The pope's St. Louis connection: St. Philippine Duchesne | St. Louis Public Radio

The pope's St. Louis connection: St. Philippine Duchesne

May 24, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Pope Francis has long been devoted to a St. Louis pioneer woman: St.  Philippine Duchesne. For years, perhaps to this day, he daily prayed to her to intercede to God for his work. On the first month anniversary of his election, he accepted an image of St. Philippine -- a print made from the chapel stained glass window in the St. Louis archbishop’s residence at Lindell Boulevard and Taylor Avenue.

The world seems eager to get to know more about Pope Francis, so learning about a saint he admires and her spiritual daughters – Argentinian nuns who have been under his spiritual direction as they live among the poor -- adds to understanding. His interest in St. Philippine is worth attention at a time when a group of U.S. nuns is on edge. Last July, three U.S. bishops began investigating the annual meetings of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a network of elected leaders of most U.S. non-cloistered sisters. The study was ordered during Pope Benedict XVI’s, and it remains in process under Francis.

At a Vatican meeting in November 1997, the then Buenos Aires archbishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) reached out to St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali (now Cardinal Rigali, Philadelphia archbishop emeritus) to talk about St. Philippine. The two bishops were attending Pope John Paul II’s Synod of America.

Bergoglio realized that Rigali was from St. Louis and the episcopal descendant of Louisiana Territory Bishop Louis DuBourg, who had recruited Philippine from Paris to St. Louis. Bergoglio spoke in Italian about St. Philippine to Rigali.

“He told me of his love and esteem for her, that he prayed to her every day,” the cardinal recalled recently in a phone interview from the Philadelphia airport as he waited to depart for another Vatican meeting.

“What was so important to him was that she was so generous in wanting to serve the (North American) Indians,” Rigali recalled. “And her spirituality, that the Indians called her ‘The Women who prayed always’.”

At the age of 71, at the request of Jesuit Father Pierre DeSmet, a frail Mother Philippine Duchesne, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, left her Spartan nun’s cell in St. Louis and moved to a Jesuit mission in Sugar Creek, Kans., where she founded a girls’ school. Upon her arrival, she wrote to her Paris superior Mother Barat: “At last we have reached the country of our desires.”

She supervised nuns who taught there, but her struggle to master the Potawatomi language was unsuccessful. She taught by example. The Native Americans, moved by her long hours of silent prayer, affectionately called her “Quah-kah-ka-num-ad” – that translates to “the woman who prays always,” the title Bergoglio mentioned fondly to Rigali.

On March 13, shortly after Bergoglio was elected and introduced as Pope Francis, Rigali, one of the papal electors, called his former St. Louis archdiocesan secretary and chancellor, now the Knoxville, Tenn., bishop, Richard Stika.

Stika had already recognized the name Bergoglio.

“I said to the Cardinal, isn’t that the Argentine archbishop who told you he prayed to St. Philippine,” Stika recalled Thursday from his Knoxville chancery office.

The morning after the election at breakfast at the Domus Santa Marta – the Vatican hotel-like residence for visiting bishops and priests – Rigali reminded the pope of their conversation about St. Philippine years before. And at lunch, the pope signed what may have been his first formally written papal blessing for the Diocese of Knoxville likely, at least, the first in English, Stika said.

A month later, Stika was in Rome attending the Papal Foundation board meeting. At the board’s audience with the pope, he presented the pope a framed photo of a stained glass image of St. Philippine. The image was a print of the late Illinois artist Angelo Gherardi’s design for one of the five windows in the St. Louis archbishop residence chapel. Stika oversaw the window installation as part of the 1998 chapel renovation in preparation for Pope John Paul II’s overnight stay there Jan. 26, 1999.

“Pope Francis accepted it. Of course I don’t know what he did with it,” Rigali said.

In the phone conversation, Stika shared his memory of the 7 a.m. Mass he con-celebrated in April with the pope. Vatican firefighters in fire protection gear, Italian Army officers, and a Knoxville seminarian were among those who filled the 60-seat Domus chapel, Stika said.

