St. Rose Philippine Duchesne
by Shirley Willard
Reference: Philippine Duchesne -- Frontier Missionary of the Sacred Heart
by Louise Callan, R.S.C.J., The Newman Press, 1954.

What does the first female saint west of the Mississippi River have to do with the Potawatomi Indians who were forcibly marched from Indiana to Kansas in 1838? Many people have never heard of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, even if they are Catholic. She is a relatively new saint, having been canonized in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, and is not as widely known. But her work at the Sugar Creek Mission near Centerville, Kansas, endeared her to the Potawatomi who gave her the name of “Kwah-kah-kum-ad,” the Woman Who Prays Always.

Rose Philippine Duchesne, known as Philippine, was born in Grenoble, an ancient city in the French Alps, on August 29, 1769. In 1804 after working for the underground church during the French Revolution, she joined the Society of the Sacred Heart, established in 1800 under the leadership of Mother Madeleine Sophie Barat. In 1815 Philippine was elected Secretary General and helped to establish the Mother House. She lived and worked there, while continually begging to be sent overseas.

Philippine was 49 years old when she arrived in America in 1818. Soon she was responsible for five struggling convents: St Charles, St Louis and Florissant in Missouri, Grand Coteau and St. Michael’s in Louisiana. In 1841 the Jesuit fathers asked the Society to join them in a new mission with the Potawatomi tribe in eastern Kansas, along Sugar Creek.

When a group of Potawatomi Indians who had been removed from Fulton and Cass counties, Indiana, arrived in the fall of 1837 to Kansas on lands set aside for them by the government, they called for a priest. In January 1838 Father Christian Hoecken came and began organizing and building St. Mary’s Mission at Sugar Creek. In November 1838 they were joined by other Potawatomi from Indiana, accompanied by their priest, Father Benjamin Petit. They went almost straight down there, a distance of about 20 miles south of Osawatomie, Kansas. Father Petit had shared the hardship and privations of the 660 mile trek and he too contracted the dreaded fever, typhoid, that struck down so many of the children and elders of the emigrating Potawatomi. On arrival, Father Petit was dangerously ill, and Father Hoecken cared for him until he had strength enough to head back to Indiana to his Bishop Brute. Abram Burnett, a Potawatomi the same age as Father Petit, accompanied him, sometimes carrying him on horseback, to St. Louis. On Feb. 10, 1839, Father Petit died in St. Louis, in the St. Louis University operated by Jesuits.

Philippine was at St. Charles, when she heard the story of the Trail of Death and Father Petit’s passing. She had often expressed outrage at the treatment of the Indians by the government, and she longed to work with them. She wanted desperately to help the Indians, but at age 71 Philippine no longer had the strength to work.

Mother Lucille Mathevon was put in charge of the group selected for the new venture at Sugar Creek in Kansas. Philippine was not to go, as her age and poor health were considered a burden for the mission, but she pleaded to accompany them. When all was set for the departure, Father Verhaegen insisted that Mother Duchesne, as he called her, be allowed to go, saying “Even if she can use only one leg, she will come. Why, if we have to carry her all the way on our shoulders, she is coming with us. She may not be able to do much work, but she will assure success to the mission by praying for us. Her very presence will draw down all manner of heavenly favors on the work.”

The little band of four nuns and three priests boarded a Missouri River steamboat on June 29, 1841. It took four days after leaving the boat to reach Sugar Creek. About a mile from Sugar Creek Mission, a band of 500 braves appeared in gala dress - bright blankets, plumes and feathers, and moccasins embroidered with porcupine quills. Their faces were painted black with red circles around their eyes that made them appear frightening to the newcomers. As the mission wagon advanced, the Indians performed a series of “equestrian evolutions,” now in semi-circles, now in circles, and always with such precision that never was a horse out of position.

The first letter Mother Duchesne sent to Mother Barat was headed: From the Tribe and Village of the Potawatomi. “There are no difficulties here except when people worry too much about tomorrow. This tribe, which like many others was driven out of Michigan [and Indiana] by the Americans, is now about half Catholic.” The Potawatomi had been introduced to that faith in Michigan. The Catholic Potawatomi built their village at a distance from the rest of the tribe, and one could see the difference their faith was having on their lifestyle: “Once baptized, they never revert to drunkenness or stealing. Whatever is found is placed at the door of the church to be claimed by the owner. Not a single house has locks on the doors, yet nothing is ever missing. The Indians gather in groups (men and women separate) for morning prayers, Mass, and catechism. In the evening they assemble again for prayers. They eat seven times a day.

“On reaching here, we were greatly disappointed to find no house ready for us, and we showed our distress... When the steamboat passage was paid, we had scarcely $20 left.

