The History of Our Cradle Land
by Thomas H. Kinsella

Transcribed by Sean Furniss

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Organizing Indian Missions.

In 1827, when seven of the young Jesuit scholastics had been raised to the priesthood, the time had come for extending their labors. The Superior, Father Charles Van Quickenborne, was the first to cross the State in search of the Osages; and he preached to them under a banner of the Blessed Virgin, designed and painted by Mother Duchesne. He made several excursion across Missouri, 1827-30, and in 1836 he began to reside with the Kickapoos, near Fort Leavenworth.

While the Jesuit Fathers were gathering the Indian tribes together on the Western border of Missouri and establishing Missions in the Western prairies and the Rocky Mountains, the community of the Sacred Heart at Florissant had increased in 1830 to sixty-four members, living in six houses along the Mississippi River and educating two hundred and fifty pupils.

Zeal for the Mission

In 1840, Madame Galitzin was sent to visit the American foundation. Mother Duchesne earnestly begged to be relieved from the office of Superior, and obtained her request; but though seventy-one years old and reduced by infirmities and frequent sickness, her longing to serve the savages was as ardent as when in her vigor she had clasped the knees of Mother Barat at Paris, asking for permission to go to the Indians. Mother Duchesne had been inspired with a great veneration for St. Francis Xavier and a tender devotion to St. Francis Regis, the apostle of the poor, and this gave a tone to her life. And like the apostle of the Indies, she had aroused the spirit of foreign missions in her congregation by her example, and, like the apostle of the Vivarais, she still burned with a love for the poor and neglected of mankind. Hence she used every means to persuade her superiors when the Jesuit Fathers urged the opening of a mission at Sugar Creek in 1841; and she was filled with joy on receiving word from the Mother General encouraging her to carry out the first object that had inspired her Daughters to go to America. Giving vent to her enthusiasm, she wrote: "There are half-castes there who are saints, and great saints also among the savages. A spirit exists in that mission unknown elsewhere. The faith of these simple Christians is such that reminds one of the early days of the Church."

Bishop Rosati, then in Europe, wrote that the Pope, Gregory XVI, had expressed great delight at the prospect of establishing of the Sacred Heart among the Indians. This wish the Holy Father clearly indicated the will of God and made all envy the chosen band. Mother Lucile Mathevon and Mother Duchesne were the first selected; Madame O'Connor, who had been teaching Indian women at St. Charles and Florissant, and who could speak English and French, volunteered to join the Mission; a Canadian Sister, Louise Amoyt, completed the band for the new foundation among the Pottawatomies.

The Welcome

On June 29, 1841, under the guidance of Father Verhaegen and with the help of Edmond, a faithful and intelligent negro, the devoted nuns embarked on the Missouri and arrive at Westport Landing after July 4th; thence by wagon they traveled through scattered towns and settlements to the Osage River (Marais Des Cygnes), about sixty miles southward. Here over night two Indian messengers arrived to greet them with the tidings that all the tribe was assembled to receive the women of the Great Spirit. "Go and tell them," said the Father, as the knelt for his blessing, "that tomorrow, by the first light of the sun, we shall meet them." The rest of the journey was a triumph. Groups of horsemen were stationed along the road to show them the way; and suddenly, at the entrance of a prairie, one hundred and fifty warriors on ponies appeared, waving red and white flags above the gay plumes of their head-dresses. The two resident missionaries, Father Aelen and Father Eysvogels, were at the front of the cavalcade, and amid the firing of guns and display of horsemanship as grand as a review of troops, the little caravan was led up and halted before the mission church. There, as the Sisters alighted and were seated on benches prepared, the received an ovation from the whole tribe. Fr. Verhaegen presented Mother Duchesne: "My children, here is a lady who for thirty-five years has been asking God to let her come to you." Upon which the chief of the tribe addressed her a compliment, and his wife said: "To show you our great joy, all the women of the tribe will now embrace you." The men, too, wanted to shake hands, and the Nuns held a levee of great benignity.

Their Life and Work

The best accommodations for these disciples of the cross was a hut of one of the savages, who gladly retired with his family into a tent. But in the month of August they had a two story house of six rooms, which their negro had planned and built with the help of the Indians. "In our savage home," Mother Mathevon wrote, "we sleep better than in a palace. We live on bacon and milk, vegetables and bread. We would not give up our position for all the gold in the world; it is such happiness to feel we can imitate the poverty of our Adorable Lord." Father Aelen gave them two cows, a horse and a yoke of oxen, and on July 15th, his first care was to erect a school for the Sisters. Their abode and this school were near the church, on an eminence which overlooked the endless prairie. They opened school on July 19th, the feast of St. Vincent of Paul.

