Sainted Sacred Heart foundress had pioneer spirit

By Peter Finney Jr.

Nearly 200 years ago – on March 19, 1818 – St. Philippine Duchesne and four other Religious of the Sacred Heart sailed on the “Rebecca” from France to New Orleans, embarking on a mission to spread the Gospel and educate girls and young women.

When they docked near the Chalmette Battlefield on the Feast of the Sacred Heart – May 29, 1818 – they were worn out and not in the best of health, said Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Jan Dunn, chairwoman of the bicentennial committee preparing for the 200th anniversary of St. Philippine’s arrival in the New World.

Welcomed by Ursulines

“They took a carriage and went to the Ursuline Convent (on Chartres Street), and the Ursulines took care of them for six weeks until they could regain their health,” Sister Dunn said. “They fed them and clothed them. And when they finally left for St. Louis – because that’s where Bishop (Louis) Dubourg wanted them to be – the Ursulines gave them food and money for the journey.”

That history and those close ties of hospitality with the Ursulines will be celebrated Nov. 18 – the feast day of St. Philippine Duchesne – with a 3 p.m. Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond at St. Louis Cathedral.

The Mass will be preceded by a procession at 2:30 p.m.  and followed by a reception at the Old Ursuline Convent at 1100 Chartres St., the safe haven where the original band of five sisters was taken in and cared for by the Ursulines.

“That’s one of the reasons we are having the reception at the Old Ursuline Convent,” Sister Dunn said. “The Ursuline Sisters will be a part of the celebration, and they will process in with us.”

Sister Dunn said the Society of Sacred Heart, founded in Paris in 1800 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, was only 18 years old when Bishop Dubourg asked St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, the foundress, to send religious to his Louisiana diocese, which extended through the Mississippi Valley.

Weary from long journey

St. Philippine, then 48, and her four “companions” – Sisters Catherine Lamarre,  Marguerite Manteau, Octavie Berthold and Eugenie Aude – spent a little more than a month in New Orleans trying to adjust to the heat and humidity. Obedient to the request of Bishop Dubourg, the sisters sailed upriver to St. Charles, Missouri, to establish a school. They thus became the first religious to take up permanent residence west of the Mississippi River.

“It was only about 15 miles away from St. Louis, but it was a small frontier town, and there was no bridge,” Sister Dunn said. “I guess they hoped that one day it would be a booming metropolis. The log cabin someone gave them became the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles (Missouri).”

In 1821, the congregation doubled-back to the Louisiana, where they established their first school at Grand Coteau, which still exists on the same location. St. Philippine did travel south and visited Grand Coteau briefly, but Sister Dunn said she never returned to New Orleans after landing here in 1818. The room where she stayed and the desk she used are still at Grand Coteau.

“The society was very new, and Philippine herself forever wanted to be a missionary,” Sister Dunn said. “Actually, she wanted to come to the United States to bring the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the native peoples. She thought they were going to be ministering to the Indians, but that was only for one year, when she stayed in Sugar Creek, Kansas.”

St. Philippine returned and was buried in St. Charles. She was a prolific letter writer and journal-keeper, and many of her letters to family members and the community in France still exist, Sister Dunne said.

“We get a great picture of their boat journey,” she said. “At one point, she wrote, ‘There is nothing like a storm at sea.’ However, they made it here. She gave wonderful descriptions of things they had never seen in France – things like fireflies and catfish.”

The Society of the Sacred Heart currently runs a network of 24 schools across the United States, including the Academy of the Sacred Heart on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The original school was “Mater Admirabilis,” a post-Civil War day academy in the French Quarter begun in 1867 on Dumaine and Dauphine streets.

In 1884, the sisters were invited to take charge of the St. Louis Cathedral School on St. Ann Street. In 1887, Archbishop Francis Leray gave the society permission to begin a new academy in the American uptown area. There were girl day students in all the classes, elementary and high school, and boys in elementary classes of their own.

The society in 1900-01 replaced the houses originally on the property with the first of the colonnaded buildings still at 4521 St. Charles Ave. That campus is still known as The Rosary.

“I think that name comes from the day they opened the doors – the Feast of the Holy Rosary – in 1887,” Sister Dunn said.

The sisters will hold several celebrations of St. Philippine’s bicentennial during the coming year, ending on Nov. 18, 2018. There are 11 Religious of the Sacred Heart currently ministering in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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