“The pastor has given us two fine cows and put at our service a pair of oxen, a good horse, and charette [wagon]. It will be easy to plant a nice vegetable garden. We brought with us the Negro man from St. Louis. He is a carpenter and will help with the manual work. Our baggage has not arrived yet.” This Negro man’s name is never given but he obviously taught carpentry skills to the Potawatomi and supervised the building of the dormitories, schools and other buildings at the mission. The log church had been built in 1840 and blessed on Christmas Day of that year.

Mother Mathevon stated in her journal that the Potawatomi loved the “good old lady,” bringing her all manner of things - fresh corn, newly-laid eggs, chickens, wild plums, and sweet clean straw for her pallet. Every Sunday there were three or four baptisms and many of them were attributed to the constant prayers of Mother Duchesne, who inscribed their names in the register. The story is told that when they went to sleep at night, the Indians saw Rose Philippine praying and the next morning she was in the same position, still praying. Wondering if she really was praying all night, they put little pebbles (or acorns or leaves) on her long robe. The next morning the pebbles were still there, indicating that she did indeed pray all night. That’s why they gave her the name of She Who Prays Always.

Philippine felt that her illness cut her off from the activities of the other missionaries. The Indians, however, seemed to appreciate her from the moment she set foot in the encampment. Even though she could not teach their children as Mother O’Connor was doing, or cook for them as Sister Louise did, or read their language as Mother Mathevon could, they loved her and respected her, perhaps recognizing the special gentle heart that beat within.

One of the few extant letters she wrote from Sugar Creek was addressed to her brother and written from her arm-chair desk in an Indian hut [wigwam] on September 12, 1841. She thanked him for sending her 500 francs ($100) which she sent to St. Louis to repay the gentleman who provided her group with transportation to Sugar Creek. She wrote that the pastor had given them a horse, oxen, and wagon and also had sent three fine cows, many chickens, some geese and a litter of little pigs. “There are calves in a meadow, and everyday the cows give them a little nourishment. Then the cow-herds milk the cows, take what is needed for the priests and others and give us the rest. There is almost enough milk to suffice for our whole nourishment, but we have vegetables and can get meat at just five and a half cents a pound.”

Mother Duchesne found the language barrier almost insurmountable. She wrote “The [Potawatomi] language is extremely difficult, and the alphabet, which has four letters less than ours, is sounded just as in French. Our nuns have learned quite readily to read the language and are teaching the children as one teaches little children to read Latin, only here things are reversed: the children -- not one of them knowing how to read before -- understand the meaning of the words which we do not understand at all.” Then she wrote out the “Gloria Patria” in the Potawatomi language and a dozen Indian words which she had mastered, such as God, man, woman, sun, moon, salt, fire, finger.

The nuns took possession of their new log house on October 9. There was not much privacy in it, for the Indians came and went all day. There was a wood stove and some shelves for a kitchen on one side. When winter came and icy winds swept in from the western prairies, the nuns and the Indian pupils huddled near the fire, even while meals were being prepared. Sensitive as she had become to the cold, because of the fever that seldom left her, Mother Duchesne suffered more than the others. Yet she made her way through the snow to the unheated mission church for Mass each morning.

Lacking adequate housing and clothing, the Potawatomi suffered much from the bitter cold of winter and there was much sickness. The nuns visited the sick, cared for them as far as they were able, aided and consoled them, and prayed with the dying. In this at least, Mother Duchesne could have a share when she was able to drag herself from the cabin-convent to the native huts [wigwams]. The Indians were deeply touched by this kindness, especially when they saw her, feeble and worn by the rigors of the winter, bending over the rough pallet of a dying woman whose life she had failed to save, but whose soul had been won for Christ.

In February 1842 she wrote her sister that she was feeling stronger and her eyesight was better. In another letter she described the Potawatomi: “Congress forced the Potawatomi to move into this region and will pay them an annual sum of money which, as long as the arrangement lasts, will save them from dire misery. This year we have seen them making good use of part of their money by buying shoes, shirts, and other articles of clothing, such as the white people wear. But the blanket is always an important item in their dress. Christianity changes these unfortunate people so noticeably that a pagan among them can always be identified by his fierce and unkempt appearance. In our school some dear little girls are beginning to read in their own language and some in English also. More than 20 have learned to spin quite well. They are, on the whole, very interesting children, but they find it very difficult to stay at the same work for any length of time.”

