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Chapter 13

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.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 15

 p239  Chapter XIV


New efforts in behalf of education. — The little school of Hardin's Creek. — Its first teachers. — They retire from the world. — They start a religious community. — Election of the first superior. — A primitive boarding school. — Father Nerinckx founds the Loretto Society.

As we have seen, Father Nerinckx had already determined, in 1807, upon the main objects of the religious community which he was striving to bring into existence for the instruction of female youth. The daily increase of catholics in Kentucky made him realize more and more the necessity of providing their children with the solid food of a catholic education, without which the churches he had built would be void of worshipers so soon as immigration ceased. After having for years recommended the enterprise to the pious prayers of priests and religious communities at home and abroad, and patiently awaited God's own time for the realization of his fondest hopes, he was finally rewarded with the faintest glimmer of success. He welcomed it all the more eagerly, from the fact that it looked more like a forlorn hope.  p240 Had not a lonely star in the far East, the shimmering rays of which dispelled the darkness of ignorance in but three intellects, been the sign of the world's redemption?

Mr. James Dent, the same who, in 1807, had offered four hundred acres of land for the erection of a school-building, having gone on a visit to Maryland, returned to Kentucky in the beginning of 1812, accompanied by Miss Mary Rhodes, his cousin. She stayed a few weeks at his house, where her sister, Miss Nancy Rhodes, was living; she then went to live with her brother, Bennet Rhodes, on Hardin's Creek, Washington county, near St. Charles' church.​1 Having been educated in a convent, Miss Rhodes took pleasure in consecrating a few hours every day to the instruction of her nieces, who were denied the advantages of catholic education, which she herself had enjoyed in her Maryland home. Pleased with her first efforts, she soon desired to enlarge the field of her usefulness, and applied to Father Nerinckx for leave to impart religious education and the first rudiments of elementary education to the little girls of the neighborhood.

Father Nerinckx gladly granted the generous request, and the school was started in a poor, dilapidated cabin, the abandoned residence of a  p241 former tenant. It was situated on a little eminence near Hardin's Creek, about half a mile from Mr. Rhodes' residence, on the opposite side of the creek, and half way between the latter's house and St. Charles church. This wretched hut had no floor but the bare ground, and rough boards formed an equally poor roof, through which rain and snow poured freely down on its humble inmates. How like unto the stable of Bethlehem! Was it astonishing, if heaven looked favorably upon such humble beginnings, and blessed the disinterested generosity of the self-sacrificing teacher?

The school succeeded beyond the most sanguine expectations of both pastor and teacher. The number of children steadily increased, and, during one of his visits, Father Nerinckx, who watched the new undertaking with the anxious care of a mother, offered to Miss Rhodes, as an assistant teacher well qualified for the work, Miss Christina Stuart, a pious young lady of the neighborhood, whose acquaintance Miss Rhodes had studiously cultivated. The offer was eagerly accepted, and a desire of mutual edification led the two young ladies to board together at Mr. Rhodes' house.

But "the spirit breatheth where it listeth," and "they heard its voice, not knowing whence it cometh or whither it goeth." A desire of greater perfection soon led them to retire from the distractions which the social manners of the  p242 Dent family necessarily entailed. Of a kindly disposition and in comfortable circumstances, Mr. Dent took pleasure in entertaining his friends. The good breeding and many accomplishments of the young ladies made his home a center of attraction for the neighboring settlers, many of whom deeply felt, in their new and comparatively desert home, the want of social amusements which the more advanced state of society in Maryland had made them look upon as a necessity. This constant drain upon the time and courtesy of the young ladies, necessarily interfered with their self-imposed duties as teachers. It brought them seriously to entertain the idea of isolating themselves from their relations and worldly acquaintances, to give more time to study and devotional exercises. Being piously inclined, they disliked to associate day after day with such gay company. A community of views soon ripened into a fixed purpose of retiring to the miserable little cabin adjoining the one used for school purposes, and just as wretched, and to trust to a kind Providence for the necessities of life, which, they hoped, the little remuneration from their scholars would enable them to procure. The plan was shortly afterward submitted to Father Nerinckx for his approbation; and he, seeing in it the work of Divine Providence, who was taking His own way to further his hidden purpose, warmly congratulated the young ladies upon  p243 their noble determination, and encouraged them in their pious undertaking.

