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Chapter 1

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 3

p11 Chapter II

1794‑1801.

Pastor of Everberg-Meerbeke. — Catechism and Sunday Schools. — Reforms. — Father Nerinckx' proscription. — Chaplain in the Hospital of Dendermonde. — His hiding-places. — He exposes his life to chastise a blasphemer. — His studies and writings. — Declines a re-appointment.

Father Nerinckx entered upon the duties of his new charge in 1794. The parish of Everberg-Meerbeke, situated midway between Brussels and Mechlin, in the province of Brabant, was in a sad state of disorder.

The rationalistic teachings of the last century had caused a singular falling off in the number of ecclesiastical vocations. Hence, men who in the common order of things, had a long-standing right to an honorable rest in their old age, were left in the ministry to administer, as best they could, to the spiritual wants of the people committed to their care. Having lost the necessary vigor of mind, and, for the greater part, afflicted with bodily infirmities, the natural consequences of old age, these poor priests often died broken-hearted, because unable to attend to their duties, and held responsible for the evils attending their unwilling neglect. The disastrous effects p12of this state of affairs were soon apparent all over the land. People grew lukewarm in their religious duties; many lost the faith; and the nation was soon ripe for that stupendous French Revolution, true deluge of impiety and socialism, that astonished all but those who knew what inroads irreligion had made, and rendered every man in the land, either a horrified victim or a bloodthirsty criminal.

This was exactly the case in Everberg-Meerbeke. The old age of the late incumbent of the Meerbeke rectory, had long unfitted him for parochial duties. Hence, the church was dilapidated, and the spiritual wants of the parishioners were neglected; in fact, the deserted old ruin, void of worshipers, would have discouraged any but a young priest of Father Nerinckx' force of character and indomitable energy.

He at once went about his work of reform in good earnest, and in the right way. The children were the first to claim his attention; for he knew full well that to gain the love of the little ones, was to enlist the good will of their parents. The change of pastors rather pleased the parishioners, and Father Nerinckx profited of that first good impression, and of the curiosity of his people to see their new spiritual guide, to urge them strongly to send their children to church so that he might get acquainted with them. The interest manifested by the pastor in the welfare of their offspring, could not but flatter the parental pride of his flock; they brought them; and the p13dear little people, shy at first at being forced into the presence of a priest — a being that many a one likely saw for the first time — were soon captivated by his engaging manners. The glowing accounts they brought home of the to them new enjoyments of religion, of the edifying anecdotes related by their pastor, soon told on the grown people. This was a trait of character they had not looked for in the austere looking priest; and, as is always the case, they were bound to see for themselves.

Bedewed by the grace from on high, the simple yet earnest exhortations of Rev. Nerinckx soon worked a manifest change in his flock. Some youths of both sexes eagerly entered into the pastor's plans for improvement, and encouraged by his frequent visits, were but too happy to teach in the different districts into which he had divided his parish for the regular and convenient catechetical instruction of the children. This laudable ambition was increased when he obtained for those who devoted themselves to the good work, the indulgences granted by the Holy Father to the societies of christian instruction in Rome; and in a few years there was not a better instructed people in the Archdiocese, whilst the name of the pious pastor was mentioned with respect, not only in the neighboring country, but in the distant parishes of Brabant and Antwerp. Every Sunday and holiday, after Vespers, all the children would assemble in the p14different sections of the parish, where a list of their names was carefully kept by the teacher, they were then taught sacred songs and canticles composed by Father Nerinckx in honor of the Child Jesus and of his Blessed Mother, and instructed in their catechism. The usual afternoon visit of the pastor was sufficient reason for the children never to be absent, since the least neglect was made the occasion of an inquiry as to the cause of it; and the prospect of a kind word, or perhaps a picture, was more than encouragement enough to apply themselves to the study of the lesson given them.

Such a course of thorough training could not but bear its desired salutary fruits. The children grew up "in age and wisdom before God and men," and their eagerness to assist at the Scriptural lessons brought many a hardened parent to come to the old dilapidated church, where the good conduct of the little ones edified the most skeptical, and moved them to imitate their piety. The parish of Everberg-Meerbeke, which, a few years before, had been pointed at as a perfect Bedlam of disorder and irreligion, became a model for imitation to all, so anxious had its inhabitants become to correspond with the pious endeavors of the pastor for their conversion. They went regularly to the holy Sacraments, and lived a practical christian life.

