Patroness of, and included among those opposed by Church authorities, including: St Elizabeth Ann Seton, St Joan of Arc, and St Teresa of Avila. Known as “The Lady of Mercy”. Named “Quah-kah-ka-num-ad” = “Woman-who-prays-always” by the Potawatomi, St Rose Phillipine Duchesne is a model of Christian love, faith, and perseverance.
Born in Grenoble, France, of a family that was among the newly rich, Philippine learned political skills from her father and a love of the poor from her mother. The dominant feature of her temperament was a strong and dauntless will, which became the material—and the battlefield—of her holiness.
She entered the convent at 19 without telling her parents and remained despite their opposition. As the French Revolution broke, the convent was closed, and she began taking care of the poor and sick, opened a school for street urchins and risked her life helping priests in the underground.
When the situation cooled, she personally rented her old convent, now a shambles, and tried to revive its religious life. The spirit was gone, and soon there were only four nuns left. They joined the infant Society of the Sacred Heart, whose young superior, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, would be her lifelong friend.
In a short time Philippine was a superior and supervisor of the novitiate and a school. But her ambition, since hearing tales of missionary work in Louisiana as a little girl, from a Jesuit missionary, was to go to America and work among the Indians. At 49, she thought this would be her work. With four nuns, she spent 11 weeks at sea en route to New Orleans during which time disease nearly killed her, and seven weeks more on the Mississippi to St. Louis, which also nearly killed her.
She then met another of the many disappointments of her life. The bishop had no place for them to live and work among Native Americans. Instead, he sent her to what she sadly called “the remotest village in the U.S.,” St. Charles, Missouri. With characteristic drive and courage, she founded the first free school for girls west of the Mississippi. St Rose Phillipine Duchesne went on to found six other Sacred Heart houses including schools and orphanages. She struggled since her teaching methods were based on French models and her English was terrible, but everyone could see the purity of her intentions.
Though she was as hardy as any of the pioneer women in the wagons rolling west, cold and hunger drove her and her fellow sisters out of St Charles to Florissant, Missouri, where she founded the first Catholic Indian school, adding others in the territory. “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” (Louise Callan, R.S.C.J., Philippine Duchesne). “Poverty and Christian heroism are here”, Rose Phillipine wrote, “and trials are the riches of priests in this land.”
Finally, at 72, in poor health and retired, she got her lifelong wish. A mission was founded at Sugar Creek, Kansas, among the Potawatomi. She was taken along. Though she could not learn their language, they soon named her “Woman-Who-Prays-Always.” While others taught, she prayed. Legend has it that Native American children sneaked behind her as she knelt and sprinkled bits of paper on her habit, and came back hours later to find them undisturbed. She died in 1852 at the age of 83. She spent her last ten years in retirement in a tiny shack at the convent in Saint Charles, Missouri where she lived austerely and in constant prayer.
Divine grace channeled her iron will and determination into humility and selflessness, and to a desire not to be made superior. Still, even saints can get involved in silly situations. In an argument with her over a minor change in the sanctuary, a priest threatened to remove her tabernacle. She patiently let herself be criticized by younger nuns for not being progressive enough. Through it all, 31 years, she hewed to the line of a dauntless love and an unshakable observance of her religious vows.
Setback after setback after setback, even into old age! This woman of bronze—St. Rose Philippine Duchesne—let nothing stop her, nothing discourage her, nothing slow her down. We can do almost anything for God if we refuse to be discouraged and are willing to pay the price: the price is something called holiness.
“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.”
-Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne
“I live now in solitude and am able to use my time reflecting on the past and preparing for death. I cannot put away the thought of the Indians and in my ambition I fly to the Rockies. “
-Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne
Gracious God, you filled the heart of Philippine Duchesne with charity and missionary zeal, and gave her the desire to make you known among all peoples. Fill us who honor her memory today, with that same love and zeal to extend your kingdom to the ends of the earth. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.