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Chapter 17

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Charles Nerinckx

by
Camillus Maes

published by
Robert Clarke & Co.
Cincinnati, 1880

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 19

p292 Chapter XVIII

1815‑1816.

Father Nerinckx goes to Europe. — Notes by the way. — His journey to Rome. — Impressions: the Rome of the Emperors and the Rome of the Popes. — Pius VII. — The papal blessing. — The Loretto rules approved of. — Return to Belgium.

At the earnest request of Bishop Flaget, Father Nerinckx had already delayed for three years his intended journey to Europe on business connected with the missions. He was especially anxious to obtain the recognition and approval of his Society, "the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross," by the then reigning Pontiff, Pius VII. The peace of Ghent, concluded December 24, 1814, had put an end to the war with England which had prevented his leaving that year; and convinced that the glory of God and the benefit of religion urgently demanded his going, he again applied to the Bishop for permission to undertake the journey. Seeing that he could not reasonably object any longer to the departure of the courageous missionary, the Bishop, although much distressed in mind, gave his consent, and took upon himself to attend most of Rev. Nerinckx' congregations, p293besides acting as chaplain to the infant Society of Loretto. Accordingly, Father Nerinckx set out, on the 10th of September, 1815, on his long and wearisome journey to Belgium and Rome. He made his way to Maryland as best he could, and there, among his former acquaintances and friends, collected money enough to take him to Belgium.

"When I arrived in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, at the Rev. Mr. O'Brien's," he writes in his journal, "a man knocked at the door, and being admitted into the room, fellow on his knees, and with outstretched hands and tearful eyes exclaimed: 'My dear Fathers, is there no mercy for us? We are poor abandoned catholics; nobody comes to see us. It is twelve years since I was with a priest. We are several families, only seventy-two miles from here. Oh! for the love of God, come and pay us a visit!' " This little incident, of daily occurrence on the missions, made a lasting impression on our missionary, and induced him to hasten on his way, with the firm determination of gaining some of his countrymen to the cause of the poor neglected catholics of America, and of bringing them out with him.

He tarried in Belgium only long enough to greet a few friends and obtain the necessary means to continue his journey, and from Brussels hastened to Rome, which he reached in thirty-seven days. Father Nerinckx' Flemish account of this journey, printed in Belgium in p2941816,1 is too suggestive of the man to be omitted here. A lover of the beautiful in house of God, his mind was too thoroughly christian to be favourably impressed with the marvels of art of the old pagan world. His austere virtue makes him pass a severe verdict upon what a more refined or facile taste might admire as exquisite beauty. He pronounces most of these classical relics "heathenish and immodest." The somber forests of North America were rather unfavorable to acquiring a correct understanding of the world's notions of the beautiful; and the arduous and often sterile missionary duties of the self-sacrificing priest of Kentucky, were little calculated to develop a taste for the beau idéal as presented in the city of Rome — flattered favorite of the muses — by the ancient monuments so profusely strewn over the classic soil of romantic Italy.

"Having left Brussels," the 20th of February, 1816, "I went by Valenciennes, Paris, Lyons, Chambery, Turin, Milan, Plaisance, Parma, Modena, Ancona, and Loretto, and arrived in Rome in thirty-seven days. The journey was rather long, but it was much more expensive. What I admired most, let alone Paris which is sufficiently known, is Mount Cenis, which, being covered with snow, presents a very singular appearance. However, when passing it, I experienced p295none of the terrible impressions which, upon reading the accounts of others, I imagined I would feel at the sight of it. The road was broad and easy, and in five hours I was over the mountain." Behold the matter-of‑fact pioneer of the American forests! Guided by the steady hand of his fearless rider, his noble horse Printer had paced many a road more uneven than the Cenis highway. The Kentucky wilds present more obstacles to the weary missionary, tracking an unfrequented path through the virgin forests in search of the log cabin of the solitary backwoodsman, than did this snow-topped giant to the light-hearted Roman pilgrim!

"Savoy, like the greater part of Italy, is more picturesque than rich. Turin is a beautiful city. The church at Milan, which is far from being completed, needs not, in my opinion, yield to any, in point of art. It is the most wonderful mass of marble which skilled hands have ever raised. It contains an underground church, where rests the body of my Holy Patron, the great Charles Borromeo. I had the happiness of seeing the crystal repository in which it lies arrayed in pontifical garments, and I also visited the palace where he was born. Parma, Plaisance, and Modena have left me no impressions with which I care to remember. Loretto, in the Pontifical States, through which the easiest, if not the shortest way to Rome led me, is a poor place, and would have nothing to detain the traveler, were it not for the grand and touching devotion p296to the miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin enthroned in the beautiful church which shelters the holy House of Nazareth.

