St. Rose Philippine Duchesne (1769-1852)
Religious Missionary and Saint. Born on Aug. 29, 1769, in Grenoble, France, she was the second of eight children of Pierre-Francois Duchesne and Rose Euphrosine Perier. Her parents both came from well to do bourgeois clans active in mercantile and political affairs in the French Province of Dauphine.
The family was composed of fervent Catholics. Five of the six sisters would become visitation sisters. Her father although had ties with the Church eventually became a freethinker and devotee of the Enlightenment. Her mother remained a devoted Catholic and sought to preserve it in the hearts of her children.
Religious in France-
During a two-year period starting in 1781 she spent time with the Visitandines of Grenoble in preparation for her first Communion, she felt the stirrings of a religious vocation. Her family opposed her idea of a vocation, so she waited until 1788 before entering religious life. During this period she developed a desire to be a missionary in America.
The Grenoble Visitation was unaffected by the revolutionary decree of Feb. 13, 1790, banning all monastic orders in France. Religious women were exempt from the order especially if the did works of charity. The exemption was revoked on Aug. 18, 1792 by the government and all women’s religious orders were abolished.
With the closing of her convent, Philippine returned to her family. At the country home she attempted to maintain the essence of the Visitation Rule with her cousin, Julie, who was a Visitation nun as well. Philippine returned to Grenoble during the height of the terror to organize works of charity for the poor, as well as to offer material and spiritual support to priests in prison or in hiding. She and her helpers would be called “Ladies of Mercy.”
Still listening to the call of religious life, she attempted to join Visitandines in exile. The group at nearby St. Marcellin was headed by her own aunt, Mother Claire-Euphrsoine Duchesne, but her attachment to them proved short-lived. After a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis Regis at LaLouvesc in 1800, she resolved to dedicate her life to the teaching of the poor. In 1801 she arranged to rent her former monastery at Ste-Marie-d’en-Haunt and reintroduce the Visitation rule. This ended two years later because of dissension in the community.
The four remaining nuns adopted a new name “Daughters of the Propagation of the Faith” on Mar. 3, 1803, and the following year sought admission into the Society of the Sacred Heart, founded in 1800 by Madeleine-Sophie Barat. Mother Baret, herself acted as mistress of novices and the Ste-Marie-d’en-Haunt became the second foundation of the new community and was transferred into the novitiate. In Jan. of 1805, the first of Mother Duchesne’s first request to serve in the American missions would be denied by Mother Barat.From 1805 to 1815. Mother Duchesne bore the responsibility for the convent school at Grenoble and had the role of mistress general as well. In 1815 Rome adopted the Constitution and rule of the Society of the Sacred Heart and the society’s second council named her secretary general with residence in Paris .
Missionary in America-The year 1817 saw the visit to France of Louis DuBourg, bishop of Louisiana and the two-Floridas. Because of the urgent plea for missionaries and a personal meeting between the bishop and Mother Barat, permission was obtained for Mother Duchesne and her first nuns to go to America. After spending 10 weeks at sea, the missionaries landed in the US on May 25 in 1818. They stayed with the Ursulines at New Orleans for several weeks before heading by boat to St. Louis. The bishop ordered that the sisters take up residence at St. Charles Missouri. He bishop wanted the sisters to set up school for local white children. After traveling this great distance, Mother Duchesne, was frustrated in her immediate desire to work among the native peoples of the Mississippi River valley.
During the first decade in the New World, she suffered all the extremes of physical deprivation that the frontier had to offer. Finances and difficulty from her family and Mother Barat compounded her worries. After a year long stay at St. Charles, the convent school was moved to Florissant, Missouri. The fall of 1820 witnessed the first American vocation into the society. The bishop asked her to set up a foundation in Louisiana in 1821 near Opelousas.
Mother Duchesne served as superior to the sisters in the Mississippi valley and possessed authority to buy or sell property on behalf of the society, to start new foundations, appoint religious personnel anywhere in the world, yet important executive decisions were still made by Mother Barat in France. By the close of the 1820’s there were six institutions in the US, staffed 64 religious, educating more than 350 students. Fourteen of the religious were from France will fifty were American born sisters.
On Nov. 30, 1831, Mother Barat acceded to Duchesne’s request and relieved her of her duties as superior in America. Bishop Rosati of St. Louis disagreed with the decision and caused Mother Duchesne to remain in office. In 1834 she returned to St. Charles from Florissant. With the arrival of Mother Elizabeth Galitzin, visitrix, in the fall of 1840, Mother Duschesne would be relieved of her duties as superior. She assumed residence in the society’s “city house” in St. Louis with the only seniority being that of her years of profession. Here she would have spent her declining years except for a happy convergence of opinions.
Missionary to the Native Americans-
After Pope Gregory XVII urged the society to engage in missionary activity among the Native Americans, three sisters were appointed to this task. Due to her advanced years, Mother Duchesne was not chosen. The quick intercession of her Jesuit friend, Fr. Peter Verhaegen, called Mother Duschesne to be included. There destination was a Potawatomi village at Sugar Creek, Kansas, inhabited by a people who had formerly lived in Michigan, but who had been displaced by the federal government. A significant number of the tribe had embraced Catholicism yet, much work remained for the sisters and the Jesuit fathers.
Mother Duchesne arrived in Sugar Creek in July of 1841. Her age, her inability to master the Native tongue, and her ill health, combined to limit her material support she could offer to the missionary effort. She spent long hours nursing sick tribe members and the reputation of her sanctity grew. The Potawatatomi would christen her “Quah-Kah-Ka-num-ad” or “woman who prays always”, in honor of her extensive periods of time she spent kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the Blessed Sacrament had always indeed constituted the essence of her spirituality. Her habit of keeping lengthy night vigils before the tabernacle had long ago been noticed by her sisters, who furthermore marveled that these extended sessions of prayer and their attendant lost hours of sleep, in no way impeded Mother Duchesne’s daytime energy.
Her evangelical poverty was also legendary. Her repeated patched habit and veil served as a sign of her renunciation of the riches of this world. No false dignity prevented her from embracing the most arduous of manual labor.
With the arrival of Mother Galitzin, the Sugar Creek mission on Palm Sunday 1842 marked the beginning of the end of Mother Duchesne’s work among the Potawatomi. Mother Galitzin deemed Mother Duchesne to be too elderly and frail to continue to live at the village and decreed that she return back to St. Louis. She died Nov. 18, 1852 having attained her eighty-third year.
Mother Duchesne’s remains were interred in the community cemetery at St. Charles. After lying in the ground for three years, encased in a plain wooden coffin, her body was exhumed in preparation for the reburial in a recently constructed oratory. The corpse was found to be incorrupt at this time, although later it succumbed to the laws of nature. Mother Rose Duchesne was beatified May 12, 1940 and on July 3, 1988 was pronounced a saint of the Church by Pope John Paul II. Her feastday occurs on the anniversary of her death on Nov. 18.
Some of this information was taken from:Cruz, Joan Carroll, Incorruptibles. Rockford, IL: Tan, 1977 Fr. Albert H. Ledoux.