American Beginnings: A Dream Fulfilled…or Was It?
Shortly after Mother Barat had granted permission for Rose to pursue her missionary desire, Bishop De Bourg sent Rose a letter, warning her about the job that lay ahead: “You have come, you say, seeking the Cross. Well, you have taken exactly the right road to find it.…Be ready for all.…You and I shall spend our lives in this thankless task; our successors will reap the harvest in this world, let us be content to reap it in the next” (qtd. in Lynch). These prophetic words began to find their fulfillment during Rose’s journey to America. The Rebecca, a small sailing vessel, left France on March 14, 1818, with Rose and four companions aboard (Lynch). The voyage was anything but easy. The little boat was plagued by storms more than once, storms that burst open the portholes and terrified the nuns and the crew alike (Keppel 50). One of Rose’s companions wrote, “In the first days of May, the ship was driven by stress of weather five times backwards and forwards across the tropics” (qtd. in Emery 689). Rose went so far as to compare the noise and confusion dominant in the storm-tossed boat to Judgment Day (Lynch). The nuns spent much of their time below decks, seasick and frightened. Food and water were scarce, the heat was sometimes nearly unbearable, privacy was non-existent, and worst of all, celebrating Mass was impossible (Jeanne Marie). The last, perhaps, contributed to the spiritual dryness Rose experienced during the journey, but the nuns clung to their faith to help them through the difficult voyage, singing Ave Maria Stella daily to keep up their spirits and those of the crew and their fellow passengers (Bascom 16). Finally, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, May 29, 1818, after eleven weeks at sea, the Rebecca arrived in New Orleans (Bascom 16; Kun). One of Rose’s first actions was to kneel down and kiss the America soil. Certainly she was grateful that her prayers for missionary life had been granted, but perhaps even more at that moment, she was thankful to be back on dry land! (12)
The nuns stayed at an Ursuline convent in New Orleans for almost six months after their arrival in America. The poor communication along the American frontier had left them without orders from the bishop; his letter was somehow lost (Keppel 52). Rose was impatient to start for St. Louis, but she was also very ill, almost to the point of death, so the Lord gave her the time she needed to recover and regain her strength for the long road ahead. Rose and her companions finally decided to set out for St. Louis by themselves and booked a passage up the Mississippi on the “primitive” steamboat Franklin (Keppel 52; Cradle Land). Their six- week journey was not quite as treacherous as their Atlantic crossing, but it still offered “numberless inconveniences,” including being packed into one small room with a dozen other people, food shortages, and rough (i.e. drunk and disorderly) fellow passengers (Cradle Land; Emery 690).
Bishop Du Bourg greeted the nuns warmly when they arrived at his “mansion,” which was a small, rustic dwelling. He had probably been wondering what had become of them. Soon, however, he gave Rose more bad news. She had been hoping to start a school for the Indians right away in or near St. Louis, but the bishop had other plans. He would send the nuns to St. Charles, a small settlement twenty-three miles away, to teach the daughters of the French settlers there (Keppel 56; Bascom 19). Always obedient, Rose swallowed her disappointment and agreed. (13)
In St. Charles, the Sacred Heart nuns faced greater hardships than they had ever before experienced. Upon arrival, they established their convent (the first west of the Mississippi), a boarding school for girls, and a free day school for girls (the first in the United States) in the old “Duquette Mansion” (Horvat; Flynn). Rose disliked the house, which was a mere 625 square feet, from the very beginning, describing it as “seven small rooms badly in need of repair” and “totally inadequate” for their needs (Flynn). Since they had no where else to go, however, the nuns did the best they could, and soon their pupils were learning to read, write, do household tasks, and most importantly practice their Catholic faith. The students’ successes, however, came at a high price, both to themselves and to their teachers. Food was extremely sparse. In a letter to France, Rose remarked, “We have maize, pork and potatoes, but no eggs, butter, oil, fruit, or vegetables…the only edible oil to be had here is bear-grease, which is disgusting” (qtd. in Bascom 40). At times the nuns and their students even lacked bread, and there was seldom enough of what they did have to go around. Even water was lacking, despite their proximity to the Missouri River. Because