"Three days and a half travelling took me from Loretto to Rome. The antique and remarkable monuments which I saw on my way, and of which writers say so much, did not make upon me the impression which travelers usually describe as produced upon them. They are remarkable curiosities, merely because they are old. Writers tell us that they are the works of men who surpassed us in art and genius; but paganism shows in them its stupidity, immodesty, and cruelty, whilst it exhibits but few signs of civilization, courage, and humanity.

"There are many cities on the way, but few rural villages; hence the road is a solitary one. The houses, covered with a kind of half-round tiles, are built of stone, ugly outside, and dirty inside; in fact, they are filthy and uncomfortable. As soon as you come within French territory, and until you arrive at Rome, every thing partakes of that common uncleanliness, and the churches are not free from it. The roads are, generally speaking, broad and good; all along we notice the works which Napoleon erected with our money for his own ends; some are praiseworthy, others will last only as long as the Emperor himself. Porticos, columns, and obelisks which recount his ruinous victories, and which are now falling under the revengeful hammer of the nations, are about the only compensation p297he left for the extensive devastation and ruin of all the beautiful, artistic, and precious, which Church and State had worked out with so much perseverance and trouble in past centuries.

"Inns are few; the relays are almost the only ones, always expensive and seldom good.a The landlord and lady are rarely polite, and leave the reception of travelers to a clerk, who troubles himself very little about the comfort of the guest. As soon as you leave Flanders and the environs of Paris, the land becomes poorer; there is hardly as much good soil from Paris to Rome, as there is in the region of Alost. Compared to ours, farm work here is child's play, and experience has taught me the truth of what an Englishman whom I met on my travels said to me: 'When you have travelled through Belgium, you may stop all inquiries about agriculture.' Land, cattle, and people bear testimony to the soundness of that remark. No wonder, then, that the nations love so well to fight on that lovely spot, and always quarrel for its mastery. They laugh at us and scorn us; but the fox also thought the grapes sour — when he could not reach them.

"The examination of passports and trunks at the several custom-houses takes up much valuable time; and here, as well as in the hotels, the officials look for the little contribution, called la bonne main in France, and la bona manu in Italy. These everlasting gratuities, together with the alms-givings, amount, in the end, to quite a sum. p298Were I to travel the same road again, I would undoubtedly, if I could, procure one or two companions, hire a coach from Brussels, or at least from Paris, through to Rome. For a person in my position, there is many a reason for following such a course. My present journey and a six weeks' stay in Rome can hardly be undertaken with less than four hundred louis.

"With regard to the famous capital of the world, I here give you my impressions in a few words:

"The antiquities, works of art, extent of the city, and manners of the people, although new and strange to me, can not command my admiration; but one can not but be filled with respect and veneration, when turning his attention to the treasures of christian art. The remaining temples with their antique columns crumbling to pieces under the weight of time; with their mutilated idols and obscene representations, the shame and degradation of the fallen human race — the marvelous and famous public buildings, houses, and palaces of the conquerors of nations, to‑day in ruins and hardly recognizable without the guide book which contains a list of all that pagan Rome once possessed — all those great beings: famous conquerors and far-famed wise men, that horrible assemblage of great and small, good and evil, rich and poor, which gave the law to the three parts of the then known world; above all, that long roll of crowned monsters, who for the first three hundred years waged war p299against the God and Founder of the catholic church and against a multitude of martyrs, and whose memory is well-nigh obliterated or barely traceable upon a piece of fallen wall, a pillar crumbled into dust, a dilapidated turret, a half arch of a ruined bridge, a broken vault under which no tourist dare venture — all these things, I say, once so great and admirable, now so little and despicable, made but a weak impression upon me; for they spoke only of what is said here and everywhere, and what St. Teresa expresses so well with a 'tout passe;' every thing earthly passes away.