Fifty young girls soon frequented the school, and the women came there to work. The greatest difficulty at first was the Indian language. The mistresses had to begin by being scholars. Two Indian women taught them Pottawatomie, and after a fortnight, they were able to sing hymns in that dialect, though not yet able to speak it. "As soon as we could," adds Mother Lucile, "we taught our Indians the prayers of the Church, and especially the Litany of the Blessed Virgin as it is sung on Sundays after Vespers. Soon our cabin could not hold all our scholars, and we made a large room with green branches. Our children are very intelligent and understand easily all we teach them. They are as handy as possible with their fingers."

After six weeks, the Sacred Heart Sisters had their work in good order, when, on August 29th, a reinforcement of four Jesuits arrived, viz.,: Father Christian Hoecken, the founder of the mission, and Brothers Andrew Mazella and George Miles, with Father Verreydt, the new Superior; thus with Father Aelen, who remained up to June, 1842, and Bro. Van der Borght, the missioners' house was increased to six, besides two Indian boys and two teachers. Now every kind of work went on apace. A new school for boys was built in the Fall, and opened in 1842 with sixty-six pupils, taught by Jos. N. Bourassa and John Tipton. Soon Father Adrain Hoecken arrived to teach English, and Father Eysvogels replaced Father H. Aelen. Brother Mazella, like Father C. Hoecken, was skilled in medicine, in which it is said he had taken his degree; besides, he was a deeply religious man, and his services were invaluable on such a mission.

So while the Brothers taught the natives tillage and various trades, and the Fathers cared for their souls and cultivated their hearts to Christian virtue, the Nuns of the Sacred Heart taught them how to cook, sew, to knit, to card, spin and weave. They showed the women how to make themselves clothes, for hitherto their dress simply consisted of two yards of blue cloth rolled around the body, and the men wore long shirts in which they proudly paraded in Church. The Sisters could hardly keep their countenances at first when they saw these good people going up solemnly to Holy Communion in this strange attire, and to recover their gravity they tried to think of the white robes which neophytes wore in the early times of the Church.

IMPRESSIONS OF THE MISSION

Sugar Creek was the name of the Indian village. It stood in the midst of a gently undulating prairie, nine hundred miles in length and as much in breadth, which reached from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains. It was situated at 38 degrees 20' north latitude, seventeen and one-half miles west from the dividing line of Kansas and Missouri, and about eighteen or nineteen miles south of the Osage River, on a tributary stream named by the missioners, Sugar Creek. The Pottawatomie mission presented a glorious contrast with the neighboring Indian settlements. "Half the people here," Mother Duchesne wrote, "are Catholics and live in a separate village from the heathens, who are being gradually converted. Once baptized, they leave off stealing and drinking; all the houses are left open, but nothing is ever stolen. The Pottawatomies assemble every morning for prayers, Mass and instruction, and the same for night prayers. Whenever the missionary Father is absent, one of the natives replaces him, not only in praying but in preaching. Sometimes the priest makes a sign to one of the catechists, who comes out and begins to speak, at first bashfully, with two blankets wrapped closely around him, but soon he grows eager in the discourse, disengages his arm and becomes eloquent. The Christian faith transforms not only the souls but even the features of these savages. They lose the wild, fierce look of the pagans. All the parishioners go to Confession once a month. On Saturdays, the Confessional is besieged; and over one hundred go to Communion every Sunday."

There was, nevertheless, room for improvement, especially among the neighboring tribes, who were addicted to many vices. "Now, if by degrees," continues Mother Duchesne, "we can change the dreadful state of the neighboring tribes into the happy condition of our Christian village, shall we not be more usefully employed than in teaching human sciences in schools? If Alexander the Great wept on the shore of the ocean because he could not carry his conquests any further, I might weep also at the thought that my advanced age prevents me from saving so many poor people who destroy themselves by their bad lives."

Mother Duchesne's health and spirits seemed to be improved by this atmosphere of holiness and poverty. But the winter at Sugar Creek proved peculiarly severe. Except in the hunting season, maize and sweet potatoes were their only sustenance; and such a diet soon told on one so weak. Spending half the day on a bed of suffering, she still prayed and tried to knit, offering herself as on a cross for the salvation of her dear Indians. After a year, in which she had one the veneration of the Pottawatomies, who called her, after their fashion, "the woman who prays always," she was recalled to St. Charles, in July, 1842. Her place on the mission at Sugar Creek was filled by Madames Thiefry and Xavier, who in 1845 retired together in favor of Sister Mary. And when the mission was moved from Sugar Creek in 1848, Mother Lucile, Madame O'Connor and Sisters Mary and Louise moved with it to St. Mary's Mission, on the Kansas River, and began the new foundation, which in twenty years developed into a large convent and academy. This scene of their labors is enriched by their hallowed remains. Altogether, we believe we have seven angels watching over the little graveyard by the orchard. It would be a grateful task to record lessons of these hidden lives spent in the vineyard of the Lord. But for this we must be indebted to some friend, as we are for the above to the Life of Madame Duchesne.

A pearl without price was the sacrifice
   Of their virtuous lives to God who gave;
But they cared for naught; their only thought
   Was some weak and erring soul to save.

(P. O'Sullivan, '92. In the Dial.)

 

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