Rose Philippine Duchesne grew up in the midst of the French Revolution and its religious inconveniences. The daughter of a prominent civic leader of Grenoble, she entered the Visitation Order in 1788 despite her father’s objections, but in 1792 she was ousted from the community when the French revolutionary government closed all convents.
During the decade that followed, Rose, once more a laywoman willy-nilly, devoted her time to teaching poor children, nursing the sick, and sheltering priests pursued by the government. When the war subsided she gained possession of her former Visitandine Convent, hoping to re-establish it. This proved impossible because the sisters had been so widely scattered. Therefore, in 1804 she and some other women joined a new religious order lately founded by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Rose made her old convent available to Mother Barat, so it was reopened as the second house of the Sacred Heart nuns.
Mother Duchesne soon became a leading figure in the new religious community. In 1815 she was given the task of opening its first Parisian convent. Four years later Mother Barat sent Rose Philippine and four other nuns to establish their first foundation in the New World at St. Charles, Missouri, then in the diocese of New Orleans. At St. Charles, Mother Duchesne opened the first free school west of the Mississippi. In 1819 she built another convent at Florissant, Mo. There she set up a second free parish school, a small orphanage, a school for Indian girls (which did not long survive), and a private boarding academy for girls. Florissant also became the novitiate for the Religious of the Sacred Heart. Gradually groups of nuns went forth to found new convents and schools across the U.S.A., including (1849, 1855) Rochester, New York. In 1827 Mother Rose accepted the invitation to establish a convent school in St. Louis itself.
Mother Duchesne’s earliest American years were therefore occupied mostly by administrative tasks. Only in 1840 did she achieve her dream to unshoulder these responsibilities and devote her time to teaching Indian girls. Now aged 71, she was assigned to teach in a school for Potawatomi Indians at Sugar Creek, Kansas. She stayed there only one year, however. Despite her good-will she could not learn the Potawatomi language. But she could and did aid the work by praying for her Indians. The Indians were aware of her devotion, and dubbed her, in praise, “The Woman Who Always Prays”. It was during these last years that Rose reached the spiritual heights of a career that had always been devout.
We must appreciate what a trial was Mother Duchesne’s whole American venture. She arrived in America when already 50 years old, a highly cultured French woman who would always find Americans hard to understand. Her apostolate involved many trials: cold, yellow fever, slanders directed against her schools, disappointment with the Indian women, who were as much addicted to whiskey as the Indian men.
But as an almost Franciscan devotee of poverty, she used these frustrations as means to achieve still greater detachment. During her last years her room was a tiny one without creature comforts: one window in which paper replaced the broken panes, a thin mattress laid out nightly on the floor for a bed, one old coarse blanket as a coverlet. While these austerities were private, their result was not. The famous Jesuit missionary, Father Pierre DeSmit, would say at her death, “No greater saint ever died in Missouri, or perhaps in the whole Union.”
As she lay dead in 1852, her nuns had a daguerreotype photo taken of Rose Philippine “in case she may one day be canonized.” Pius XII did declare her “blessed” in 1940, and Pope John Paul II canonized her on July 3, 1988. Her feast day is November 18.
–Father Robert F. McNamara