Reading a frontier missionary: Philippine Duchesne’s complete writings

Author: Catherine O'Donnell

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There are so many stories. That’s what struck me years ago, as I first paged through Elizabeth Bayley Seton’s Collected Writings. Seton’s skilled spiritual daughters had meticulously gathered and annotated her letters and journals, and the volumes overflowed with characters and events. The joy Seton took in her faith, family, and community was there, along with the sorrows of a life lived amidst illness and death. Also evident were the tumultuous geopolitics of a revolutionary era and the daring decisions through which Seton had made and remade her life. And those were the collected writings of just one woman! Innumerable other stories lie hidden—often known deeply, but only by a few—in the archives of American women religious. So it is a wonderful thing when a collection such as Philippine Duchesne: Pioneer on the American Frontier (1769–1852), which contains all of the saint’s known writings translated into English and annotated, appears. In these pages—over 1,500 divided into two volumes, including illustrations, appendices, and a useful index of persons—there are achievements and failures, dangerous voyages, sustaining and vexing relationships with clergy and sisters, struggles over money, food, and shelter, and seasons of spiritual dryness and abundance. These volumes are a cornucopia for everyone interested in women religious, the American Catholic Church, and individuals’ struggles to live their faith. And like all rich historical sources, they will illuminate, provoke, inspire, and maybe break your heart.

The Complete Works is a painstaking and generous work of scholarship. In their introduction to the collection, as well as in graceful introductory essays that begin each section, editors Marie-France Carreel, R.S.C.J., and Carolyn Osiek, R.S.C.J., give readers the essentials of Duchesne’s life and offer help in understanding the historical and spiritual contexts that shaped her. Useful annotations further orient us amidst the many relationships she created and maintained throughout her long life, and the translations by Frances Gimber, R.S.C.J. (with significant translation also done by Osiek) give Duchesne a distinctive voice. The editors also helpfully point readers toward several Duchesne biographies, most particularly that written in 1957 by Louise Callan, R.S.C.J., for further information. Osiek’s own Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne: A Heart on Fire Across Frontiers (2017) also forms a useful companion to the Complete Works. With the help of such a text, it is possible to plunge right into these volumes. Nonetheless, many readers will benefit from seeking additional information about terms and events (Jansenism or Napoleon’s edicts, for example) with which the editors presume basic familiarity. That presumption would make sense should these volumes only engage those already immersed in Catholic history. But the editors’ meticulous assemblage of documents along with their astute if brief interventions make the collection of broader interest than they themselves seem to have expected. “To collect everything written by Philippine has been our purpose,” they write, “in order to determine how this uncommon personality is, today as yesterday, a woman for our times.” Readers will find that purpose fulfilled, and they will also find Philippine a person of her own times. That duality—inspiration that transcends historical circumstances along with ideas and practices that very much reflect them—renders these volumes of deep and varied use.

Philippine Duchesne was born in 1769 in Grenoble, France, daughter of a lawyer who served in the local parlement. She felt a devotion to Mary from her childhood, writing later that “the Memorare was my favorite and continual prayer” (1:71). Educated by Visitandines, Philippine declined a marriage proposal at the age of 17 and entered the novitiate at the convent of Sainte-Marie d’en-Haut. She chose the Visitandines over the Carmelites because she hoped one day to lead a missionary life, a hope kindled, she later wrote, by “conversations with a good Jesuit father who had been a missionary in Louisiana and told us stories of the Indians” (1:216).

The fulfillment of Duchesne’s hope for a missionary life would be decades in coming. When she began her novitiate, France stood at the brink of revolution. Alert to the gathering storm—and intrigued by the philosophies inspiring it—Duchesne’s father withdrew from government in 1789 and cautioned his daughter against making vows, soon removing her from the convent entirely. The family remained in France during the Terror, and Philippine tried to live in accord with Visitandine vows, also seeking to be of comfort to displaced and imprisoned Catholic religious. Her prayer was to reenter the religious life, and in the early years of Napoleon’s regime, as public Catholic observance reawakened, she made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Francis Regis. The Jesuit Francis Xavier was “my favorite saint” (1:217), she later recalled, but—aware of the constraints of gender—John Francis Regis’ “work was closer to what I could do because it was more obscure.” While at the shrine, dilapidated after the onslaught of the revolution, Philippine vowed that should she be allowed to return to Sainte-Marie d’en-Haut within a year, she would always fast and receive Communion on the saint’s feast, would teach poor people, and would honor Regis in her convent.

In Duchesne’s post-revolutionary France as in Seton’s early American republic, many considered a vowed life to be either prison or perversion. Both women set about demonstrating joyfulness and self-determination to the skeptics.

In Duchesne’s post-revolutionary France as in Seton’s early American republic, many considered a vowed life to be either prison or perversion. Both women set about demonstrating joyfulness and self-determination to the skeptics. It was “my desire to prove to the world...that the yoke of Jesus Christ was my happiness” (1:61), Duchesne explained. With the support of her family, she came into possession of Sainte-Marie d’en-Haut and unsuccessfully tried to reopen it as a boarding school and religious community. Over the next few years, she found her way into a nascent female religious community led by Sophie Barat that would eventually become the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Duchesne found Barat—who was ten years her junior—an inspired spiritual leader, and she willingly became a novice in the new congregation.

In the spring of 1806, Duchesne experienced a vision of herself teaching indigenous peoples in the New World. But busy years passed during which she remained in France. Forging a deep spiritual friendship with Barat, Duchesne participated in the founding of the congregation, served as mistress general of its convent school in Grenoble, and was named its secretary general. Yet she held to her prayer of becoming a missionary, and in 1818, at the age of 48, she and three other sisters became the community’s first missionaries as they sailed for the United States. As Elizabeth Seton had been a decade before, Philippine was encouraged and aided by Bishop Louis Dubourg, a charismatic, chronically overcommitted Sulpician determined to nurture the American Catholic Church. And like Elizabeth Seton, Philippine did not simply follow Dubourg’s direction but rather helped shape her own destiny, prayerfully and strategically bringing to fruition her vision of a meaningful religious life.

Duchesne portrait
Portrait of Philippine Duchesne by Milcovitch. (Photo: ME-ARGEM).

Duchesne and her companions disembarked in New Orleans, where they were warmly greeted by members of an Ursuline community founded in the city in 1727. The women soon made the arduous journey to St. Louis, where Mother Barat expected them to form an establishment. When that proved impractical because of the growing city’s expense, Bishop Dubourg—whose attention had, characteristically, briefly wandered—sent them to a small village 25 miles west. There in Saint Charles, Philippine was chosen as a reluctant superior. The women founded a free school and a boarding school, but both struggled for students. Within the year, Dubourg commanded that they move to Florissant, a small village slightly closer to St. Louis. Once again, they founded schools, and when these new establishments succeeded in attracting students, a novitiate as well. Subsequent years found Duchesne and her original companions living separately in order to found new establishments, including at Grand Coteau and Saint Michael, both in Louisiana. They also reestablished the house at Saint Charles and over the years would create numerous thriving houses.

Having survived the French Revolution and found a foothold in the United States, Philippine now faced new dangers, and these letters contain moments of terrifying drama. Traveling by steamboat between establishments, for example, Philippine found herself suffering from yellow fever, as several other passengers became mortally ill. Forced to disembark, she and her companions were at first left “on the sandy shore opposite the town,” as local families feared infection. At last given shelter by a widower grieving his own wife’s death from fever, Philippine recovered—and learned to her shock that the boat on which she had so recently been traveling had seen its boilers burst, scalding passengers to death. (1:602–5). These volumes also tell of successes. The community gained students despite Philippine’s astute sense of the Frenchwomen’s disadvantages in competition with American Sisters of Charity, who, as she put it, “are all from the country and understand it” (2:271). The community also attracted novices from France, Ireland, and the United States. They collaborated with Jesuits in founding schools, as sisters negotiated formally and informally with clergy and prelates over matters including location and governance. The reader learns of Philippine’s spiritual life and how her devotion was the wellspring of her labors. And this was a life of labor as well as of prayer; Philippine’s letters are filled with accounts of debts large and small, of creditors sympathetic and harsh, and of mundane but crucial considerations, such as how to determine the precise amount of coffee that would keep parents and students happy without wreaking havoc on the community’s finances.