On February 20, 1842, Philippine wrote to Father De La Croix, telling him the story of the migration of the Potawatomi and of the death of Father Petit. She told of meeting Father DeSmet and how he had urged them to come to work among the Indians. She described the day they arrived: “Our first shelter was the hut of an Indian in which we lived from July to October, when our house, nineteen feet square, was ready, but without a fireplace and without a stairway up to the loft, which was to be our dormitory. One climbs a ladder to reach it. The lower room is parlor, classroom, kitchen, refectory, etc. Neither the St. Louis convent nor any of the others were able to give us much help. Our Mother General sent us a gift that is to pay for an addition that will double the house and give space for orphan children and those of other tribes. We have not the means to feed them, however. The Government has done nothing for us, in spite of the efforts of Father Verhaegen. Could you not send us some money to buy food for the little Indian girls? So many are ready to come to the school ....

“I want to add also a few more lines about our good Potawatomi. The Catholic Indians live in a village quite separate from the pagans, who honor the evil spirit in order to ward off harm. Among the Catholics there is no drunkenness, no dancing, no gambling. Every Sunday one sees at least a hundred at the Holy Table; at Christmas 400 received the sacraments. Since last July about 70 old people have been baptized, and they are all persevering. In the church the men and women sit on opposite sides and sing hymns in their own language. They do this also at night and they say the family rosary, each one carrying a pair of beads always...”

The log church at Sugar Creek was a neat and spacious structure, situated on a bluff about a hundred feet above the level of the bottom land. The convent stood close to the church on an eminence commanding a fine view of the surrounding country and the little stream, bordered by sugar maples and called Sugar Creek.

The addition to the log convent was completed by mid-March 1842. The crevices between the logs were packed with mud, while inside the cabin, set side by side about 10 feet apart, heavy cotton cloth was stretched over the walls and white-washed. On windy days this canvas often swelled out like the sails of a ship, and when a fierce gale swept across the prairie, it sometimes ripped the cloth from its fastenings. When the construction work was at the height, Philippine was begged to remain in safety in the church. Nothing could please her more than this, and she spent the time praying. As she knelt motionless before the tabernacle, lost in prayer, the Indians would steal into the church and watch her intently, then noiselessly approach her, kneel, and kiss the hem of her worn habit or the fringe of her old shawl. To them she was Quah-kah-Ka-num-ad -- Woman Who Prays Always.

On Easter Sunday Mother Duchesne stood as a witness with Brother Van der Borger, S. J., to the marriage of Pierre Drayard and Theresa Rose Kusto, Potawatomi Indians. On April 24 she wrote to her sister: “One really could not find better people than these good savages. Two of them work for us, and as they do not like to stay at any one thing for long, they amuse themselves and laugh like children -- always happy, yet looking tall and straight as warriors. When we do our washing, they bring their soiled clothes too, and their mending. The children who come to school are very skilful, but quite lazy. Of course we receive no remuneration from anyone and are obliged to furnish the materials for their sewing, etc. They have already exhausted our supply of needles for darning and sewing; thimbles, scissors, thread, all disappear quickly.

“You would be deeply moved by the piety of this good tribe, which had already been converted to the faith in large numbers before being moved into this region... There are baptisms of adults almost every week, some even from neighboring tribes. The priest often calls on one of his catechists to give a little sermon for their benefit. The Indian rises quite readily. Wrapt in his blanket, with his eyes lowered, he begins to speak. As he becomes more animated, he stretches his arm from under the blanket, then finishes his discourse with the air of an experienced orator. The same thing happens at the daily catechism lesson. This is held in the Indian language, as are all the night prayers. The church erected with the help of 4,000 francs donated by the Government is already too small. When they are able, the Fathers will build a larger church and use the old one as a hospital, for there are many sick people in the tribe who are not cared for properly as they have no homes, no relatives, no means of support...”

Scenes described in this last letter have been used in murals to honor St. Philippine Duchesne and her work among the Potawatomi.

Springtime and early summer at Sugar Creek were crowded with activity. Mother Duchesne went about the mission with firmer step and more vigorous determination. Sometimes small groups of Indian girls gathered about her as she sat in a shady place, and she helped them with their knitting, or showed them the mysterious thing she still carried in her pocket - the watch she brought from France so long ago. Or let them handle reverently the big rosary she wore at her side.

The visit of Mother Elizabeth Galitzin, sent by Mother Barat to make a visitation of the American houses, marked the end of Mother Duchesne’s stay among her beloved Indians. In her report, Mother Galitzine described Philippine as follows: “She is here just to suffer, for she has aged much in this short time and is sometimes like a little child. She no longer has the fine mind of other days. She is feeble; her limbs are swollen; her digestion is poor. I fear she will have a stroke. To tell the truth we cannot understand how the Father Superior could have insisted on bringing her here. But he said that she would pray for the missions...All she can do at present is pray, sometimes lying for a little while on her bed, and knit stockings.”

