I want to explore a particular aspect of Philippine’s mission, evident throughout her life both in France and in the United States, and clearly integrated with her relationship with Sophie Barat and her vocation to serve Native Americans. Philippine’s predilection for comforting and giving service to others could be called a forerunner of the current day focus on “solidarity with the poor.”
In France, when Philippine, age 23, was forced by the French Revolution to leave her beloved Visitation convent, this wealthy, upper-class woman from one of the most politically and financially well-connected families in Grenoble, chose a life of unconventional service to the poor and dispossessed. As one biographer points out, “she would change her place of residence repeatedly, initiate a variety of charitable works, some of which were dangerous and all short-lived.” (1)
She devoted her inheritance to continue her work for the needy. Concerned relatives, who wanted her to follow the safe, widely accepted modes of charity characteristic of women of her class, urged her to be sensible and avoid the risks of associating with the poor and priests in hiding in revolutionary France. She assured her critics that it made her happy to serve Christ in this way, recognizing the presence of God in the oppressed; “Eucharist and the poor were both Christ’s body for Philippine.”(2) It was part of her character throughout her life not to tolerate half measures and she was vocal about it!
Philippine’s education by fire during the French Revolution influenced her orientation towards the poor in the American Midwest.
A thread of concern for the poor runs through Philippine’s approach to new works and opportunities during her 34 years in the United States. She thoroughly internalized the focus in the Society of the Sacred Heart’s earliest Constitutions which read: “If they are allowed to have any special preference with regard to the children educated or instructed in their houses; they must consider it a privilege to be employed in classes for the poor, whose state of life had such charms for the Heart of Jesus that He chose to be born, to live, and to die in extreme poverty.” (1826, 96. VIII).
This woman, brought up in luxury in the south of France, embraced poverty in her personal habits. She wrote to Mother Barat that she resisted going to more affluent Louisiana: “My heart leans always to the side of the less fortunate, and that is Missouri” (3) where the houses were struggling and poor.After an early foundation at St. Charles, Missouri, where the boarding school initially failed, Philippine was strongly attached to the free school for the poor there, and tried unsuccessfully to find funds to keep it open. Later, in St. Louis, where numerous students flocked to the free school for the poor, even when the boarding school was struggling, Philippine opened a special Sunday school for mulatto girls who were otherwise excluded from education in the slave state of Missouri.
In 1825, just seven years after her arrival in America, Philippine established a separate boarding school at Florissant for Native American girls, begging money from her family and from Mother Barat to maintain it. But those were the years when the United States government was buying or seizing tribal lands and pushing Indians further west, too far from families for the girls – so the overall effort failed. Back in France, the Superior General, Mother Barat, recognized and admired the role of Philippine in fostering in the United States the significance for the Society itself of what we now call solidarity with the poor, a constituent element of the mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart.
Philippine was finally able to spend close to a year of her life on tribal lands with the Potawatomi in today’s Kansas. At Philippine’s canonization in 1988, members of the Potawatomi tribe brought up the gifts at the Offertory to honor “The Woman Who Prays Always,” still remembered by the tribe. Because of declining health, Philippine had to return to St. Charles in 1842. In her final years at St Charles, Philippine retained her emphasis on helping the poor. A thank-you letter to her family in France indicated her joy in their gifts, which enabled her to make vestments for very poor churches. Even a little over a year before her death, she was still focused on her beloved poor, writing to Mother Barat from St. Charles that “…we will always have paying day pupils, abandoned poor children and a few boarders from round about….”(4)
Several years earlier, her much-loved RSCJ niece Amelie Jouve had visited Philippine, and described her aunt’s personal legacy of poverty in a letter to St. Madeleine Sophie: “You would be deeply touched, Reverend Mother, by the poverty of St. Charles. It could hardly be greater. Mother Duchesne’s room is a veritable sanctuary of this virtue. Certainly in the whole Society there is no one more poorly housed or clad or shod….And it is quite useless to argue with her in this matter – it is her attraction.”(5)
- Sally M. Furay, RSCJ
(1)Catherine M. Mooney, Philippine Duchesne: A Woman with the Poor, Paulist Press, 1990, p. 59.
(2)Ibid., p. 74.
(3)Ibid., p. 198.
(4)Barat-Duchesne, Correspondence, Second Part III (1827-1852), Lyons 1999, p. 361.
(5)Louise Callan, Philippine Duchesne, The Newman Press, 1965, p. 464.