"But when, from the old and pagan Rome, I turned my eyes to the new and catholic Rome, I felt something difficult to express in words. Instead of all these fallen thrones, these triumphant chariots, these armies of thousands loaded down with the spoils of nations brought to beggary and slavery — instead of all these, I beheld on Holy Thursday, high up on the balcony of St. Peter's church, the most magnificent building of the world, a most amiable and modest old man, with virtue depicted on his countenance and love divine in his heart; stronger alone and without arms, than Napoleon himself with his legions and his free-mason lodges; the successor of Peter; the Father of the christians; carried on the shoulders of picked Roman youths, having no other noise around him but the ringing of religious joy; receiving no expressions of respect and veneration but such as p300are ultimately directed to the one true and living God; distributing no gifts but out of the treasury, the keys of which are intrusted to him by that Sovereign Lord, who, without doing injury to any one, gathered his riches at his own expense — at the price of his blood, for the good of all! Here, I beheld the crowned heads of Spain and Etruria, surrounded by great dignitaries and foreigners from all lands and nations, bending low under the blessing hand of the Pontiff; and cheerfully and willingly did they do so. Protestants and infidels themselves could but behave with respect on that solemn occasion; and, if they do not love our Holy Father in their hearts, they are nevertheless forced to acknowledge to their friends that Pius VII truly wields in Rome the power of Pope, of Father — father above all, of universal father of all christians, and is truly clothed with supreme power over all the catholics of the earth, right here in Rome. In Rome, I say, where paganism gathered in all its strength, and disputed for three hundred years with catholicity the mastery of the world, to its utter ruin and confusion! In Rome, the object of the hatred and calumnies of all the branches of error, we behold the successor of the poor fisherman, who, in that same Rome, was crucified with his head downward by the pagans, borne in triumph over the ashes of prostrated paganism and of the foolish wisdom of the ancients. And, notwithstanding the jealousy which schism, heresy, and atheism p301with all its brood, cause to rage in their breasts, the unbelievers are struck with amazement, and unwillingly acknowledge that the representative of a God crucified — the Pope of Rome — making the sign of the cross avoid the admiring multitude, rules, by the motion of his hand, over the city and the world, over the bodies and souls of the numberless peoples of this and distant lands. Kneeling among thousands in the grand plaza in front of St. Peter's balcony on that Holy Thursday, amidst the din of vibrating bells, cannon, and music, I can not express the feeling which that solemn night awoke in my heart. 'Where,' I asked of myself, 'are those Roman consuls, those Emperors and Kings — all those powerful and dreaded men?' I seek them in vain; nothing is left of them. . . . And who is the object of all this respect, of this display of the magnificence in the Imperial City? Pius VII, the Pope of Rome; the Pope alone. . . . But he is the Antichrist, the leader of superstition, clamor heretics and Jews! He is a tyrant and usurper in the Church of God of a power which does not belong to him, growl Schismatics! He is an adorer of new Gods, the idol and personification of fanaticism — the corypheus of the rabble, mildly assent the Illuminati clubs and lodges! Indeed! Look around you: here is a Bishop from Armenia; there a prelate from Switzerland; yonder a fanatic from Constantinople; further on a stoic Englishman and a cool-headed American; in p302fact, men of all lands, nations, and climes. None is out of his wits; none is drunk; none in fanatic convulsions; and yet all are absorbed in respectful contemplation, and look as transfixed upon the appearance of Pius. . . . More was not needed to appreciate, at their full value, the slanderous epithets so liberally thrown at the head of our church by this 'Generation of Vipers.' I received the blessing of the Father of christians, as the missionary to, and the representative of, a great country in the New World, where I will give an account to my catholic brethren of all these touching events. . . .

"Rome is, in the literal sense of the word, a repository of religious monuments; every street, in and outside of the walls, is filled with them, and it would take years to examine them in detail. The one that has made the most lasting impression upon me, is the wonderful church of St. Peter, where I had the happiness of offering the unbloody Sacrifice of the Mass over the bodies of St. Peter and Paul, in the underground chapel. The whole world universally acknowledges that this building is the master-piece of man's genius and skill, that art and invention have here exhausted themselves on this ne plus ultra of grandeur and beauty. Next in beauty ranks the richly adorned Sancta Maria Maggiore, or Our Lady of Snow, where I also said Mass in a chapel under ground, before the Crib in which lay our Saviour. Sta. Maria Rotunda, so‑called because the church is built in a round p303shape, is the Pantheon of the old Romans — that is, the repository of all the false gods of unhappy paganism. Here was the seat of error; with reason, then, did Divine Providence enthrone in its place that truth which is to abide forever. The church of the Portuguesea is small; but is a gem of beauty and riches.

