchesne, in addition to teaching and administrative duties, undertook the hardest tasks that needed doing. She tended livestock, chopped wood, dug potatoes, mended shoes and clothing, nursed the sick, and made soap and candles. She survived loneliness, yellow fever, and persistent feelings of failure. St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, pray for us.
Our thanks to Duchesne High School in St. Charles, Missouri for this biography of St. Philippine Duchesne.