The spirit of lively faith being revived in his parishioners, Father Nerinckx had no difficulty in making them understand the necessity of repairing p15their house of worship in a manner befitting the presence of the God who dwelt therein. Thanks to their generous contributions, he was soon enabled to remodel the old church to the full extent of his love for the glory of the house of God.

Nor did his zeal stop there. He was aiming at a thorough reformation of his parish, and sought to have his flock practice in their daily lives at home, what he taught them in the church. With true pastoral vigilance, the virtuous priest often went the rounds of his congregation; and, although he never entered the house of any one unless called to administer to the spiritual wants of its inmates, he abolished, in a great measure, the promiscuous dances, which but too often led to excesses and to a laxity of morals unbecoming a Catholic people. Processions in honor of the Blessed Sacrament and of the Blessed Virgin fostered the public devotion and its unrestrained exterior expression; whilst confraternities and pious associations for visiting the sick, praying for the dead, etc., enabled all to perform works of christian charity, and to progress in virtue by mutual good example.

As a natural consequence, the atheistic teachings of the French revolutionists, whose armies had recently invaded Belgium and were everywhere spreading the irreligious spirit of their so‑called government, found little favor in the now thoroughly Catholic village of Everberg-Meerbeke. The pious priest became, therefore, a p16special object of suspicion to the revolutionary rulers of the French Republic. But he heeded them not. Notwithstanding severe prohibitory laws, he fearlessly fulfilled the duties of his pastoral office, until, having said mass and publicly assisted at a funeral service without previously taking the blasphemous oath of undying hatred to royalty,a required of all priests who wished to retain their position, an order issued for his arrest, in 1797, put an untimely end to his noble work in the third year of his administration.1 However, Father Nerinckx was living in the hearts of his parishioners; one and all were more anxious for his safety than for their own. They gave him timely warning to elude the officers sent to arrest him, and enabled him to avoid the fate which befel his brother John and so many of his brethren in the ministry.

Disguised in the shabby dress of a peasant, Father Nerinckx fled by unfrequented paths, travelling in the dead of night, and safely reached the city of Dendermonde, the 6th of August, 1797. He there secreted himself in the Hospital of St. Blase, which was under the charge of twelve hospitalier nuns, among whom was his aunt, Mother Constantia Langendries.

The chaplain of this institution had been arrested a few weeks previous, by the emissaries of the revolution, and exiled to the penal colony of the Isle of Rhé, his old age disabling him for the more active duties which these blood-hounds required p17of the younger ecclesiastics, whom they forced to bear arms and to undergo the cruel vigils of garrison life in Wezel and other Upper-Rhine fortresses. Spared from the general persecution because of the utilitarian character of their institute, but left without a guide in the painful discharge of their duties, and deprived of the spiritual consolations which alone sustain religious in their works of heroic charity, the poor nuns received Father Nerinckx like an angel sent from Heaven to minister unto them and uphold their drooping spirits. They found an occasion of apprising the noble martyr, De Broglie, Bishop of Ghent, of the arrival of the persecuted priest in their midst, and he not only gave leave, but requested Father Nerinckx most urgently, to attend to the spiritual wants of the community and of the many sick intrusted to their care.

Satisfied again that he was where God wanted him, and resolved to await the result of the impious warfare which the powers of Hell were waging against the faith in the land of his birth, Father Nerinckx set to work with his habitual energy, and his ministrations bore abundant fruits. The fervid piety that was manifest in all his actions, and his entire resignation to the holy will of God, were a great encouragement to the nuns in the midst of the dangers with which they were surrounded, and animated them in the discharge of their often loathsome duties. Not satisfied with leading the members of the p18pious community to a high degree of perfection by practical instructions and salutary example, he faithfully attended the sick and wounded who crowded the infirmary hall of the hospital. He usually spent the whole night in consoling the sufferers and bringing the last Sacraments in good time to those who were in danger of death, and then devoutly prepared for the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which he said at two o'clock in the morning, for the community. After a lengthy thanksgiving, he would visit in their cells, the wounded prisoners of the revolutionary battles shut up in the hospital, and assuage their bodily sufferings whilst imparting to them spiritual succor. At that dead hour of night, the heroic priest brought the holy sacraments to these unfortunate victims of war, who were to be hurried to execution the same morning, and refreshed them with the happy assurance that, when they were led to a horrible and unmerited death, he would be at the window of his place of concealment to impart to them once more sacramental absolution. Loaded with chains, like murderers, hurried along the streets by the howls of an infuriated mob and the butt-ends of soldiers' guns, the poor fellows would cast a furtive glance to where they knew Father Nerinckx was watching them with an encouraging nod and uplifted hand, and bow their heads in sign of contrition and gratitude, whilst the consoling words of forgiveness were silently wafting over the heads of the clamoring crowd and bringing p19peace and heavenly happiness to their heavy hearts, with the sign of the Cross. Father Nerinckx often referred in later years to the sufferings of these poor men, with the greatest feelings of commiseration. One especially had excited his compassion; when, passing through the streets on his way to execution, the wretch lifted with one hand the maimed stump of the other, which had been cut off by the bloody soldiery and left for several days to be eaten away by gangrene, raising at the same time his eyes to Heaven with an imploring look for strength and mercy.

