Rose Philippine Duchesne was a French Catholic missionary. Born on August 29, 1769, in Grenoble, France, she was the eldest of five surviving children born to Pierre-Francois Duchesne and Rose-Euphrosine Perier Duchesne.
Born into a wealthy, influential Catholic family, she enrolled as a student at the Visitation Convent of Sainte-Marie d’en Haut in Grenoble. After listening to a Jesuit priest tell stories about his work among Indian tribes in Louisiana Territory
In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. France and Spain had both controlled the area during the eighteenth century. The territory included all or part of fifteen U.S. states, as well as two Canadian provinces. All of present-day Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma were included in the purchase, along with parts of Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.
, Duchesne decided she wanted to serve as a missionary to Native Americans. Shortly after enrolling at the convent, much to her parents’ dismay, Duchesne announced her intent to become a nun.
Despite her parents’ best efforts to convince her to marry, Duchesne remained committed to the Church. She continued her religious studies until the outbreak of the French Revolution
The French Revolution was a social and political revolution that began in 1789 after French citizens, unhappy with King Louis XVI, the French aristocracy, a weak economy, and social inequality, revolted against the monarchy. The king and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, were captured and executed. France descended into violence as pro-revolutionary forces and pro-monarchist forces fought each other for control. Thousands of people were killed on both sides. Eventually the pro-revolutionary forces seized power and the first French Republic, a constitutional government, was formed. In 1804 the republic was overthrown and General Napoleon Bonaparte became dictator of France, leading to the First French Empire and bringing an end to the revolution. Although the First Republic did not last long, the political ideals fought over during the French Revolution had a lasting influence on the development of democratic nations around the world.
, during which the Catholic Church in France came under intense scrutiny.
When her convent closed due to the sweeping changes taking place in revolutionary France, Duchesne focused her attention on helping the less fortunate. After anti-Catholic sentiment began to lessen, she renewed her commitment to becoming a nun. After meeting Madeleine-Sophie Barat, the founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Duchesne joined the religious order.
Bishop Louis William Dubourg
Bishop Louis William Dubourg.
Bishop Dubourg, like Sister Duchesne, was a native of France. In 1812 he was named Bishop of Louisiana. During a visit to France, he invited Sister Duchesne to establish schools in St. Louis. He later returned to France where he served as Archbishop of Besancon before dying at the age of 67.
[History of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, by John Rothensteiner, 1928, page 260. SHS REF F580.21 R743hi]
In 1818 the forty-eight-year-old Duchesne’s desire to work with and minister to Native Americans was recognized by the Bishop of Louisiana, Louis William Dubourg. She was granted permission to travel to St. Louis in Missouri Territory with four other nuns. Before embarking on the six-month journey, she wrote to her cousin Josephine, “When my thoughts revert to what I am leaving in France—all that is dear to me—I put them aside, being intimately convinced that, as I have desired only one thing—to answer God’s call and abandon myself to His Providence—so the voyage and the trials ahead will never be as great as the help I may confidently expect from him.”
St. Charles, Missouri
St. Charles, Missouri.
This image shows St. Charles as it appeared circa 1841, twenty-three years after the arrival of Sister Duchesne. St. Charles never became the international crossroads that Bishop Dubourg envisioned.
[The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated in a Series of Views, ed. by Lewis Foulk Thomas, 1841, plate VII. SHS REF Bay Collection]
After a stormy voyage, Duchesne and her fellow nuns arrived in New Orleans, and then traveled upriver by steamboat to St. Louis, a frontier trading post located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Upon arrival, Duchesne learned that they would not be staying in St. Louis. Instead, she and her companions received orders to settle in St. Charles, a tiny village twenty miles to the northwest. Most upsetting of all was the news that Duchesne would not be working with Native Americans. Contrary to Bishop Dubourg’s initial promise, he instructed Duchesne to open a school to educate American and French Creole
Creole refers to a mixture of characteristics from Europe with those from the Americas or Africa. A person with both a European and an African family heritage living in the New World might be referred to as a "creole," as might someone of European descent but born in one of the New World colonies. In most of the French and Spanish colonies, the majority of the settlers were young, single men. Since European women were often greatly outnumbered, men in French and Spanish colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean Islands regularly started families with native women. The term "creole" was also applied to the unique culture and language that emerged in areas which blended native and European influences. Therefore, it was possible to be born a creole, live as a creole, and/or speak creole. Between the early 1700s and early 1800s, the land that became Missouri was populated by Native Americans, African Americans, and French, Spanish, and American colonists. Creole people, culture, and language existed in Missouri for many years after the United States took control of the land in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
children, not Native American children.
Duchesne and her fellow nuns opened their school in a humble building that also served as their living quarters. It was the first free school established west of the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River runs south from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico and is considered the chief river in North America's largest drainage system. Bordering Missouri on the east, the river flows for 2,530 miles. Along with the Missouri River and several other tributaries such as the Ohio River, the Mississippi became part of the nation's first major transportation system in the early 1800s after the invention of the steamboat. Missouri has historically engaged in international trade by shipping and receiving goods along the Mississippi through the port of New Orleans, which lies at the river's mouth.
. Students received instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, and the tenets of Christianity.
First Church in St. Louis
First Church in St. Louis.
The first church in St. Louis was completed in 1770. Bishop Louis William Dubourg replaced this structure with a brick building that was completed in 1821.
[Commercial and Architectural St. Louis, by George W. Orear, 1888, page 155. SHS REF H235.35 C735]
Just as Duchesne feared, the school was beset by financial problems. Despite the limited success of the first school, Duchesne was directed by Bishop Dubourg to open a new school in nearby Florissant in 1819, but it too suffered financial difficulty. Duchesne opened a school for Native American girls in 1825, but it closed after Indians in Missouri ceded their land to the federal government in exchange for territory farther west. She then opened a free school in St. Louis in 1827 that was successful.
Sister Duchesne, in spite of the daily hardships she faced, stayed true to her mission to help and serve others. In addition to the many schools she founded, Duchesne started a Sunday school for mulatto girls and established an orphanage.
As she grew older, the burden of serving as administrator of the Society of the Sacred Heart’s North American affairs began to weigh heavily upon Duchesne, and she asked to be released from her administrative duties. In 1841 the elderly Duchesne traveled to Kansas to minister to the Potawatomi tribe, fulfilling her dream of working with Native Americans. The Potawatomi called her “Quah-kah-ka-num-ad,” or “Woman Who Prays Always.” Sadly, Duchesne’s health faltered, and she reluctantly returned to St. Charles, Missouri, where she continued to advocate on behalf of the less fortunate.
This lithograph depicts Sister Duchesne late in life. No known photographs of Sister Duchesne are known to exist.
[The Venerable Philippine Duchesne, by a Religious of the Sacred Heart, 1912, frontispiece. SHS REF F508.1 D857v]
After years of poor health, Rose Philippine Duchesne died on November 18, 1852, in St. Charles. She became a Catholic saint when she was canonized on July 3, 1988, by Pope John Paul II.
The Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles, founded in 1818 by Sister Duchesne, continues to operate to this day as a coeducational private school, continuing her legacy of education.