Rose Philippine Duchesne was born in Grenoble, France on August 29, 1769, one of seven sisters and one brother. Her family was known for its strong will and forceful personalities. Educated by the nuns at Sainte Marie-d’en-Haut, the Visitation convent in Grenoble, and expected by her mother to serve the poor, Philippine felt called to religious life at an early age. Her fervent desire to serve God gave her the courage to overcome her father’s objections and enter the Visitation convent at age 18.
The French Revolution interfered with Philippine’s plans, as all religious houses were closed or suppressed during that time. For eleven years, she attempted to live the rule of her order outside the convent, while serving her family and those suffering from the Reign of Terror, including those imprisoned at the convent. In time, she purchased the building in the hopes of re-opening it as a Visitation convent; several women joined her, but could not withstand the difficulties of their lives there. Then, in December 1804, Madeleine Sophie Barat came to call. Mother Barat had founded the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1800. She had been encouraged by her mentor and co-founder, Father Joseph Varin, SJ, to connect with Philippine to establish a new foundation for the Society in Grenoble. Rose Philippine Duchesne entered the Society of the Sacred Heart, and the two women became immediate and lifelong friends, a friendship that would touch the lives of generations.
Philippine longed to serve in the New World, but it would be thirteen years before she received the permission of her friend and superior, Madeleine Sophie. In 1817, Bishop DuBourg of Louisiana journeyed to France to recruit religious and priests to help him in his large territory. After much pleading from Philippine, Sophie at last consented. Philippine set sail from Bordeaux on the Rebecca, March 21, 1818, with four other Religious of the Sacred Heart. After a storm-filled passage, they landed near New Orleans on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, May 29, 1818.
After a six-week stay with the Ursulines in New Orleans, Philippine led her group up the Mississippi River on the steamship Franklin, arriving on August 29. Bishop DuBourg welcomed them and explained that they would be assigned, not to St. Louis, as expected, but to the small village of St. Charles, Missouri, where he had procured a house for them. She opened the first Sacred Heart school outside Europe on September 8, 1818. The Academy of the Sacred Heart was also the first free school west of the Mississippi, and the first Catholic school in what would become the St. Louis Archdiocese.
Running the school in St. Charles was a struggle. Money was tight, the building in poor condition, the students unaccustomed to formal education. By the very next year, these difficulties and the lack of boarding students caused the Academy to relocate to Florissant, Missouri. The new location did indeed attract more students, as well as vocations, and Mother Duchesne opened the first novitiate. In 1827, she founded the City House school in St. Louis, with programs for boarders, a free day school and an orphanage.
Finally, in 1841, Philippine’s wish to serve among the native people came to fruition. At the specific request of Fr. Peter Verhaegen, the Jesuit in charge of the mission, she went with three other Religious of the Sacred Heart to Sugar Creek, Kansas, to establish a school for Potawatomi girls. At 72, she was too frail to be of much help with the physical work, and she could not learn the Potawatomi language. She spent much of her time in prayer, gaining the name “Woman Who Prays Always.” After just one year, she was called back to St. Charles (which had reopened in 1828) because of her health. She spent the last decade of her life at her original foundation there. When she died on November 18, 1852, at age 83, she had spent 34 years in America. She was beatified in 1940 and canonized in 1988. Her Feast Day is November 18.
Rose Philippine Duchesne was a pioneer, an educator, a vowed religious. Her fortitude, faith, courage and humility continue to inspire today. You can visit her shrine at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles, Misssouri.
Birth: August 29, 1769
Death: November 18, 1852
Canonization: July 3, 1988
Philippine Reflections from February 2013