In both practical and spiritual matters, relationships—among sisters, between sisters and children, between sisters and clergy, between religious and lay—structured and animated this world. Philippine constantly labored to build and strengthen relationships, and to repair them—for there is conflict here, in this intimate and difficult world. The letters in these volumes not only offer evidence of relationships but are themselves ways of creating them. They serve, the editors gracefully explain, “to create a space of freedom of spirit between persons beyond the constraints of daily routine and distance” (1:15). She built relationships—sometimes impatiently and sometimes compassionately—with the Protestants who increasingly dominated the region and who often sent their children to the congregation’s schools. She did so with other sisters, serving, as she once put it, as “a mediator between . . . nationalities and characters” (2:120). She did so with clergy, seeking harmony and finding spiritual sustenance with them, including the renowned Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean de Smet, who along with Sophie Barat received one of the very last letters Duchesne wrote. Duchesne also fended off what she considered undue clerical intrusions on her congregation’s governance. One entry from November of 1819 perfectly captures both the sisters’ reliance on priests and their resistance to clerical interference. “The bishop arrived on the 20th, heard our confessions, the next day gave a discourse for the renovation of vows, received them, and gave us Communion along with the students,” Duchesne wrote, then added: “He is still talking about some changes to our rules, to which we do not consent, and we tell him frankly that when a bishop allows us into a diocese, he leaves us the choice of location” (1:364).

Jesuits had been part of Philippine’s spirituality since her youth, and it was at the request of Jesuits that in 1841, the congregation sent sisters to Sugar Creek, Kansas. They were to serve Potawatomies who had been forcibly relocated to the area from the Great Lakes region. A frail 72, Philippine fervently prayed to be sent. She was. Unable to perform the physical labor she so long had done, and unable to learn the native language, Philippine devoted herself to prayer, becoming known among the Potawatomies as “Woman who prays always.” Worried for her health, Duchesne found herself recalled from Sugar Creek after just one year. This, too, she bore patiently, returning to Saint Charles to live prayerfully for another decade. She died in 1852.

The historians who write about Duchesne—and I hope there are many—will draw on this magnificent collection while also using documents that place Philippine in the context of her era, unearthing the perspectives of those with whom, and against whom, she worked. If those historians are anything like me, they will find themselves utterly fascinated and at times a bit torn. Striving for the historian’s calm remove while reading the archive of an extraordinary woman can feel more like a moral failing than a professional virtue. But that’s a self-indulgence. This collection, like Seton’s Collected Writings, is inspired by devotion but summoned into being through sisters’ meticulous archival work and their commitment to scholarly transparency. Its sheer existence, not to mention the astute commentary of the editors themselves, makes clear that the sharp tools of historical research are welcome here. 

This collection, like Seton’s Collected Writings, is inspired by devotion but summoned into being through sisters’ meticulous archival work and their commitment to scholarly transparency.

If we set aside the particular complication posed by the extraordinary virtue of Duchesne, what complications are left? Only the unresolvable ones that come from writing about any human life. The kind of intimacy historians, and particularly biographers, seek—wanting to know a subject’s experiences, thoughts, emotions, purposes, successes, and failures—is normally reserved for a close family member, a romantic love, or a mortal enemy. Something of that emotional charge animates our sober scholarly labors, and we are by turns enamored of and alienated by someone long dead. (Jill Lepore famously wrote of finding herself in an archive clutching a lock of Noah Webster’s hair.) If our subject shares a nationality or a religion with us, or perhaps a gender or race or even a turn of mind, we feel ourselves attracted or unsettled in still more ways that we can neither set aside nor completely trust. 

Historians who work with these letters must be conscious of such entanglements, and the question of which elements of Duchesne’s life to investigate and pursue will inevitably and properly feel like more than an academic question. Reading these volumes, even without planning to do further work on them, I am by turns moved and pained. Let’s start with the latter. Duchesne lived at a time in which the United States cultivated destructive racial regimes and in which Christian evangelizing was laced with assumptions of cultural superiority. The collection offers valuable evidence of how those regimes and assumptions worked in the world, and of how a woman such as Duchesne—drawn to the region out of a prayerful determination to aid others—entered into them despite also in significant ways resisting them. Duchesne possessed, as the editors aptly put it, an ethos formed within “the ideological boundaries of the pioneer” (1:19). In her early days in the United States, Duchesne wrote detailed letters “to my mothers, sisters, and students of the Society of the Sacred heart,” in which she explained the geography of the region and what she felt she’d learned about the Indians, for example their “love…for the black robes (the priests),” their struggles with alcohol, and their reliance on women’s labor (1:387–8). Her ethnography, like that of the Jesuits whom she admired, was responsive both to what she saw and to what she expected to see, and her determination to offer Indians the Catholic faith that she believed was essential to their salvation, was of a piece with her reluctance to analyze fully the disruptions that settler colonialism caused. Duchesne wrote, for example, that she wanted “to reach the little Indian girls, the objects of all my desires,” explaining—likely unaware that boarding schools had been lamented and in some cases resisted by native parents since the 17th century—that to do so it would be “necessary to take them at four or five years of age to save them from brutalizing vices at later ages” (1:394). But no single example or extracted quotation can properly convey the tangle of compassion, misunderstanding, confidence, and humility that characterizes Duchesne’s thinking about and interactions with Native Americans. And Duchesne is just one actor in the stories of cultural exchange and conflict these volumes hold. “We are going to dismiss the daughter of an Indian,” Duchesne wrote in 1820. “In a year and a half, she does not know the alphabet or her prayers or the catechism. In church, she knows only how to tear paper or step on our trains when we pass. She behaves like an animal; we cannot do anything with her” (1:493). Was this truly inability on the girl’s part, or was it instead a steadfast resistance to Christian evangelizing? In this moment and throughout, this invaluable collection points the way to further research.