Often, too, during that reign of terror, and at the imminent peril of his life, Father Nerinckx visited, by stealth, his abandoned parish of Meerbeke, administering the Sacraments to the dear people who had called for him, consoling them in their sufferings and strengthening them in the hour of danger. Sometimes, however, his ardent charity led him to tarry too long, and spied by traitors, he would have to hurry through the night to his place of concealment, which he always succeeded in reaching before the detectives could get on his track.

The nuns had, moreover, taken every imaginable precaution to conceal his presence in the hospital. The priest usually occupied a room in the upper story, to which he retired before the dawn of day, to take some rest after his nocturnal labors. Here he also remained during the day, passing the time in writing spiritual exercises and the study of theology and Holy Writ; p20and when some unusual noise reached his ear, or a sister advised him of unwonted danger, a common-looking clothes-press, built against a hollow wall, and communicating with it, afforded him easy access to the garret, where a recess, cunningly devised between two walls, concealed him effectually from view.

On rare occasions, when the sisters, who, owing to the duties of the hospital service, had a chance to communicate with the outside world, and hear what was going on, thought that there was no danger ahead, the chaplain would take a walk in the hospital grounds, but always in disguise. Here also he had a place of concealment, unknown to the domestics of the house; and, at the least sign of alarm, he retired to a dismal-looking hen-coop in the farm-yard, in which the practiced eye of the shrewdest of detectives would have failed to discover the narrow little hiding-place which the devoted sisters had provided for his safety.

However, Father Nerinckx trusted much more in Providence than in any means which human ingenuity could devise for his safeguard. The noble words which later became so familiar to the destitute sisters of the primitive Sisterhood of Loretto, and which the now flourishing mother-house of the same name treasures as a heirloom, transmitting it to the continually multiplying communities of the society, were already at that time, the ruling axiom that influenced all his actions: "Do not forsake Providence and He p21will never forsake you!" And when the honor of God or the good of his neighbor demanded it, the undaunted priest exposed himself to what worldly people would call the most unnecessary dangers. One instance will suffice to illustrate that so well-known trait of Father Nerinckx' indomitable character. It was related to us by the Superior of the hospital nuns of Dendermonde, who faithfully transmit, as traditions of the house, every little incident of these seven years which Mother Constantia's nephew passed among their sisters.

Owing to some sudden danger of detection whilst he was walking in the garden, Father Nerinckx had secreted himself in the hen-coop, where he could hear all that was going on around him, without being seen. He had been there some time, and the servants, who were totally ignorant of his hiding-place, were working in the farm-yard. When an altercation arose between two of them, and, in the heat of the discussion, one of the men cursed the Holy Name of God. The priest did not hesitate for a moment; the words were scarcely fallen from the lips of the offender, when out he came, to the amazement and dismay of the domestics, and having administered a severe rebuke to the guilty one, and expatiated on the great offense which he gave to God by using such language, he told the man to go to the Superior, ask for the wages due him, and depart. So great a horror had he for sin, that he exposed himself to almost certain death rather than allow p22a man to blaspheme God's name and go unpunished. The man could have followed the promptings of his revengeful anger and betrayed him to the authorities; but Father Nerinckx never stopped to think of the risk he incurred; he did his duty, and trusted in a kindly Providence to protect him, and his confidence was never in vain; for although many a time in imminent peril of his life, he always succeeded in escaping the vigilance of the police.

