Crowning difficulties. — Rev. Guy Chabrat's opposition to Father Nerinckx. — Father Nerinckx leaves Kentucky. — His farewell letter to the Sisters of Loretto. — He goes to Missouri. — He visits Bethlehem, Perry Co. — His death at Ste. Genevieve, August 12, 1824.
Persecution is the common fate of all whom God calls to an extraordinary degree of sanctity. As we have had occasion to see, in the course of this biography, this perfecting element of virtue had not been wanting to the faithful priest; and, as is often witnessed in ecclesiastical history, the crowning persecution in his life was caused, innocently, we may hope, by the very ones who ought to have been the cheering comforters of the Father Nerinckx' declining years.
Rev. Guy Chabrat, who was the confessor of Bethania Convent, had, of late, forwarded to the Bishop many complaints about the (in his opinion) uncalled-for severity of Father Nerinckx' direction. He was also trying to arrogate to himself the right of altering, in the branch establishment which he directed, the rules of the Society of the Friends of Mary; efforts which p513Father Nerinckx opposed all the more strenuously from the fact that these rules, as already mitigated, had been approved of by the sacred congregation of the Propaganda, and indorsed by His Holiness, Pius VII. Unwilling, however, to create ill-feeling, and uselessly to perplex the minds of the sisters by clashing opinions, Father Nerinckx avoided, as much as possible, meddling with the affairs of the branch houses, and invariably referred to the Bishop the local superiors who consulted him on temporal or spiritual matters concerning the direction of their community. "I wish to meddle so little," he writes to Mother Bibiana, December 23, 1823, "that I never set my foot yet at Mount Mary's since the sisters have been there."
Rev. Mr. Chabrat censured Father Nerinckx' piety as visionary and overdone; he urged the removal of the venerable founder from his office of Ecclesiastical Superior of the Loretto Society; and, early in 1824, he wrote to Bishop Flaget a lengthy letter in which he enumerated all his complaints against Father Nerinckx' style of piety, censuring him for excessive rigor in his government of the sisters' communities, and for unnecessary austerity in his direction of souls. As a fact, however, Father Nerinckx was compelled continually to restrain the fervor of his spiritual daughters, instead of forcing hard obligations on them. The Bishop was much embarrassed by the position in which the letter of Rev. Chabrat place him, for he held p514both priests in great esteem. He made known to Father Nerinckx the complaints made against him, but left his future course to his own prudence. Owing to the persistent and strenuous opposition of the Rev. Guy Chabrat, their holy founder deemed it prudent and for the greater good of religion to leave the sisters and Kentucky; and, seeing in this disposition of Divine Providence a means of satisfying his thirst for the conversion of the Indians, he resolved upon going to Missouri. This resolution he communicated to Bishop Flaget, in answer to the letters which the Bishop had communicated to him, and he was allowed to go.
It was after this conclusion had been reached, that Father Nerinckx wrote to the Superior of Bethania the following letter:
"Gethsemani, 25th of May, 1824.
"Dear Mother Bibiana, and all your Sisters: May God's best blessing abound with you!
". . . . My time of starting on the intended journey is close by, and I feel not very able at present to undertake it. I know not what consequences it will have, nor whether I will ever see you or write to you any more. God will dispose of it. I wish you all to join in prayers with me, that Almighty God may forgive all blunders, ignorances, and excesses I have committed during the thirty-eight years which I have passed very unworthily and unprofitably in the ministry, and that He may p515grant pardon for all the harm I have done these twelve years in the Society. May the Lord and His Dear Mother be merciful unto me, as on Mount Calvary they were unto the good thief! . . . Be you all happy in life here, and glorious after death. I greet you all in the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary!
"P. S. Best wishes to Rev. Mr. Chabrat, etc."
How the humble priest communicated his intentions to his dear children of Loretto, is told us in the following pathetic account given us by Sister Isabella Clarke,1 who had been elected p516Superior of Loretto that same year: "Some five or six weeks before our dear and lamented founder, Rev. Charles Nerinckx, left Loretto, he signified to us his intention of leaving the diocese; an announcement which came upon us like a thunderbolt! We could not, would not, consent to it, although we had for some time perceived his embarrassment and dejection, which had caused us much anxiety. To convince us of the necessity of his going he read to us part of a letter of eleven pages, which he had received. (He did not tell us from whom it came.) Oh! I can not describe the language and force of that letter! Among other things, it said, that 'there was not a priest in the diocese willing to hear his confession!' He then said to us: 'You see, my dear children, the necessity I am under of going to some place where I can go to confession, and be able to do a little good, for it is evident that I can not do any thing more here. As God gave me, so have I done for you.' You may well imagine our grief and consternation; no words of mine can convey it. Yet, we had some much compassion and sympathy for him in his then sad situation, that we had not the courage to oppose his decision, except by our tears and grief, joined with fervent prayers to our dear Lord and His Blessed Mother to assist and protect him, and send him back to us."
p517 Before leaving, Father Nerinckx wrote a farewell letter to the sisterhood, which is up to this day read, amidst the silent tears of the community, on the anniversary of his departure for Missouri, and which we here insert in full. The writing betrays great emotion and bodily weakness.
J. M. J.
"Loretto, 29th of May, 1824.
"To the Dear Mother, Mothers and Sisters of the Loretto House and Society, all hail!
"Being about to start on my intended journey, which may put an end to my life, and probably to any intercourse or meddling with the Loretto House or Society, I leave, as a short farewell, these few lines to the Loretto House, having kept this place as a home since it was begun. It is not strange, my dear sisters, to find in this vale of tears, that mass of afflictions which holy Job affirms to be the lot of all born of women: multis miseriis; of that, my age and condition, is to me a present and sure conviction. We are all, having been children of wrath, doomed to drink of this bitterness. Still, the Merciful Lord, the darling object and sweetness of the Loretto devotion, called, and truly so, the Man of Sorrows, by his holy passion and death, has entirely altered this unhappy condition into a state of real felicity; since he has set apart for us such a great weight of rewards and glory, for p518the light sufferings of a momentary life. This reflection prevents me from making any remarks of an unpleasant nature, willing to bury in oblivion all that has passed.
"To leave you some knowledge of my sixty-three years of life, which are to me as many years of shame and confusion, and for which I entreat you to obtain for me by your prayers, some months of true and real repentance:
"I had the happiness to be born of religious parents, being the oldest of seven brothers and seven sisters, of which the greatest number were blessed with a religious call, notwithstanding the great interruptions caused by dreadful revolutions, all directed against religion. I thank God for His mercies! and for having preserved our family from joining any of the errors and blunders, of which thousands have been the victims. I was sent to school at six years of age; to the higher studies at twelve, going through the different classes of humanity, philosophy, and divinity, in different places, but mostly at Louvain and Mechlin. I was made a priest at twenty-four, and that year sent as under-pastor to our cathedral, where I remained eight years. In 1794, I was sent as parish priest to a place called Meerbeke, •five miles from Louvain. The French drove me from here three years after that, having given a prise-de‑corps or order to take me, for having said Mass without taking the prescribed declaration, it being against my religion and conscience. From that I sheltered p519as in a prison, in the Hospital of Dendermonde, where, being requested to do so, I had for six years the spiritual direction of nuns and sick: a thing I could safely do, not being known by any one and never coming out of my shelter. In 1804, the 3d of July, having before refused another oath asked of me in order to go to my former parish, because, with the advice of good and learned men, I found it contrary to conscience, I started for America with letters of recommendation to the Right Rev. Bishop Carroll from the Princess Gallitzin. I had a companion, Rev. Mr. Guny of the Order of St. Benedict, of Cambray, who intended to join the Trappist Order; and after three months of navigation at sea, amongst storms, sickness, and other miseries, having lost forty-two of our crew, we arrived at Baltimore the 14th of November.