… no single example or extracted quotation can properly convey the tangle of compassion, misunderstanding, confidence, and humility that characterizes Duchesne’s thinking about and interactions with native Americans. And Duchesne is just one actor in the stories of cultural exchange and conflict these volumes hold.

We also see, again painfully, how racial slavery permeates and structured the new American nation to which Duchesne arrived. Like other emigrants and travelers, Duchesne was struck by white Americans’ sense of their own worth. “No white person wants to work as a servant here,” she wrote soon after her arrival. “All white people here consider themselves equals; they are on the same footing as their employers and no longer wish to be of service” (1:382). Philippine’s initial dismay at slaves’ plight—“slaves say that the misfortune of their situation affects everything,” she wrote soon after her arrival (1:368)—dulled. The congregation purchased human beings and benefited from expropriated labor. Duchesne expressed compassion for enslaved people selectively, such as for “the two intelligent Negro slaves [who] came by themselves to be instructed” (1:398), and for the “little negroes,” presumably children, whom she lamented she could not instruct in religion because of her poor English (1:306). And she contemplated ways in which a traditional French social hierarchy might ameliorate the brutal dualism of Americans’ slave/free, white/black world, arguing that “girls of color who want the religious life” might be capable of being “commissioner sisters,” akin to the coadjutrix sisters whose role she wished to preserve despite clergy’s insistence that Americans would tolerate only one rank within the sisterhood (1:443). In short, this, too, is a tangle, like the histories of the nation and church of which it is a part. This collection adds significantly to the materials from which historians and members of religious communities are building a record of the Catholic Church’s complicity in slavery. Like the record of the American nation’s complicity, it’s a record infuriating and heartbreaking in equal measure, grounds for repentance and for new scholarship. 

There is great beauty in these volumes, as well as pain. Philippine’s prayerfulness, humility, and self-sacrifice are evident on every page, as are the intelligence and doggedness with which she established communities of women religious under arduous conditions. The editors capture Duchesne’s ethos when they write that her spirituality was marked by a “radical sense of poverty lived in profound confidence in God” (1:21). Her frailty is as moving as her strength. The letters reveal a woman who knew grinding failure: Philippine often fails to convince other sisters to follow her guidance, sometimes fails to inspire her students, always fails to master spoken English. These struggles had their acute phases, but they were chronic conditions, and Philippine knew it. Here, her experience differs from my understanding of Elizabeth Seton’s. Seton struggled desperately at times, but she also succeeded brilliantly. Her students tended to adore her, more than one priest openly deferred to her judgment, and although she questioned her own fitness to be superior, almost no one, after the first difficult year of her establishment, joined her in her doubts. My point is not to demean Philippine’s life, but rather to contemplate the marvel of her faithful persistence. She experienced no steady ascent from chaos to order, nor from uncertainty to serene command. She knew no moment at which she could at last share her heart with English speakers. Nevertheless, she persisted. Philippine’s determination to go to Sugar Creek, in order to work with indigenous people, offers perhaps the clearest example of her devotion. Did she, at the age of 70, hope she might master native languages, despite never mastering English? Doubtful. Instead, it seems that she simply wanted to fulfill the promise she had made so long ago, and she was willing to do so humbly in whatever way her God wished. 

There are so many stories. We owe a debt of gratitude to Marie-France Carreel, Carolyn Osiek, Frances Gimber, and all who labored on this project. Its pages enrich our understanding of Philippine Duchesne and the worlds through which she moved, and they call us to further research. Readers seeking inspiration, those seeking scholarly enlightenment, and those open to a bit of both will find much to contemplate here.

Catherine O'Donnell is associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

This article appears in the spring 2020 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.

Feature image: A sketch by Robin (Catherine Blood, R.S.C.J.) depicting Philippine Duchesne’s arrival in America.