Long before she set foot on American soil in 1818, Rose Philippine Duchesne dreamed of coming to the New World and teaching the Indians. Born in 1769 in Grenoble, France, she had grown up in a loving family whose political alliances made them prominent in the pre-Revolutionary turmoil that was welling up around them. As a young child she was sent to the Visitation Convent in her city; but it was often at home or in her parish church that she would hear missionary priests describe their recent adventures far across the ocean. Teaching the savages whom they described was a work that captured her heart!
Philippine’s decision to enter religious life was not welcomed by her father, who terminated her attendance at the Ste. Marie d’en Haute when he heard of her plans. When she was a little older she climbed the hill on the outskirts of Grenoble and announced to her aunt that this time she was staying with the Visitandines. And so she did for several years—until the outbreak of the war, when religious houses all over France were being closed. Obediently she returned to her home and made a docile effort to re-enter domestic life at the family’s country home but decided, in a short time, that she could be more effective working for the many poor, homeless, sick and dying who were languishing in the city.
After the war Philippine resolved to buy back her beloved Ste. Marie, which was a shambles since it had been used as a barracks and military prison during that Reign of Terror. Her valiant attempts to bring back the nuns who had once lived there were futile. With so much to do in order to restore the building (and with so few to help in the project), she was nearing complete failure when a new hope came into her life. Madeleine Sophie Barat, who had just established a new congregation of religious women in the northern part of France, traveled to Grenoble and invited Philippine to join her in her work of teaching young girls. And so, at the age of 35 she was finally secure in a vocation that would carry her to her holy death.
Although she was fulfilled in her various activities in Sacred Heart convents in France for the next 13 years, Philippine never abandoned her dream of the mission that she had adopted as a young child—to go to America and teach the Indians. And so, when Bishop William DuBourg visited the convent in Paris in 1817, Philippine implored Mother Barat to grant her the permission that she so craved. (Bishop DuBourg’s diocese was nearly all of the Louisiana Territory, so Indians were only one of the challenges that he faced.) Permission was granted, and a year later she and four religious companions began the journey to their missionary destiny. A 70-day voyage across the Atlantic brought the five nuns to New Orleans, where they rested briefly with the Ursulines before resuming their travels in a paddlewheel steamer up the Mississippi to St. Louis.
The Bishop knew that they were coming but had no house in the city to accommodate the five nuns. A log cabin in St. Charles became the site of the first free school west of the Mississippi. That first year saw three little St. Louis girls come as boarders and 21 non-paying day students who came when they could during that long, bitter winter. The following summer the Bishop took the Religious of the Sacred Heart to Florissant, a village on the other side of the Missouri River, where they conducted their school and Mother Duchesne established her novitiate for the Society.
In 1828 the Jesuits built a parish church on the former (and present) school property and asked the Sacred Heart nuns to return to St. Charles—to that same log cabin which was known as the “Duquette Mansion” because it was the biggest house in town—and conduct the parish school. They did so and finally, in 1835, built their first brick building, which remains the center of the Academy of the Sacred Heart’s sprawling complex.
Mother Duchesne established other schools in Louisiana and Missouri. She was finally allowed to travel to Kansas at the age of 72 and made a very frustrating attempt at teaching the Indians. The Pottawatomi language proved even harder for her than English had been and so her superiors decided, after one year, that she should return to a more comfortable life in St. Charles. The lesson that she had taught the native Americans was a valuable one; the Indians called her Quakahkanumad (woman who prays always) and revered her for her deep devotion to “the Great Spirit.”
Philippine Duchesne spent the last ten years of her life at the Academy in St. Charles, where she died on Nov. 18, 1852. Her cause for canonization was introduced in 1895; she was declared “Venerable” in 1909 and “Blessed” in 1940. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
Because the French word for “oak” is chêne (and because du chêne means “of oak”), symbols of oak leaves and acorns are often seen in Sacred Heart schools in America to recall the name of the woman who pioneered Sacred Heart education in the New World. It is a great honor that the Academy of the Sacred Heart was her first school, and the place where her holy remains are enshrined.