"My intention, at that time, was to go to any place, even Indians, where it was thought I could do any good. The Nuncio of the Pope, Ciamberlani, had offered me to go to his missions, the Cape of Good Hope, but wanted me to have a companion of our language, which I had not. The College of the Jesuits of Georgetown harbored me for four months; there I picked up a few English words. I then went to Conewago to meet the Trappist monks, with whom I left that place for Kentucky. I arrived before them, the 2d of July, 1805, at the house of Rev. S. T. Badin, the only priest in Kentucky at that time. I staid with him seven p520years without any disturbance, having leave from him to act in my places and stations as I thought proper. I have, with God's help and some alms from my country, built some churches and procured some establishments for the church. I had, also, at the time, made an attempt to start a female school and nunnery at Holy Mary's, but met with no encouragement from family or clergy. Rev. Mr. Badin made the second trial close by his house; the house, nearly finished, was laid in ashes, and the project disappeared.
"At the end of my seventh year, very unexpectedly, as may be seen in my advices, another attempt was made for a female school at St. Charles. It took root, and grew to what it is now, without any man having much claim to its rise. About this time, I left Rev. Mr. Badin, as my presence seemed to be necessary at Loretto, being stationary priest of St. Charles congregation. The Society began in 1812. In 1816, I went to Rome by Loretto. In 1820, I took another trip to Europe for the benefit of the Society, for some difficulties in the ministry, etc. It is now (1824) better than twelve years that I have had the charge of the Society, but particularly of the Loretto House, except three years and the half of absence, not without difficulties and contradictions. As I never was fit for any charge or any part of the ministry, which, before God and men, I freely grant and agree to, I am willing to believe that the cause p521of all the difficulties and uneasiness originated from me, for which I beg to be pardoned by Almighty God, the congregations, and the Society.
"Being once more proscribed from my native country, in 1822, by the Holland government, not, I hope, for crimes before God, and my present situation having become unpleasant, and, as far as I know, unprofitable or perhaps injurious to religion, I am under the necessity of gathering, at sixty-three, my strength of forty-three years and go to a new region. I feel no less resolution of mind, but I know not whether my strength of body will hold out. However, I intend to make the trial, with God's assistance.
"You have here a short detail of the poor life of an unworthy priest, who has been in this country for about nineteen years, twelve years about the Loretto Society, and, in all, thirty-nine in the ministry. It is unnecessary to tell you, my dear sisters in Christ, what a hard and terrible judgment this poor wretch will shortly meet with, on account of his temerity in the holy ministry, without any regard to his own corruption, knowing that it is said: judicium durissimum his qui praesunt fiet — very hard will the judgment be for those that are in authority. I beg of you to have pity on me!
"Should you ask me now my principal motives for leaving these parts, and what I am going to do next? Although there be no real profit or necessity in the answers to those queries, p522I see no great impropriety in them, considering that the long knowledge you have of their nature will justify the harmless curiosity. I say then, if I know myself, that three great causes urge me to move: 1. The impossibility of holding out for want of temporals, having no help but from Europe. 2. The sake of peace, which is already somewhat interrupted, and, in my opinion, will always be tottering with the clergy and the Society. 3. The rest and tranquillity of conscience, which I can not have here on account of difficulties in practice which are lately come or surely increased, for which, it seems, no remedy can be obtained. These are the main motives: if these could be cured, the rest might be neglected.
"As to my views and intentions, they are not yet decided or really settled. I will take Providence for guide; that Providence which brought me in and will carry me out, and has presided over the whole course of my life; I always find myself safe and easy with It. It was even so the case with the Apostles and numbers of their followers. Still, some of the intentions which strike my mind are the following:
"God's will at the head, and His honor.
"The propagation of the devotion to Jesus suffering and Mary sorrowing.
"The Hospital Sisters.
"The orphans assistance.
"The conversion of Indians.
"The providing of its brotherhood by its present directs.
"The peace with colleagues.
"The settling of conscience.
"The preparation for death. . . . Burial.
"The Flemish mission.
"The heremitical life.
"The fixing of my writings.
"The salvation of the blacks.
"All this, or part of it, if I can suit, and God thinks fit.
