In Louise Callan’s excellent biography of St. Philippine (Philippine Duchesne: Frontier Missionary of the Sacred Heart 1769-1852), the author relies heavily on letters to compose the image of Philippine and thus on Philippine’s own perception of herself and of those around her. However, there are other testimonies extant in the form of memories of those who were students of Philippine in the schools where she lived. These memories were collected in the first years of the twentieth century when testimonies began to be gathered for the cause of her beatification. The Society Archives in St. Louis has the originals of these letters. They remain mostly unpublished. Here is a selection from those memories, written by older women some seventy years after the events that occurred when they were children.
From Philippine’s later years at St. Charles come several. St. Madeleine Sophie would at times send her small objects, which she gave out generously to both religious and students, rarely keeping anything for herself. But she kept a pelerine and veil that had belonged to Sophie and wore them on major feasts. Her habit was otherwise very old and much mended. She was remembered at this time as small, slight, and bent, her face made beautiful by luminous eyes “whose deep gaze seemed to see into one’s very heart.”
Several former students remembered visits to her room, and how poor it was, with only a narrow cot, a little stand, one chair, and a crucifix. The children sat at her feet while she held a crucifix, blessed them, and talked to them of Our Lord’s love for each one. They would also come to her room for French lessons. Philippine was very good at sewing; in the little museum at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles, Missouri is a collection of doll furniture that she made for a sick student. As her eyesight grew worse, she could no longer thread her own needle, so she would invite students into her room to do it for her. This became a coveted invitation. At one time, the punishment for breaking silence was to sit alone in a room instead of attending Mass. But the room was on Philippine’s way to the chapel. She would stop, give a stern reprimand, then invite the student to her room to thread her needle. The teachers soon realized that this had become a very popular punishment, so they wisely reversed the procedure: the reward for good conduct was to be in position to wait for the invitation from Philippine!
Every year, Father Pierre DeSmet, SJ, brought four or five native American girls to the academy in St. Charles for Philippine to teach and bestow special love.
Philippine often walked around the property and examined the garden. At one point, she seemed sad, so Regis Hamilton, the superior, thought she might like a pet. A farmer friend of the convent presented her with a peacock. When it was explained that this would be her special pet, Philippine threw up her hands in horror, saying it was the personification of pride with its strut and display. Did they perhaps have a sheep, a more humble animal? Soon a lamb arrived, and it became inseparable from Philippine. It lived with her, followed her around, and even sat at her feet during Mass.
~ Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ,