Missionary labors. — St. Anthony's, Rough Creek. — St. James', Clifty. — St. Bernard's, Adair City. — Other settlements. — Father Nerinckx' courage, cheerfulness, and kindness. — His adventure with a wolf. — His labors in the confessional. — The fruits of his zeal. — A touching incident.
Father Nerinckx' mind being once more at rest — for he always looked upon the will of the least of his superiors as being the will of God — he set on foot new plans for the extension of our Holy Faith in Kentucky, which, he was now satisfied, would be his home and the field of his labors.
"Rev. Badin having come from Louisville in March, 1810 with the pleasing information that religious matters were prospering in that promising hamlet,"1 Father Nerinckx left St. Stephen's on a missionary tour. The results of his observations and his plans for the future are embodied in the following letters2 to Archbishop Carroll:
p215 "April 14, 1810.
"Right Rev. Sir:
". . . Last month I was sent to the Rough Creek congregation of St. Anthony, •about eighty miles from here.3 There seems to be room in that circuit for about four hundred families, who might settle there and make a very good living. I am in hopes of getting •five hundred acres of land for the church, and our catholics are already circulating subscription lists to enable them to build three churches in that region. About forty families have actually settled there, and that number will soon increase if I go with them, for many suffer want here because straitened in too narrow a circuit. St. Anthony's is about half-way between our episcopal city [Bardstown] and an incipient settlement on the Ohio called Redbank,4 where there are at present ten catholic families, and which has great prospects and a reasonable hope of becoming a very populous city. I have therefore resolved to select it as my resident station. . . .
"We hope our new Bishop will soon arrive. We expect him daily, together with some priests to help us. . . .
"Humble and obedient servant,
p216 "May, 1810.5
"Right Rev. Sir:
". . . I profit of this opportunity to render you an account of what has lately been done in these missions. Father Badin asked me, some time ago, to visit the congregation on Rough Creek. I visited it and found the people, who, for the last few years (whether justly or not, I know not), enjoy a not very enviable reputation, very much afraid of me, to say nothing more. . . . But this panic soon gave way to peace and benevolence; and, with the help of God, I succeeded, during my first visit, in raising a subscription for the land and the church, which, with some help out of my own purse, amounts now to $800, about a hundred of which are in silver specie.
"From there, I traveled through a rather extensive tract of land that lies within a range of perhaps •one hundred and twenty miles, and in which there is said to be arable land enough to comfortably settle four hundred families. It is situated along the banks of the Ohio river, from which it runs back •fifteen, and in some places as far as thirty miles. The ground is, generally speaking, better than in our vicinity, being fertilized by rivers; but at present the whole region is little more than a desert. I found ten, if not eleven spots, where missionary stations might conveniently be erected, but have not as p217 yet examined things sufficiently to warrant a decision in the matter; I hope to be able to do so within a fortnight. Many families are preparing to go out there, and entreat me to go with them; nor can I refuse; because, although I am in constant doubt about my own spiritual interests, the good of the church and the temporal welfare of our catholics seem to demand it; and, since it is apparently expedient that I should remain in Kentucky to be of some help to priests and people, I can not do this more efficiently than by going out with them. About fifty catholic families are at present scattered over that region, some living •a hundred miles from here; and I feel confident that within a year, more than one hundred families (indeed, I should not wonder if they numbered two hundred,) will join these in the different settlements. This would considerably lighten the burden of the priests who reside here, and increase mine, nor does the plan displease Rev. Father Badin.
"Captain John Hanley gives to the church •four hundred acres on the Adam's Fork, fifteen miles from Rough Creek. I will try to make him increase the grant to •six hundred acres, because I would like to have a school for girls connected with it, and he once before offered that much to the sisters of the congregation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
"Mr. Stoddard gives us •five hundred acres in Clifty, where he once offered five thousand. I think this large and liberal offer should have been accepted at the time. I have accepted the five hundred just mentioned, for which your Grace will please give in my name to Mr. Stoddard the thanks of the church. I have selected this grant in the neighborhood of St. James congregation, where two or three catholic families have just now commenced building. I wish we could obtain a similar grant a few miles away from this one; in the course of time, another congregation might be started there. True, the greater portion of that farm is rather poor land; but it might perhaps suit the poorer classes, unable to buy a home in more fertile quarters. Inclosed please find a letter for Mr. Stoddard, in which I ask for five hundred more. He is perhaps not aware that I know of his five thousand offer, so that your Grace can act as you see fit; may be you will obtain more than five hundred acres. I would like you to transact this business immediately if possible, because the sooner catholics buy the land, the cheaper they will get it.
"The church of St. Clare will be finished this month. Although small, it has cost me almost three years of incessant labor to build it, owing to the lack of zeal of the thirty-four families p219 constituting this congregation, which I have attended for four years without one cent of salary.
"About six months ago, we have bought in my St. Bernard's congregation, Adair county,6 where the Trappists used to live, four hundred and thirty-four acres of land, at one dollar in silver an acre. I have personally contributed $100, and donated the sacred vestments. There are thirteen catholic families, all but one meriting well of the church, and we have commenced building a chapel which I wish to finish before winter sets in. The subscription that I took up among these newly settled poor people for the purchase of the land and the building of the church exceeds $800; so true it is that good will with poverty is worth more for the honor of God, than bad will with all the treasures of the deep. I beg, therefore, that when I leave, this people, who, considering their small means and numbers, have so willingly and liberally provided for the church and priest, have also a share in the kind offices of the church. I have promised to attend them as long as I can; but this place will be two hundred miles from the extreme limit of the new tract; however, I desire to finish the building of the church, and I may perhaps live there for a short time, when, used up, I shall patiently expect death. Being remote from all worldly noise, this settlement is not likely to become very populous. . . .
p220 "If any vestments arrive for me, send them at once, for I have exhausted my own treasury in procuring them, and we stand yet in need of a great many. With due reverence, I remain,
"Of your Lordship,
"The humble and obedient servant,
"August 17, 1810.
"Right Rev. Sir:
". . . Be kind enough to address your letters to the station for which I am just preparing to leave.
"There are at least ten places, and that at a considerable distance one from the other, in which churches may be built.
"3. Hardingsburg,º twenty-six miles from Loretto. The church possesses three acres of land in that town.
"5. Little Yellow Bank, forty miles from Loretto. Land is here promised for a church, and a subscription started to build it.10
"10. The Fork of Rough. Nothing definite.
"The priest stationed in this tract will, from the very beginning, have to travel over a district •one hundred and twenty miles in length, and at least •seventy miles in width, through a desert land, where there is no way and no water; for, up till now, little land is occupied by actual settlers. Hence I have to prepare myself for a very hard life and arduous labor, although my strength of body and soul is already declining. It will be very hard for me to live all alone at such a great distance from the help of another priest, but my brother has manifested his intention of joining me here.15 Our people seem to be universally delighted, and approve of my going there, hoping to obtain homesteads and farms in that district at lower rates. At p223 least, their saying, never as yet has so much been done for the catholics, seems to insinuate it. May the enterprise be pleasing to God as it is to men, and benefit the people and myself. . . .
Truly, the holy man had a hard life of it, as will presently appear from extracts of the Sketches of Kentucky,16 which Archbishop Spalding borrowed from letters of Rev. Badin, published in the London Miscellany of 1825, and further extended with notes communicated to him by the same reverend gentleman, who was still living at the time the Archbishop published his book.
"Father Nerinckx' courage was unequaled. He feared no difficulties, and was appalled by no dangers. Through rain and storms; through snows and ice; over roads rendered almost impassable by the mud; over streams swollen by the rains, or frozen by the cold; by day and by night. In winter and summer, he might be seen traversing all parts of Kentucky in the discharge of his laborious duties. Far from shunning, he seemed even to seek hardships and dangers.
"He crossed wilderness districts, swam rivers, slept in the woods among the wild beasts;17 and, p224 while undergoing all this, he was in the habit of fasting and of voluntarily mortifying himself in many other ways. His courage and vigor seemed to increase with the labors and privations he had to indure. As his courage, so neither did his cheerfulness, ever abandon him. He seldom laughed or even smiled; but there was withal an air of contentment and cheerfulness about him which greatly qualified the natural austerity of his countenance and manners. He could, like the great Apostle, make himself "all to all, to gain all to Christ." He appeared even more at home in the cabin of the humblest citizen, or in the hut of the poor negro, than in the more pretending mansions of the wealthy.
"He was averse to giving trouble to others, especially to the poor. Often, when he arrived at a house in the night, he attended to his own horse, and took a brief repose in the stable, or in some out-house; and when the inmates of the house arose next morning they frequently perceived him already up, and saying his office, or making his meditation.18 He made it an invariable rule never to miss an appointment whenever it was at all possible to keep it. He often arrived at a distant station early in the morning, after having ridden during all the previous night. On these occasions, he heard confessions, p225 taught catechism, gave instructions, and said Mass for the people generally after noon; and he seldom broke his fast until three or four o'clock in the evening.
"In swimming rivers, he was often exposed to great danger. Once, in going to visit a sick person, he came to a stream which his companions knew to be impassable. Mr. Nerinckx took the saddle of his friend — who refused to venture — placed it on his own, and then remounting the horse, placed himself on his knees on the top of the two saddles, and thus crossed the flood, which flowed over his horse's back. On another occasion, he made a still more narrow escape. He was swept from his horse, which lost its footing and was carried away by the current; and the rider barely saved himself, and reached the other shore by clinging firmly to the horse's tail.
"On one of his missionary tours, he narrowly escaped being devoured by the wolves, which then greatly infested those portions of Kentucky which were not densely settled. While traveling to visit a distant station, in what is now Grayson county, but what was then almost an unreclaimed wilderness, he lost his way in the night. It was the dead of winter, and the darkness was so great that he could not hope to extricate himself from his painful situation. Meantime, whilst he was seeking a sheltered place, where he could take some repose, the famished wolves scented him, and came in hundreds, fiercely howling around him. With great presence p226 of mind, he immediately remounted his horse, knowing that they would scarcely attack him while on horseback. He hallooed at the top of his voice, and temporarily frightened them off; but soon they returned to the charge, and kept him at bay during the whole night. Once or twice they seemed on the point of seizing his horse, and Mr. Nerinckx made the sign of the Cross and prepared himself for death; but a mysterious Providence watched over him, and he escaped, after sitting onº his horse the whole night.19 With the dawn, the wolves disappeared.
"He had charge of six congregations, besides a much greater number of stations scattered over the whole extent of Kentucky. Wherever he could learn that there were a few catholic settlers, there he established a station or erected a church. The labor which he thus voluntarily took on himself, is almost incredible. To visit all his churches and stations generally required the space of at least six weeks.
"He never took any rest or recreation. He seemed always most happy, when most busily engaged. He seldom talked, except on business, or on God, on virtue, or on his missionary duties. On reaching a church or station, his confessional was usually thronged by penitents from the early dawn until midday. Before beginning to hear confessions he usually said some prayers with the people, and then gave them a p227 solid and familiar instruction on the manner of approaching the holy tribunal. If he seemed austere out of the confessional, he was in it a most kind, patient, and tender father. He spared no time nor pains to instruct his penitents, all of whom, without one exception, were deeply attached to him. To his instructions, chiefly in the confessional, are we to ascribe the piety and regularity of many among the living catholics of Kentucky.
"God blessed his labors with fruits so abundant and permanent as to console him for all his toils and privations. He witnessed a flourishing church growing up around him, in what had recently been a wilderness, inhabited only by fierce, wild beasts and untamable savages. He saw, in the virtues of his scattered flock, a revival of those which had rendered so illustrious the christians of the first ages of the church. . . . The results of his labors prove how much one good man, with the blessing of God, can achieve by his single efforts, prompted by the lofty motive of the Divine glory, and directed with simplicity of heart to one noble end.
"We will close the present chapter by relating one more incident in the life of this good missionary. The catholics were so much dispersed that he was often called to a distance of •fifty and even a hundred miles, to visit the sick. On one occasion he was called to see a Mr. Keith, who lived in Bourbon county, •eighty p228 miles off. The messenger arrived at the residence of Mr. Nerinckx early in the morning, and stated that he had left the sick man in a dying condition. Mr. Nerinckx lost not a moment. At five o'clock in the morning, he mounted his famous horse 'Printer;' and after riding the whole ensuing night reached the house of Mr. Keith at six o'clock the next morning.
"The poor man was already dead. He had just breathed his last. Ardently he had desired the succors of religion in his last struggle; repeatedly he had asked, 'whether the priest was coming?' In his anxiety he had dragged himself to the door of his cabin, to direct his straining eyes, now almost set in death, in the direction in which he expected the minister of God to approach.
"Mr. Nerinckx remained for some time with the afflicted family of the deceased, comforting them with the assurance that God had no doubt mercifully accepted the will for the deed in the deceased. He prayed with them over his remains, which he followed to their last resting place. He took occasion from the manner of his death to make a deep impression in the minds and hearts of the living, whom he exhorted 'to be always ready, for they knew not the day nor the hour,' when death might surprise them. After thus doing all the good he could accomplish, he returned, deeply affected by the scene he had witnessed."
1 Baltimore MSS. Rev. Nerinckx letter to Archbishop Carroll of March 13, 1810.
2 Baltimore MSS.
3 On the Long Lick, Breckinridge county.
4 Now Henderson.
5 This letter is not dated; but its Bardstown postmark bears date May 31st, and the context clearly points to 1810.
6 Now Casey county.
8 The distances are measured from Adam's Creek. Loretto, in Marion county, was not founded till two years later.
9 In Ohio county. The aged Father Durbin, of Princeton, observes that a lot was given in that locality by Mr. Berry, which was subsequently lost to the church. No settlement was made there.
10 This is a small creek in Breckinridge county, below Flint Island.
11 Says Father Durbin: "There was no settlement of catholics on Panther Creek, when I took charge of Davies county, as part of my mission, fifty-two years ago, or in 1823. There were three families, the men non-catholics, near where St. Lawrence stands, fifteen miles above Owensboro. There was no catholic settlement where St. Raphael and St. Alphonsus congregations are to‑day."
12 Sacred Heart, Union county. Father Durbin says that •two hundred acres were subsequently bought from Robert Alvey. They are now owned by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who have a flourishing boarding-school there, known as St. Vincent's Academy. The present Sacred Heart church, on the edge of that farm, and about three hundred yards from the Academy, is a large brick building, seven miles back of Uniontown, on the Ohio river.
13 The catholic settlement was not made there.
14 A creek in Davies county, five miles from Owensboro (Yellow Banks). There is now a large body of catholic descendants of the original catholic settlers from Maryland, in Davies county, also in Union county. Many small congregations are located in Hardin, Meade (St. Teresa's church is in Meade county, •two miles from the creek), Breckinridge, and other counties in the lower part of the State and adjacent to the Ohio river. But the great mass of the catholics are in Marion, Washington, and Nelson counties, which are the cradle of catholicity in Kentucky, where Father Nerinckx labored and spent the last years of his life.
15 He never did. The work which awaited Charles Nerinckx in Kentucky also awaited John Henry in Somerstown, London, where he established a religious community of sisters for the education of the poor. He died in London, in the year 1855.
16 "Sketches of Kentucky," pg. 138‑141, et passim.
17 Sometimes when he was asked by those at whose house he had arrived in the morning, "where he had slept on the previous night?" he would answer cheerfully: "With Captain Dogwood," — a familiar name for the Cornelian cherry tree, abounding in the woods of Kentucky.
18 This often occurred, especially at the station on Clear Creek, Hardin county.
19 The Archbishop learned this adventure from an aged citizen of Grayson county.
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