Father Verhaegen went from St. Louis to bring her back. He had escorted Mother Duchesne up the Missouri to the Indian Territory, and he would bring her back safely, though it was a bitter disappointment to him and to her. On June 19, 1842, they left the mission, after a demonstration of affection of the part of the Indians that moved Philippine to tears. Traveling slowly in a rough jolting wagon through dust and heat, they stopped to say good-bye to Napoleon Bourassa and his Potawatomi wife, Memetekosikwe, who had so often befriended the nuns during the past year. Four days later they boarded a river packet at Westport and reached St. Louis on June 29, exactly a year from the day they had set out for Sugar Creek. After a short rest at the City House, Mother Duchesne returned to St. Charles, where she spent the next 10 years until her death. Though she was bitterly disappointed, she accepted her lot and settled in, living the rest of her life in a tiny room under a stairway near the chapel, praying for her beloved “savages.” She wrote to Mother Boilvin on Aug. 7: “I left our Sisters at Sugar Creek in good health... A little five-room house had been built for us before I left. Many of the children had learned to read, knit, card wool, and spin. Some already knew how to sew when we went there, and they like this kind of work best of all...”

Philippine continued to work for the spread of the Church by praying. Her journal, written in her determined hand, was splashed with tears: “Thy will be done.” Toward the end of her life, she was very lonely, going blind, feeble, and yearned for letters from Mother Barat. Philippine died on Nov. 18, 1852.

Rose Philippine Duchesne was beatified on May 12, 1940, and canonized on July 3, 1988. Numerous shrines to St. Philippine Duchesne are found throughout the country. The best known, however, are those connected with the Potawatomi: Sacred Heart Church in Mound City, Kansas; the Memorial Park at the site of the former mission at Sugar Creek near Centerville, Kansas; and her final resting place at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, St. Charles, Missouri.

Philippine Duchesne worked at Sugar Creek Mission for only one year but the Potawatomi never forgot her. Sister Virginia Pearl, C. J. S. (Congregation of St. Joseph), tells that when she and her brothers and sisters were children, their mother would gather them at the kitchen table and tell them stories her grandmother told about the wonderful Madame of the Sacred Heart who taught her prayers at Sugar Creek. Perhaps she was one of the children who placed the pebbles on Philippine’s robe and gave her the name of She Who Prays Always.

The St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park was dedicated in 1988. The Eastern Kansas Diocese bought 450 acres where the original Sugar Creek Mission had stood. Father Robert Pool, pastor of the St. Phillip Neri Church, Osawatomie, Kansas, was in charge of creating the park. Robert and Esther White, Overland Park, Kansas, began work on the grounds in 1969, seeking proof that this was the site of the old mission. Volunteers cleaned the site, and while they were raking leaves, they discovered rows of old style nails like the pioneers used. They soon realized these were nails from the walls of the buildings, which had been burned sometime after Sept. 9. 1848, when the mission was moved further west to St Marys, Kansas.

Volunteers, led by Robert and Esther White and Father Pool, used white stones to outline the buildings that had once comprised Sugar Creek Mission. With research they determined the use of each building and made wooden signs labeling them. They erected a circular altar of white metal and a 30 feet tall metal cross where the church had stood. They built a wooden “trading post” with a porch and installed a wood- burning stove and tables and chairs for meetings. They added many historical markers for the Potawatomi including wooden signs with history and memorials to the Indians, such as to Chief Neswawke who issued the call in 1837 for a priest to come and establish the mission. Seven wooden crosses display the names of those who died there. A special memorial is a field-stone wall with the Trail of Death diary on wooden plaques, inserted like windows in the wall. The diary plaques were a gift from the Indian Awareness Center of the Fulton County Historical Society, Rochester, Indiana. A statue of the Holy Family dressed as Indians was placed in front of it. Later other stone markers to various saints and the 14 Stations of the Cross were added. A gate that looks like that of a castle was built at the entrance.

In 2003 a special memorial to Father Benjamin Petit was placed there, consisting of five boulders, engraved with the names of the four states along the Trail of Death and a boulder from St. Louis where Father Petit died. Two plaques with history and a picture of Father Petit and a map of his last trip are on a wooden stand in front of the boulders.

Below the mission site, on the banks of Sugar Creek is a well that was dug by the missionaries and the Potawatomi. The steep stone walls of the creek still protect the wilderness that existed there over 160 years ago.

The St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park or Shrine is a very spiritual place to visit. Sister Virginia Pearl, C.S.J., summed it up: “There is a deep sense of presence of the people who walked here. It is truly holy ground.” This is the end of the Trail of Death Regional Historic Trail.

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This page updated Jun 1, 2006.