"You see here a great number of intentions for old age, weak body, and poor soul, with scanty talents. The work can not be much; yet the will may please God still. God's designs, always adorable and good, ought to be fulfilled, however opposed to our feelings and opinions or notions.
"My will I leave in the hands of Mr. Thomas Livers. I leave to the establishments what they are at present in possession of, except what I may need for my new undertakings, if any take place. This, I think, can not be before the Fall or next Spring.
"If you inquire whether I know what will become of you? this, I can not tell. But, from my present experience, from the nature of things and from the condition of man, without pretending to any revelation or gift of prophecy, p524there is not a spark of doubt in my mind but you will undergo great changes from your present state, which the far greatest number of you looks upon as happy; you must only pray that what is to come may be for the better; it was not in my power to do more or better for you. As God gave me, so I did for poor Society.
"As to advice, for which you have so often applied, I hardly know what to say. There never was a man who stood more in need of it himself, and none who was less able to give advice. The directions which have been given by word or writing have proved to be unbecoming, too particular, and full of incorrectness, not to mention worse appellations which have been applied to them. I see no good or propriety in giving any, being sure that they would meet with opposition at the first glance. However, I can say that the whole sum of all my words and writings is nearly contained in the Morning Manna,2 read every day before Mass, with which I desire you always to comply.
"I wish to leave you a short paraphrase of the standard of the Society, which I beg you to say, now and then, for poor old
The Suffering JESUS
The Sorrowful MARY
bless us all!
p525 Father Nerinckx left Loretto, June 16, 1824, accompanied by Brother James Van Rysselberghe. On his way to Missouri, he stopped a day in Union county, with the Rev. Mr. Durbin; and then went by way of Shawneetown to the Barrens. After a laborious journey of •one hundred and thirty leagues on horseback, the difficulties of which were materially increased by his wretched state of health, he reached the convent of his sisters in Bethlehem, Perry county, Mo., July 2, 1824. "The sisters were not expecting him; he stepped into the hall, and thus took them by surprise. They were wild with delight. Having allowed them a few minutes to give vent to their feelings, Father Nerinckx bent his way to their chapel, and all followed him. He gave the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; and a nice little instruction, in which he repeated several times that he had come to finish his days with them, the Sisters of Bethlehem, and have his bones laid in their graveyard, supposing they would allow him a place there."3
He then went to the Seminary of the Barrens, where he remained a few weeks. "During his stay he frequently visited the sisters, gave many instructions, exhortations, etc., and appeared to be animated with even more than his usual zeal. During one of his exhortations he foretold that the period which would put an end to his mortal career was fast approaching; that in a few days p526he would cease to be an inhabitant of this earth; that he would be the first to be buried in the sisters'º graveyard, and he declared he would die at the distance of •about twenty miles from the Seminary. The event subsequently verified the prediction."4 He also often said Mass in the convent chapel, "and, on one occasion, his sufferings were innocently increased by an involuntary mistake of the sister sacristan, who gave him what she thought to be wine for the Holy Sacrifice, but which proved to be some poisonous drug left in a bottle."5
On the 26th of July, Father Nerinckx left the Barrens early in the morning, and said Mass in the convent chapel for the last time. He gave the religious habit to the Misses Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Tucker, the last sisters who received it from the hands of their venerable founder, and he made a final exhortation to the community. "He declared in a very impressive manner, it would be the last they would receive from him; he pointed out in a precise manner the changes which would take place after his death, and many events which have since occurred; but at the same time he ordered the community of Bethlehem to obey in every point their Right Rev. Bishop, Joseph Rosati, for whom he expressed the most tender, the most sincere friendship, and in whom he placed confidence."6 p527After breakfast he conversed awhile with the teachers, whom he had directed to write a letter to the Blessed Virgin which he would himself present to their dear Mother, the Queen of Heaven; and having made several ineffectual attempts to leave, he finally broke away from them, with a "God bless you! Pray for me!" jumped into the saddle and was off for St. Louis.