The pope, he said, “preached off the cuff, like a parish priest at daily Mass, but it was very profound, very human.”

The pope has put aside the tradition of living in the large Vatican Palace and takes meals in the Domus’ general dining room. During Stika's stay at the Domus, when the pope entered and visiting guests stood up, he put his right hand out to shake hands and with his left signaled “sit down,” Stika said. “He has a big smile, very warm smile.”

St. Philippine's Argentine connection

An Argentine Jesuit having devotion to a St. Louis pioneer nun may seem unusual, but it does not surprise St. Louis County resident Maria Luisa Tiscornia Lagos, a Buenos Aires native. She has lived in St. Louis in two stretches since 1967. Since Francis’ election, she’s been talking via Skype with Sister Virginia Landivar, one of her favorite nuns from Lagos’ student days at Callao the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Buenos Aires.

Long before he was pope, Bergoglio was Landivar’s good friend, the spiritual director, confessor and retreat master. In religious terms the Argentine Sacred Heart community would call themselves the spiritual daughters of St. Philippine, who brought the order to the Western Hemisphere in 1818.

“Sister Virginia calls him on the phone and says ‘Hello, Jorge’ and he calls her Virginia,” Lagos said. Francis was Landivar’s confessor and spiritual director for decades and also confessor for two other Sacred Heart nuns: Sister Alicia Hughes of Uruguay and Sister Marta Pereyra Iraola of Argentina. All three were devoted to St. Philippine.

After the Second Vatican Council, the three nuns moved from teaching to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires to serve and live simply among the poor. After the death of Pereyra Iraola, who came from one of the wealthiest Argentinian families but spent decades living in the slums, Bergoglio told the other Sacred Heart nuns not to toss out her few possessions such as her dog-eared Bible, rosary and crucifix because some day she might be canonized and those would be cherished relics.

For years, the Jesuit Bergoglio said Mass and gave spiritual talks as moderator of a group of middle-age Argentine women who belonged to the Cooperators of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, named for the order’s foundress, who allowed St. Philippine to live out her dream of serving in America. The Cooperators is like a religious associates group. In his presence, the women reflected on St. Philippine’s spiritual practices, her good works as a role model and celebrated her feast day Nov. 18.

Lagos’ mother was a member and her sister Josephina Tiscornia is a Sacred Heart nun who works in the slums of Brazil’s Bahia province.

The St. Louis pioneer

Duchesne was born in Grenoble, France. Her parents Rose-Euphrosine Perier Duchesne and Pierre-Francois Duchesne named her Rose Philippine but perhaps because Rose was her mother’s name, the family and friends always called her Philippine. She signed letters to family, superiors and even the St. Louis property titles as Philippine Duchesne.

As a young girl she was inspired by French missionaries working in Canada preaching about the need for missionary work among the Native Americans. She never let go of her girlhood dream to work with the Indians but only began to serve Native Americans when she was 71.

After the French Revolutionary government closed the Visitation Convent where she was a nun, she bravely helped those in prisons during the worst of the terrors of the revolution. When convents were allowed to reopen, she joined the newly established Society of the Sacred Heart and led schools in France. Then, in 1818, Barat gave her permission to come to St. Louis. She was 49.

At DuBourg’s insistence she changed her plan to start a St. Louis school and founded a school in a cabin in then-remote St. Charles. She closed it within the year for lack of students. Then, she crossed the Missouri River and started a school at St. Ferdinand parish in Florissant. Her revived St. Charles school survives near her burial shrine with 527 students in nine grades. St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson is working to restore the Florissant convent and church. Finally she began her school in St. Louis. Each school was called the Academy of the Sacred Heart.

July 3, 1988, when Pope Paul canonized St. Philippine, Bergoglio was completing his work for his PhD in Germany and would have been well aware of the celebration.

Patricia Rice covered Philippine Duchesne's canonization and the Synod of America.