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What St. Rose Philippine Duchesne teaches us about taking the path of most resistance

Landscapes on Denali highway, Alaska

Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 11/13/22

She wanted to be sent to the ends of the earth as a missionary ... and she got her wish.

Around the corner from where I grew up in St. Charles, Missouri, is a crypt that holds the body of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne.

As a young Protestant child, I had no idea what that meant, to have the relics of a saint so close. All I knew was that one of the major streets that ran through town was named Duchesne and there was a high school of the same name. It is only now that I realize how very special it is to have a shrine like that in your hometown.

St. Rose first arrived in St. Charles in 1818. She was a refugee from the French Revolution, which had turned out to be quite violent towards Catholics. In France, she had been a Visitation sister. During the Revolution, she was still a young religious sister and had no support from her family. They never wanted her to enter a convent in the first place, so she was forced out and had to return home.

She insisted on continuing her life of service to the poor, however, and insisted on arranging for priests to be able to meet the faithful, running schools for poor children, and caring for prisoners. Doing so put her life at risk because the Revolution didn’t look kindly on religious activity.

In 1804, she founded a new religious order with her friend, Madeleine Sophie Barat called the Society of the Sacred Heart. As she continued to find her bearings, Rose developed a deep desire to become a missionary. She wanted to leave the dangers of France behind, not for safety, but to go on an even more dangerous adventure. She wanted to go to the ends of the earth, the frontier of America, and care for the poorest of the poor.

This is how she ended up in my humble hometown.

Going west, into the unknown

The great explorers Lewis and Clark had been there a decade earlier when their journey up the Missouri River embarked from St. Charles in 1804. Clark describes the town in his journal:

“One principal street, about a mile in length and running parallel with the river, divides the town, which is composed of nearly one hundred small wooden houses, besides a chapel. The inhabitants … are but ill qualified for the rude life of a frontier … their exertions are all desultory; their industry is without system, and without perseverance.”

Clearly, this settlement right on the edge of the frontier had a long way to go in order to achieve respectability — at least in Clark’s eyes. It was a full 30 miles east to get to civilization in St. Louis. To the west was a vast, barely explored wilderness. To the west was danger. Exactly where Rose wanted to be.

She achieved her dream by opening the first Sacred Heart school west of the Mississippi River. She spent several decades opening more schools in the same general area. These schools were for the poor and underprivileged and often they took in orphans and baptized them. For a period of time, I worked in the archives for the Archdiocese of St. Louis and was able to see the original baptismal records of the many, many girls she took in and cared for. I often wondered if those records were written by her hand.

Taking the harder path

Even as she became more established with the opening of schools and welcoming new sisters to the religious order, Rose insisted on taking the harder path. She lived an ascetic life, insisting that she sleep in a tiny closet under the stairs. A proper bedroom was too luxurious.

At the age of 72, the life she had built began to seem too easy, so she relocated deep into the frontier — to Sugar Creek, Kansas. There, she established a school for Potawatomi girls. Even though she was elderly and unable to accomplish much of the work she intended, the Potawatomi tribe adored her and gave her the name, “Woman Who Is Always Praying.” She soon returned to St. Charles, where she died and was interred in the crypt.

What I find so remarkable about St. Rose is that she always — every single time — took the path of most resistance. She insisted on finding the most difficult, dirty, thankless jobs possible.

This is the opposite, I’ll admit, of every instinct I possess. I prefer the easy path — expecting instant results, not taking the time to engage, doing it on the cheap, expecting everything to go smoothly and finding myself annoyed when it doesn’t. The problem is that such an approach doesn’t produce the desired results. With this attitude, none of us ever grow, change, or achieve our goals.

Rose exemplifies the opposite, and the results are remarkable.

The way of most resistance isn’t intentionally making everything harder on yourself for no reason. Rather, it’s the refusal to give up on that which we’ve identified to be valuable, forming a long-term vision, and then realistically working towards achieving it. It provides the occasion for skill development, personal growth, and personal accomplishment.

We are invited to the same

The easy path, because it wants success right away, is paved with disappointment and unmet expectations. Seeking out resistance nurtures patience and creativity, encourages open-mindedness and flexibility, long-term goal oriented thinking, and, ultimately, gratitude.

For us, this might mean answering some basic questions:

Go to Mass, or sleep in?

Watch a television show, or read a book?

Eat a piece of cake, or go for a run?

Each choice has a consequence. Each one paves a path.

Life is a journey with meaning. Each choice we make matters. To get the most out of it we need to accept challenge. The way I think of it is how, when I hike up a mountain, the view is so much different than when I drive up and park at the scenic overlook. If I hike up, I’ve earned the view. It feels different. I appreciate it and linger just a little longer to soak it in.

The harder path is the one that gets us to that view at the top of the mountain, and from there you get a much more expansive view of your true potential. St. Rose is an example that the path of most resistance can carry us further than we ever could imagine.

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