Bishop Dubourg, upon taking charge of the See of New Orleans, had consecrated the Right Rev. Joseph Rosati, as his successor in St. Louis, in the beginning of April, 1824. Father Nerinckx applied to Bishop Rosati for the most needy and forsaken mission of his diocese, for, in his humility, he believed himself no longer suited to be at the head of an important parish, or to direct the community of sisters he had founded. From St. Louis, he went to Florissant, •sixteen miles north-west of the city, and near the Bluffs of the Missouri river, in order to visit the new establishment of Flemish Jesuits, most of whom had come over with him from Belgium on his last trip, in 1821, and he spent a few days with Father Van Quickenborne and his young friends in edifying fervor and holy joy at the encouraging prospects of the mission which they had come to fulfill among the Indians. Thence he returned to St. Louis, and, whilst on a visit to the Indian agent, he had the pleasure of an interview with a savage chief, and made arrangements with them to send twelve Indian girls to Bethlehem; as soon p528as their education was completed, others were to take their place with the sisters, and the number of twelve kept up, the government to pay the tuition. Elated at the success of this his most cherished plan, and calculating, with a saint's shrewdness, that this annual income would enable the sisters to take care of a larger number of orphans, he wrote to the Mother of Bethlehem to have a house put up immediately for the accommodation of the little Indians, and then and there received thirty-six orphans to be sent to Perry county. The house was built, but the Indian girls never came, owing to Father Nerinckx' death. But the thirty-six orphans and a helpless old lady did come; they were their father's last legacy, and the sisters took them in, loved them for his sake, and underwent most heroic privations to provide for them during the five years of their stay.
Having received leave to exercise the functions of the holy ministry in Bishop Rosati's diocese, Father Nerinckx was advised to return to Bethlehem Convent, and perfect the arrangements for his new foundation of Indian girls, before taking possession of any particular mission, and thither he set out on horseback, on the 2d of August. He made haste to carry to his beloved sisters the good news of their increasing usefulness. "His heart burned within him," writes Bishop Flaget,7 "whilst his imagination p529pictured to itself the good prospects which lay open to his hopes. On his road, however, was a path to a settlement of eight or ten catholic families who had not seen a priest for more than two years. Desirous of doing all the good in his power, he assembled them, heard their confessions, gave them instructions, and celebrated the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He was thus occupied from a little after daybreak until toward three o'clock P.M. Seeing the good dispositions of those catholics, he proposed to them to build a church, in order to encourage priests to come to them. A subscription was immediately opened by those present; out of his small means he gave $10.00, and signatures for over nine hundred were instantly affixed to the sheet. After this exertion in such broiling weather, he felt feverish symptoms, and complained to Brother Van Rysselberghe of being unwell. He had promised the people to say Mass the following day at nine o'clock in the morning, but was so ill that he deferred it. The following morning he was a little better, and said an early Mass. He then told Brother James Van Rysselberghe that he thought he was able to go to St. Genevieve, which was •about twelve miles distant. When they arrived there, he was not able to stand. He was received by the Rev. Mr. Dahmen8 with great kindness and affection. On the Sunday following, which was p530the 8th of August, Brother James assisted him into the chapel, where he heard Mass. During Sunday and part of Monday, he was not very ill, until about two or three o'clock in the afternoon, when he was taken by a violent fever, which was so severe that, on Tuesday, he was quite unable to do any thing for himself. On Wednesday, he was worse. Three physicians were called in by Brother James to hold a consultation, but they could afford him no relief; they said he would surely die. On Thursday morning, between eight and nine o'clock, the Rev. Mr. Dahmen assisted him for death," and gave him the last sacraments; and,
"at five in the evening of the same day, August 12, 1824, Father Nerinckx expired,9 in the sixty-third year of his age.
