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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Charles Nerinckx

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,
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Chapter 14

 p229  Chapter XIII


Father Nerinckx' bodily strength. — His adventure with Hardin. — Carrying the cross in Bullitt county. — Saluting the negro. — Father Nerinckx' simple oratory. — His success in making converts. — Arrival of Bishop Flaget in Kentucky. — The Episcopal palace.

The powerful constitution and herculean strength which enabled the zealous Father Nerinckx to undergo the unusual trials of missionary life, under the burden of which many a man of equal zeal would have sunk, proved useful in more than one way, during his eventful career. Besides undertaking lengthy journeys on horseback to the distant missions through the then uninhabited wilds of Kentucky, he had to attend to the building of churches, a task which, in these pioneer days, was not a mere directing of the labors of others, but actual hard handiwork; and Father Nerinckx was always ready to do his share of the labor. Many illustrations of his bodily strength will be adduced in the course of this biography. "He generally worked bare-headed under the broiling sun, aiding the workmen in cutting timber, in clearing out the undergrowth,  p230 and in every other species of hard labor; and in removing heavy timber, or, as it is commonly called, rolling logs, he usually lifted against two or three men of ordinary strength."1

But this merely natural gift, which, in polite society, would add very little to the esteem in which a priest is held by the public, proved also very useful in those parts, where the rude state of pioneer times made men less sensible to the advantages of education, and more easily impressed by physical skill, endurance, and strength of body. The following singular adventure, which is well known to all the older catholics of Kentucky, may serve as an illustration. We give it as related to Archbishop Spalding​2 by Mr. Vincent Gates, the pious attendant and companion of our missionary:

"Father Nerinckx was in the habit of rigidly enforcing order in the church, during the celebration of the divine mysteries. Protestants and persons of no religion often attended church, led thither chiefly by curiosity. These sometimes did not conform to the rules of propriety; and Mr. Nerinckx, who was little swayed by human respect, was not slow to admonish them of their faults in this particular. As he was not very well versed in the English language, and was by nature rather plain and frank, his admonitions were not always well understood or well received. Once, especially, a man by the name  p231 of Hardin — a youth of powerful frame and strength, and somewhat of a bully — took great offense at something which Mr. Nerinckx had said, and which, it seems, he had entirely mis understood. He openly declared that he would be avenged on the priest the first time that he would meet him alone.

"An opportunity soon occurred. Mr. Nerinckx was going to the church of St. Charles, from St. Stephen's, when Hardin waylaid him on the road. Springing from his hiding-place, he seized the bridle reins of Mr. Nerinckx' horse, and bade him stop, 'for that he intended to give him a sound drubbing.' At the same time, he cut one of the stirrup leathers, and ordered the rider to dismount; an order which was promptly complied with. Mr. Nerinckx remonstrated with him; told him that he had meant in nowise to offend or injure him; and that his profession wholly forbade him to wrangle or fight. Hardin, however, persisted, and was in the act of striking the priest, when the latter took hold of him, and quietly laid him on the ground, as though he had been the merest child; observing to him, meantime, with a smile, 'that he would neither strike nor injure him, but that he felt authorized to see that himself received no injury at his hands.' In this position he held him motionless on his back, until he had obtained from him a promise that no farther attempt should be made on his person.

"After this rencounter, Father Nerinckx quietly  p232 remounted his horse and proceeded on his journey; Hardin as quietly moving off in the other direction. On arriving at the church, one of his friends asked Mr. Nerinckx, 'how it had happened that his stirrup leather had been cut?' He replied by simply stating the adventure in a few words, and observing, with a smile, 'that these young buckskins could not handle a Dutchman!' After this, he never was heard to speak of the affair; but Hardin was wont to say to his friends, 'he had often thought before, that he had handled men; but that he really never had hold of one before he met priest Nerinckx, who, he verily believed, had something supernatural about him.' "

This bodily strength, which enabled the priest to teach manners to the presumptuous youth, was also, about this time, displayed in a more public and religious, although as unostentatious a manner, at the blessing of a graveyard in Bullitt county. Father Nerinckx had finished the church of St. John the Baptist, in that county, and, having laid out a graveyard, resolved to bless it with more than ordinary ceremonies. He was passionately fond of the dead, and did all in his power to promote devotion for the souls in purgatory, among his people. Upon this particular occasion, he caused a large cedar cross, forty feet high, the very one which, to this day, yet graces that sacred spot, to be made; and, having taken off his shoes and stockings, he ordered all those who intended assisting at the  p233 ceremony to do the same. He then shouldered the precious burden; and, aided by twelve men, barefooted like himself, who supported the lower portion of the cross and prevented it from dragging the ground, he carried it a long distance, praying in a loud voice during the whole time of this rather uncommon procession. Old Mr. Shepherd witnessed the solemn occurrence, during which many of the lookers-on were moved to tears at the sight of the pious priest carrying the cross like his Divine Master.

It was in the same place that the catholic priest taught some Kentucky youths a lesson, which subsequent events must have recalled forcibly to their minds in their old age. On the road to St. John's, they met a negro who politely bade the time of day to the company. Father Nerinckx took off his hat and returned the salutation with much courtesy. Upon his companions deriding his christian conduct, he made them this sensible and rather stinging reply: "I do not want to be beaten in politeness by a negro!"​a

Straightforward, and of a most generous disposition, Father Nerinckx despised those mere forms of worldly politeness which rather cripple than favor the true expression of the charitable feelings of a christian soul; his was the genuine politeness of the apostolic man: all to all, that he might win all to Christ. Unskilled in the use of the English language, unable to avail  p234 himself of the nice distinctions of words and purity of diction, which, if not always salutary, often prove agreeable to less robust christians than those the earnest priest strove to form, he always dealt in plain matter of fact language. Learned in the sacred lore of Scripture and of the holy Fathers, and possessed of a most solid judgment, he never indulged in fanciful flights of rhetorical eloquence, and, for that matter, freely acknowledged that he could not do it. His sermons were unpretentious catechetical instructions rendered in broken English, which made him a rather disagreeable speaker; but they were always listened to with great attention, and his words sank deeply into the hearts of his hearers.

