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Born into a wealthy and influential family in France, Rose Philippine Duchesne was drawn to religious life at an early age. After hearing a Jesuit speak about missionary work in the New World when she was 8 years old, Philippine already felt a desire to evangelize the Americas. This did not sit well with her family, who vehemently opposed such an idea.
Philippine wasn’t dissuaded and, being strong-willed, she convinced one of her aunts to accompany her to a Visitation monastery when she was 18. Her aunt thought it was an ordinary visit, but when Philippine arrived, she asked to be immediately accepted into the community. Philippine’s aunt was left outside and went to tell her family.
However, Philippine wasn’t able to stay long in the convent as the French Revolution quickly outlawed all religious communities. For 10 years she was forced to remain as a lay person until the ban was lifted. At first she tried to reestablish the Visitation convent, but failed. Then Saint Madeline Sophie Barat heard about Philippine and asked her to join the newly established Society of the Sacred Heart.
Several years after joining the order, Philippine founded a new convent in Paris and it was there that Bishop DuBourg of Louisiana discovered her and asked if she and a few sisters would come to America. Barat gave permission and on March 21, 1818, Philippine sailed with four other sisters to the New World. They eventually landed near New Orleans on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, May 29, 1818.
Mother Duchesne was assigned to a new mission in St. Charles, Missouri, where she established the first free school west of the Mississippi. Duchesne was a missionary pioneer and her experience on the frontier was like that of most people at the time: it nearly killed her. According to Louise Callan, Mother Duchesne went through almost every difficulty possible.
In her first decade in America, Mother Duchesne suffered practically every hardship the frontier had to offer, except the threat of Indian massacre—poor lodging, shortages of food, drinking water, fuel and money, forest fires and blazing chimneys, the vagaries of the Missouri climate, cramped living quarters and the privation of all privacy, and the crude manners of children reared in rough surroundings and with only the slightest training in courtesy.
Later on at the age of 72, Mother Duchesne was asked to help with a Jesuit mission to the Potawatomi tribe in Sugar Creek, Kansas. She had difficulty learning the language, so instead of teaching there, Mother Duchesne spent her time praying for the success of her fellow sisters. This gave her the reputation among the Native people as the “Woman-Who-Prays-Always.” Because of poor health, Mother Duchesne couldn’t stay very long and returned to her original foundation in St. Charles. She died 10 years later in solitude, even though she retained a sense of mission and desired to venture out to the Rocky Mountains.
Mother Duchesne’s holiness was well renowned and she was eventually beatified in 1940 and canonized in 1988. Her life is an inspiration and her missionary zeal, overcoming every possible obstacle, is something to be admired.
She once said, “We cultivate a very small field for Christ, but we love it, knowing that God does not require great achievements but a heart that holds back nothing for self. … The truest crosses are those we do not choose ourselves. … He who has Jesus has everything.”
Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, pray for us!