"Bishop Flaget was greatly affected by the intelligence of Father Nerinckx' death. He delivered in the cathedral a glowing eulogy of the good missionary's life, and held him up as a model of every virtue. Some years previously (in 1815) he had recorded the following either of the character of the deceased in his journal:
" 'If the good Mr. Nerinckx had done nothing else but to establish the Sisterhood of Loretto in this country, nothing more would have been necessary to assure him of salvation at the moment of death. But when we add to this the immense p531labors of his apostolate, it is then that we are led to bless thee, oh Lord! for raising up such men in these unhappy times, to serve as models to their contemporaries.' "10
Father Nerinckx' visit at the Barrens, although short, had also left a great impression of his sanctity upon the Lazarist Fathers. Shortly after his death, Rev. Odin, afterward Archbishop of New Orleans, wrote to a friend in France: "The 12th of August, the good God has taken away from us a very saintly priest, a great missionary, Mr. Nerinckx, who came out here from Flanders; . . . the labors which he has performed for the extension of the faith are incredible. . . ." And after enumerating his works he adds: "In the middle of last July, he came to visit our sisters. Oh! how I loved to be with him! He prescribed for me all sorts of little practices for the advancement of souls, communicated to me all that his own experience had discovered to be most advantageous for the conversion of heretics; and, above all, he spoke to me frequently of the Blessed Virgin. . . . His holy life was crowned with a no less precious death. Our Barrens have the honor of possessing his body. He is interred in the cemetery of our sisters. We regret him very much."11
p532 God had ordered that Father Nerinckx should give up in his heart the Loretto Society, his own child, the only thing he was attached to in this world. Like Abraham who was ordered to sacrifice his only son, and was rewarded for his faith and obedience before the holocaust was consummated, Father Nerinckx had made the sacrifice, and, on his way to greet for the last time the last house of his dear children, the Friends of Mary, he died and was buried in their midst.
1 Sister Isabella, of whose early vocation to the Loretto Society we have already had occasion to speak, was a saintly soul, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 1874. Upon being told that I intended to write the life of the venerable founder of Loretto, tears of joy and gratitude rolled down her cheeks, and she furnished this writer with many details which lend interest and charm to the narrative. She died the death of the just, on a day which Father Nerinckx, in his devotion for the sufferings of Jesus and sorrows of Mary, had set apart as a great holiday of his Society — Good Friday, 1875, at the very hour when Jesus Suffering consummated his sacrifice upon the Cross on Calvary. The following is the simple yet eloquent notice sent me of her death:
"Died at Loretto, Marion county, Ky., on Good Friday, 185, at three o'clock in the evening, after intense suffering, Sister Isabella Clarke."
Sister Isabella was born in 1800, near Holy Cross church. Her parents were Ignatius Clarke and Aloysia Hill. She received the habit, in 1815, from the hands of Rev. Father Nerinckx, founder of the Society of the Sisters of Loretto. The deceased was local Superior of the Loretto House, and Dear Mother at the time of the death of Father Nerinckx. She was a most useful member of the Society, and, having adorned it with her many virtues for sixty years, she died in peace, surrounded by her sisters in religion. — R. I. P.
3 Reminiscences of Sister Eulalia.
4 Record of St. Louis Cathedral. Sup. Cit.
5 Reminiscences of Sister Eulalia.
6 Record of St. Louis Cathedral. Sup. Cit.
7 Letter of Bishop Flaget to Bishop England. U. S. Catholic Miscellany, December 6, 1824.
8 Father Dahmen was a Lazarist.
9 Letter of Sister Ann, of Calvary, to Rev. John Nerinckx, of Somerstown, and to his sister. London Catholic Miscellany, April, 1825.
10 Life of Bishop Flaget, by Right Rev. M. J. Spalding, pg. 240.
11 Letter of Mr. Odin to Mr. Cholleton, V. G. of the diocese of Lyons. Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, Vol. 2, pg. 369.
Says Rev. Father Bessonies, V. G. of the diocese of Vincennes: "Father Nerinckx was a noted man in the catholic church in the early days. . . . He told his parishioners that when bitten by rattlesnakes they should come to him to be cured. He gave no medicine; merely blessed them, and they departed cured. After he had left Kentucky and gone to the Far West, it is said the bells chimed one night without the help of mortal hands, and it was found that he had died at that very hour in his new location. Ah! he was a Saint!" — Indianapolis News, 1878.
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