Well does Archbishop Spalding remark:3

"The whole experience of the church has proved that however valuable mere human eloquence may be, and however efficient for the conversion of men, it is still utterly powerless when unattended with a special grace in the preacher, which enables him to reach the hearts of his hearers. The history of the church in all ages has proved the truth of the Psalmist's declaration: 'Unless God build the house, in vain doth he labor who buildeth it.' 'Paul may plant; Apollo may water; but God giveth the increase.' Men of the least reputation for popular eloquence have often effected the greatest amount of good. Jealous of his glory being shared with  p235 men, God often does the most by the feeblest instruments. And it is on this principle that twelve unlettered fishermen converted the world, confounding the philosophers, confuting the rhetoricians, and silencing the oracles of paganism.

"We would not be understood as intending, by this digression to disparage mere human learning or eloquence. Both are highly useful, and even, to some extent, necessary, especially in our enlightened (!) day. But we have meant to imply that mere human gifts, however great or useful, are only subordinate to gifts of a higher kind. Men are not to be converted merely 'by the persuasive words of human wisdom;' but by invoking the divine blessing through constant prayer, and by preaching, with simplicity, and in union with God, 'Christ, and Him crucified.' This did the good Mr. Nerinckx; and this is the true secret of his great and astonishing success in the holy ministry."

"Though he had something austere in his manner, and though he was a foreigner and spoke English very imperfectly, yet it is remarkable that he made, perhaps, more converts among protestants than any other missionary who ever labored in Kentucky, if we except Mr. Badin. So true it is that conversion is not ordinarily effected by human eloquence alone, or by any other mere human means, but by the grace and blessing of God, crowning with success the labors of the missionary. Mr. Nerinckx seldom made a missionary tour without receiving  p236 some one into the bosom of the Holy Catholic Church. In one of these excursions, he made no fewer than thirteen converts. And those whom he received into the church were well grounded in the faith, and generally proved steadfast."

No wonder that Father Badin was so unwilling to part with the humble, but most useful priest. It did not take Bishop Flaget long to value his labors as highly as did the Archbishop and the Vicar-general.

Father Nerinckx had gone to welcome the first Bishop of Bardstown in the name of the clergy and faithful of the new diocese, and met him and his suite in Louisville on the 4th of June, 1811. He escorted him through Bardstown, where there was as yet no church, to St. Stephen's, where they were received by the Vicar-general and clergy on the 11th, and were greeted by a large concourse of people, anxious to see their Bishop.​4 Only a month later, July 10, 1811, Father Nerinckx wrote to Archbishop Carroll​5 to thank him once more for his paternal solicitude, and to assure him that he desired to continue enjoying his good counsels, and he added: ". . . Our Right Reverend Bishop has arrived safe, with a pious, zealous, and select suite. He is a man, I think, according to the heart of God, who will, beyond a doubt, put all things to rights, and station the good effected.  p237 . . . Till now, my fate is uncertain, and I do not know what to do. I see the urgent necessity of doing rigid penance, and of improving my intellect, if I continue in the ministry; but I fear very much that I will be prevented from doing so, the new Bishop being unwilling to consent to my departure, because of the extreme penury of priests. May God dispose of me according to his exceeding great mercy! . . ."

Bishop Flaget would not hear of his going; and, in obedience to the wishes of his Ordinary, Father Nerinckx now gave up all idea of leaving Kentucky. From St. Stephen's — the present Loretto — where he resided with the Bishop, Messrs. Badin, David, and a few seminarians till 1812, he continued to attend, as of old, to his numerous stations; whilst his sound and deep theological learning was much prized in the conferences which were held from time to time by the Bishop, for the instruction of the students, and the uniformity of ministerial practice on the missions. Father Badin thus describes the palace which was at that time their common home, and the cradle of catholicity in Kentucky:

"Mr. Badin had for his own lodging but one poor log house; and in consequence of the expenses he had lately incurred in building a house for a monastery, which was burned down ere it had been completed, it was with great difficulty that he was enabled to build and prepare, for the residence of his illustrious friend  p238 and the ecclesiastics who accompanied him, two miserable log cabins, sixteen feet square. One of the missionaries was compelled to sleep on a mattress in the garret of this strange episcopal palace, which was whitewashed with lime, and contained no other furniture than a bed, six chairs, two tables, and a few planks for a library. Here the Bishop resided for a year, esteeming himself happy to live thus in the midst of apostolical poverty."​6

The Author's Notes:

1 "Sketches of Kentucky," pg. 143.

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2 "Sketches of Kentucky," pg. 141‑143.

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3 "Sketches of Kentucky," pgg. 146, 147, and 199.

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4 Cfr. Life of Bishop Flaget, by Archbishop Spalding, pg. 71, 72.

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5 Baltimore MSS.

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6 Statement of the Missions of Kentucky, by Father Badin, Paris, 1822; translated in the U. S. Catholic Miscellany, December 1, 1824.

Thayer's Note:

a The same story is told of Marquis Sebastian de Casa Calvo, Spanish commissioner in Louisiana, in 1803 (Gayarré, History of Louisiana, IV p598).

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