November 18 is the feast day of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. Mother Duchesne persevered through all the obstacles placed in the path of her vocation. She entered religious life despite her father’s vehement objection and she returned to it after nine years of absence caused by the French Revolution. She humbly accepted Saint Madeline Sophie Barat as her Superior even though she was ten years younger than her. She patiently waited for twelve years to depart for her dream of serving the American Indians. She patiently waited another twenty-three years before it was realized, only to be ordered to return after only one year. She docilely accepted the disappointments of the failure of her first Mission in Missouri at St. Charles and the order to leave her last Mission at Sugar Creek.
We must appreciate what a trial was Mother Duchesne’s whole American missionary experience. She arrived in America when already forty-nine years old, a highly cultured French woman who never learned to speak English and found Americans hard to understand. Her apostolate involved many trials of cold, sickness, slanders and disappointments. However, she used these frustrations as means to achieve still greater detachment and docile acceptance of God’s will.
In her twenty-three years on the American frontier, Mother Duchesne, in addition to teaching and administrative duties, undertook the hardest tasks that needed doing. She tended livestock, chopped wood, dug potatoes, mended shoes and clothing, nursed the sick, and made soap and candles. She survived loneliness, yellow fever and persistent feelings of failure. She interceded during her last ten years for all of the needs of the missions that she had not been able to meet herself. She retired from her many labors in 1841.
During her last years, Mother lived in a tiny uncomfortable room. She had one window in which paper replaced the broken panes, a thin mattress laid out nightly on the floor for a bed and one old coarse blanket as a coverlet. Mother never complained about it, she praised it. In 1851, she wrote to Mother Barat, “If you could see the pretty place we have here, standing beside the church as it does, you would not have the courage to take it from us, even if there were only four of us to carry on the work.”
Mother had labored in the American missions for thirty-five years. She had patiently performed all of her duties, suffered many disappointments and failures and saw others reap the harvest that she had sown. Failure was her success.
She wrote, “The dear Lord has favored us with a share of His Cross. The greatest and undoubtedly the hardest to bear is the lack of success in our work here. If a saint had been in charge, all would have gone well.”
Another time she wrote, “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.”
Such was her heart that she was finally satisfied with what appeared to be failures. She learned the value of devotion to daily duty and doing her duties well. She learned that our standards of success are not important and that faithfulness is more important than fruitfulness.
The fruits came after Mother’s retirement and death. By 1847 there were thirteen hundred Christian Potawatomi Indians coming to the Sugar Creek Mission. There were many confraternities and public devotions in the Mission.
The schools that Mother Duchesne started in St. Louis became models for later educational institutions in the city. By the end of the century, more than 600 girls had been cared for and educated there.
Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne died peacefully on November 18, 1852, at the age of eighty-three. Father de Smet said, “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 her “in case she may one day be canonized.”
You may read the full story of her life in my book Saints of the States. Please click here and get 20% off at checkout by entering 20OFF in the Discount box.