November – Feast of St Rose Philippine Duchesne RSCJ
The Success of Failure
Rose Philippine Duchesne was born on the eve of the French Revolution into a world that was about to change beyond all telling. Her desire was to become a religious sister and serve in the missions. At every turn history and circumstances seemed to conspire against her. She was forced to leave her convent in the wake of the Revolution and could not fulfill her desire to embrace religious life. Instead, she risked much to serve the poor in her home city of Grenoble during the Revolution and the Reign of Terror. After the Revolution her attempts to reopen the Visitation Convent were unsuccessful.
Eventually, she came onto the gentle radar of Madeleine Sophie Barat, foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart, who saw the immense greatness of spirit that animated Philippine. So, the woman from Grenoble became one of the founding members of the new religious order, the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Only when she was nearly 50 was her desire to go to serve in the new country of the United States fulfilled. For nearly a quarter of a century she worked setting up schools in Louisiana and Missouri, but she found this role difficult as she grappled with both the privations of the frontier setting and the rigours of administrative duties for which she felt she had no innate talent. Eventually, she was given leave to work amongst the indigenous Pottawattamie peoples. By the time she reached Sugar Creek in Kansas she was elderly, in ill health, not a natural linguist and unable to master the language.
She died in 1852, convinced that she was a failure.
As a child, attending a Sacred Heart school, I was fascinated by the story of Mother Duchesne. She had been a frontier woman, who helped to set up the first Catholic schools West of the Mississippi. Through her actions she advocated women’s rights and the dignity of all people. She was a co-foundress of an international religious order. For any young person who has ever felt a failure she was a reminder that God’s perception is not that of humans.
Today in Sugar Creek, they still speak of Philippine Duchesne with reverent voice. Despite all the limitations, she knew that there was one important thing that she could do, and that was pray.
The Native Americans referred to her as the woman who always prays.
She was canonized in 1988.
Rose Philippine Duchesne reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways. She is representative of all of those who work with the poor and the marginalized and may feel that they do not succeed in the maelstrom of politics, war and social upheaval. And yet, it is these people who inspire us, who stand as beacons long after the shouts of tyrants have faded into oblivion. They remind us of what it means to be truly human, created in the image and likeness of God.
Icon used by kind permission of the artist, Kyoko Fuller.