of their rule of enclosure, the nuns could not leave the convent to haul water from the river, and no one else would do it for them (unless some profit-minded person brought up a bucketful, for which he charged a high price), so they often had to rely on two small, muddy springs close to the house for their drinking water (Cradle Land; Bascom 38; Flynn). As hungry and thirsty as they often were, the nuns worked hard. Along with teaching, they did all the chores pioneer women had to do: gardening, caring for the cows, baking, cooking, washing, cleaning, and much more. Their students helped, of course, but for the most part, the five nuns were on their own. Rose, ever devout, commented, “We do all this with as much joy as though we were teaching because God wills it thus…” (qtd. in Bascom 41). When winter arrived, their situation became even more critical. Their house lacked insulation of any kind, and heat from the fire escaped through the gaps in the doors, windows, and walls. Hot food froze on the table, water froze in the pail right next to the fire place, and sometimes nuns’ and students’ hands froze to their tin plates (Flynn; Cradle Land; Horvat). On top of that, the nuns did not even have the proper tools to chop wood, so they sometimes had to go without any fire at all (Horvat). The fire they did have became a menace twice during that first winter. Once a chimney fire in the infirmary threatened the convent, but the nuns managed to put it out even with their limited water supply. On another occasion, a breeze caught a candle flame in the chapel, and a nearby curtain ignited. As the fire spread, the nuns formed a bucket brigade and somehow saved their home (Flynn). The Lord, in His mysterious ways, brought a miracle out of this near disaster. The Sacred Host, which the nuns were adoring before the fire, was found afterwards perfectly preserved and “unharmed in a charred pall and corporal” (Jeanne Marie). Rose summed up her experience in St. Charles, and the nuns’ attitude toward it, with the words, “We are indeed in the headquarters of poverty. There is every appearance that we shall sow in tears; and too happy shall we be to do so, if others are to reap in joy, surrounded by the children our prayers have won for them” (qtd. in Emery 690). Despite the nuns’ hard work and suffering, the St. Charles boarding school failed and closed after only a year. Parents simply did not want to send their girls to a frontier town to face such an austere life (Bascom 22). Rose blamed herself, thinking she was not a fit Superior, but she continued to abandon herself to the Lord, saying, ‘”Perhaps Our Lord wants His missionary nuns to sanctify themselves through failure” (Lynch; Keppel 59). A new adventure, and new trials, awaited Rose and her companions as they packed their meager possessions and prepared to move from the little house in St. Charles.
Bishop Du Bourg had a farm near the town of Florissant, and it was there he decided to build a new convent and school for the Society of the Sacred Heart. The nuns and three of the boarding school children moved to their new quarters in September of 1819. The move itself, had it not been so trying, might have seemed rather comical. Rose wrote in her journal:
There were seventeen trips across the river. This does not mean that we were very rich, for a one-horse cart can only carry three people, or baggage in proportion….In the evening I closed the march with the cows, calves, chickens and Sister Marguerite. But our cows revolted when they found themselves tied and obliged to walk in the heat so that I had to wait until early the next morning when the rest of our furniture was packed into three small wagons. We had to appease the cows with cabbages, for they were at first very obstinate. Finally, worn out by their ropes and by fatigue, they decided to follow along with their calves. I perched on top of a cart, dividing my attention between the care of my relics and that of the poultry. (qtd. in Bascom 41)
Life at Florissant was not much better, and perhaps even worse, than life at St. Charles, at least at first. The nuns’ living quarters were actually smaller than before, for they stayed at the bishop’s farmhouse, a log cabin of only 324 square feet, until their convent could be build (Keppel 63). They had only one room and a loft. Just as before, the nuns and their students faced shortages of food and money, “dangers of fire, flood, and epidemic,” and an abundance of hard work (Jeanne Marie). Soon, however, things began looking brighter for the little group, and they began to see some successes come from their efforts.
1. How would you behave if you were placed in a situation like that of Rose and her companions during the voyage of the Rebecca?
2. Have you ever suffered a great disappointment? How did you respond?