Whilst comparatively overburdened with night work, Father Nerinckx could hardly attend to any priestly duty during the day, owing to the continually increasing danger of his being arrested, the gens d'armes knowing his place of concealment, and making frequent and unexpected visits to the hospital. But he was far from being idle. After the short rest he allowed his fatigued body from the laborious duties of the sick room, he spent the day in writing and in religious exercises. Nor were his studies and prayers fruitless for others. "Some idea may be formed of his close application, when it is stated that the manuscripts now in existence, which he wrote while in this retreat, would, if printed, form about eight or ten octavo volumes; they are composed in Latin, in which he excelled, and contain treasures upon theology, the morals, discipline, and the history of the church. His friends have since frequently pressed him to publish them, that the world might be benefited by his learning and researches, but upon p23this point he was always deaf to their entreaties."2 The results of his labors would surely have been given to the world, for the enlightenment of studious minds and the edification of pious souls, had the religious and zealous care, with which his spiritual children of Loretto guarded that precious legacy of their venerable Founder, been sufficient to rescue his books and papers from an act of vandalism, which it will be our painful but conscientious duty as an historian, to record in the course of this biography. The only writings saved from destruction are a little Treatise on Missionaries and an exposition of the Reign of Satan, edited by a Dominican priest, from notes left by Father Nerinckx, and usually bound in with the rather extravagant pamphlet about the Coming of Antichrist, which the Friar Preacher inflicted on his friends.3 They are written in a masterly Latin style which but few modern authors have equaled. The beautiful Latin letters which the venerable missionary wrote to Archbishop Carroll, and now in the archives of Baltimore, are ample proof of his ability in that respect, and bear testimony to the fact that he possessed the Holy Scriptures so thoroughly, as to assimilate them at every line with his own writing. His letters read like St. Bernard's famous epistles, and some of them are perfect literary as well as spiritual gems.

Father Nerinckx had now acted as chaplain to the hospital for four years, during all of which time he carried his life in his hands, bearing his persecutions with entire resignation to the holy will of God, and edifying all by the practice of every virtue, when in 1801, "things having apparently changed, new bishops came from France, and a new apportionment of parishes was made. I was nominated pastor of my old place," he writes, "but I refused the appointment, because I was first asked to complicity with certain conditions, which I looked upon as suspicious and unsound, and which a great many other priests felt they could not in conscience comply with. As a result, I am now free from all pastoral care, and pass my time, not idly indeed, but less occupied than I wish to be, unless God orders otherwise."4

The clause which the pious priest objected to, was, very likely, the oath of allegiance to the new government, which newly appointed pastors had to take before a delegate of the First Consul. Although accepted, or rather tolerated, by his Holiness Pius VII, in the Concordat of 1801, in consideration of other clauses favorable to religion, that oath had been looked upon with suspicion by those faithful priests who refused to take p24the former unlawful oath of 1797, by which they were to swear undying hatred to royalty. The Republic was, in their thoughts, connected with the overthrow of the Catholic Faith; and surely they could not be blamed for refusing to perform an act, the lawfulness of which they had grave reasons to doubt, so long as the formal acceptance of it by the Holy See was not made known to them through a trustworthy channel. Father Nerinckx wrote, therefore, to the new Archbishop of Mechlin, thanking him for the proffered promotion, and, at the same time, respectfully exposing his reasons for not accepting it. The Prelate seems to have respected his conscientious scruples, and left him free to go wherever his zeal might suggest, for he appointed another priest in his stead.5


The Author's Notes:

1 Letter to Archbishop Carroll. Sup. Cit.

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2 London Catholic Miscellany, April, 1825.

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3 Cfr. "Armatura Dei in periculosis ac calamitosis praesertim hisce temporibus accipienda; justa Rev. Adm. Dom. C. Nerinckx, Missionarii celeberrimi notas;" pgg. 72, and "Armatura Dei adversus diaboli insidias," pgg. 36, printed in Mechlin, 1844; edited by A. F. Vandewyer, M. D., and later, O. P., who resided in Pittsburgh, in 1836.

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4 Letter of Rev. Nerinckx to Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, dated November 20, 1803. Baltimore MSS.

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5 Cfr. Letter of Rev. Nerinckx to Archbishop Carroll of November, 1803.


Thayer's Note:

a The constitutional oath presented to priests by the Revolutionary authorities was not exactly one of hatred for royalty — in fact, when inaugurated, the oath was to King and Constitution since the King had not yet been murdered — and of course there is no blasphemy in loathing monarchs. The nub of the oath, though, was that the first allegiance of the priests that took it would no longer be to the Pope, but to the Constitution of the French Republic: the blasphemy lay in substituting a civil power for the Vicar of Christ. The article French Revolution in the Catholic Encyclopedia lays out the situation clearly and at some length.


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