"I pass over many beautiful churches, palaces, (the variation and other magnificent buildings), aqueducts, fountains, amphitheaters, columns, etc., etc. Among the latter the Colonna Trajana is a noteworthy one: it is surmounted by a statue of St. Paul,b the Apostle beheaded by the sword at the hands of men eager for honors, money, and blood, which says to the looker-on: 'So is he exalted who humbles himself for Christ and his doctrine.' The catacombs, underground burying-places, where by the flickering light of a lamp the guide points out to you the hollow places in which the bodies of the great confessors and martyrs were deposited; where the followers of Christ, to escape the wrath of the tyrants, hid themselves with their Popes and priests, and celebrated the divine mysteries, are full of touching remembrances. Convents, colleges, libraries, hospitals, academies, museums, where I admired especially the instruments of torture invented to test the fortitude of Martyrs, and in consequence the truth of our religion, all these furnish abundant material for the curiosity and piety of the traveler, and too much to occupy ourselves any longer with them.

p304 "I will now tell you, in a few words, how I fared in Rome. I arrived there on Thursday before Passion Week. A congregation of Cardinals was held at the Propaganda the next Monday, and it pleased the Lord that the business, the documents of which I had sent last year from Kentucky, was just brought before it for solution. After the session, I had the honor of an interview with one of the Cardinals, who was so kind as to assure me that the congregation of the Propaganda was well pleased with our new institution, the 'Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross,' and had taken it under its special protection. They conceded to it all the favors and privileges attached to the Institution of the Seven Dolors, established in the city of Rome. He assured me that the difficulties and questions submitted to the Congregation would be answered soon, that my work was approved of, and that all the documents would reach me in Belgium in time for me to set out for America before Winter. That was as much as I could wish.

"I remained in Rome about six weeks longer, and had the happiness of seeing some Cardinals, who received me with the utmost kindness, notwithstanding my poor clothes and less inviting exterior."

What Father Nerinckx does not tell, is, that he constantly frequented the Jesuits, and that the air of sanctity which pervades Rome — that religious atmosphere which acts upon all who come under its influence, and p305makes the great and good of other climes, like unto exotic flowers acclimatized to and enhanced by its bright sunbeams and emerald sky, feel a new life course through their veins — made the old missionary priest long more than ever for the religious life of the cloister. Our authority for this statement is a letter from a Roman priest, a Jesuit of Sant' Andrea del Quirinale, written to Rev. Father Grassi, Superior of the Jesuits of North America, in which he says: "We possess, just now, a very holy American missionary — Father Nerinckx. He wishes to become a Jesuit; but it is deemed for the glory of God, that he should remain where and as he is." This last endeavor to reach a religious sanctuary seems to have satisfied the missionary that he really was where God wanted him, and he spoke of it no more.

"During my stay in Rome," he continues, "I was told that the College of the Propaganda had no subjects to send to our regions; that there was question of erecting a new diocese in Upper Louisiana, at St. Louis, Illinois Territory; that the Coadjutor, Bishop Neale, had succeeded Archbishop Carroll in the See of Baltimore; that the very worthy Mr. Maréchal, professor at the Seminary of Baltimore, was appointed to the Episcopal See of Philadelphia, etc.

"I was present at the grand ceremonies of Easter Sunday in the cathedral church of the world. On the 1st of May, at eight P.M., I was, p306together with three other gentlemen, introduced to the Holy Father by a Prelate. We had a most friendly audience, and, after the three others had received the marks of a fatherly affection, I myself was favored at his feet with his Apostolical Benediction and other tokens of tenderness."

His Holiness, having already personally perused the rules of the new society, was pleased to tell him of the joy and consolation the institution of his sisterhood had caused him; that he believed some portions of the rules too rigid for females, and thought it necessary to have some changes made in order to render their observance more lasting, adding that he would see to it that the changes were communicated to him in writing as soon as practicable. These, however, were not sent to Kentucky till a few years later. "The 4th of May, I left Rome, and in six weeks I arrived at the place of my departure," Brussels, in Belgium.


The Author's Note:

1 "Aan myne vrienden en Bloedverwanten. Tot Gend, by Bernard Poelman, op de Hoogpoorte, in het gekroond Zweird." No date.


Thayer's Notes:

a Another traveler in Italy, fifty years earlier, was far from sharing the rest of Nerinckx' outlook, but definitely agreed as to the nasty accommodations: see Tobias Smollett's letters from Italy.

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b The church of S. Antonio dei Portoghesi. Pending my page on it, here's a sample:

[image ALT: A curved balcony inside a building, supporting an organ in its case. Building, balcony, and organ case are all extraordinarily elaborate in the rococo style. It is the organ loft of the church of S. Antonio dei Portoghesi in Rome.]

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c The statue atop Trajan's Column is now, and has been since well before Nerinckx' time, one that represents not St. Paul, but St. Peter: see my photo.


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Page updated: 1 Sep 09