That such a course was loudly decried by their friends need hardly be told; "foolish whim," and "crazy notion," were mild terms by which to characterize such unworldly conduct; but they were as unheeded as they were harmless. The young ladies went; and God soon rewarded the pious confidence of his servants by sending them a new companion. Miss Nancy Havern came to claim the happiness of sharing their privations and labors, and she was received with open arms.

Up to this time, these pious souls had given little thought to the future, and they would hardly have dared to dream of what they were soon now to carry into effect. But with the advent of their new-found friend, another light dawned upon them: might they not become nuns? And, between the hope and the fear which alternately swayed their hearts after this sudden revelation, they knew not whether to accuse themselves of presumption or to hail the thought with unrestrained delight. Application was again made to the one whom they began to look upon in the light of a spiritual father and especial adviser, and his answer made their hearts throb with joy. It was not yet the accomplishment of their wishes, but it was an implied possibility of their being fulfilled. "He was happy to see so much piety, so much good will, so much generosity, in the cause of religion. He readily encouraged them, enlightened them by his  p244 prudent advice, told them that it would be holy and useful if they could but effect so great an undertaking, and he would rejoice with them if this humble attempt should succeed according to their wishes. But he also candidly stated to them that they would most assuredly meet with many difficulties and hardships; they would have to suffer real and extreme poverty in this new settlement, and their inexperience in the customs of religious life would be the source of many a wearisome temptation. Like docile children, they listened with reverent attention to all he said to them; but, so far from being discouraged at the foretold difficulties and trials, they begged most earnestly to be allowed to begin at once. They entreated Father Nerinckx to give them some rules to go by, and to write down the devotions they should practice during the day. Pleased with their spirit of self-sacrifice, the pious priest wrote down on a slip of paper a few directions for their mode of life, and allowed them to try it for some days."2

Father Nerinckx at once acquainted the Bishop with the step that had been taken by his protégées, and the zealous prelate gave his full approbation to the work. He requested Father Nerinckx to take them under his special guidance, and assured him that whatever subsequent step he might, in his wisdom, see fit to take, he would most heartily indorse it. A few days later, on his return from St. Stephen's to St.  p245 Charles' church, Father Nerinckx went, as was his custom, to see how things were going on, and finding that the pious young ladies were delighted with their new mode of life, he communicated to them the welcome intelligence of Bishop Flaget's approval of the undertaking, and left them a few rules to be observed each day of the week. They were unable to restrain the joyous emotion of their hearts, and they entreated Father Nerinckx to appoint a superior who should guide them in their devotions and direct more efficiently their little household concerns. With his usual prudence and discretion, he advised them to first make an experiment, and good-humoredly told them to fix it this time to their own liking. Miss Mary Rhodes being the one who had commenced the little school, and having been educated in a convent in Maryland, was selected as best able to guide them and manage things to their satisfaction. He promised, however, that so soon as they would be five or six in number, he would allow them to proceed to a regular election, provided the success of the school warranted the expenses which the sustenance of such a number would necessarily entail upon them, notwithstanding their poor and comparatively inexpensive life. They had not long to wait.

Miss Nellie Morgan, an acquaintance of theirs, was teaching a small number of children in the neighborhood of Holy Mary's church. Being the only child of a widowed mother, she used to  p246 teach in her house; and, whenever practicable, would avail herself of a holiday to go and visit her friends. Having considerable experience as a teacher, she took great interest in their venture, and, on her return home, could not help rejoicing with Miss Nancy Rhodes over the good success of her sister and companions. The interest in the welfare of the new institution soon ripened into a desire to contribute personally to its success, and with the permission of Father Nerinckx they joined the fortunate three. Miss Morgan's buoyancy of character and pleasant demeanor was a much desired quality in a community, where extreme poverty made it at times difficult to be cheerful and without apprehension for the future. She was, moreover, very much liked as a teacher; was easy, fluent, and interesting in conversation. Although without what we call a brilliant education, she had a ready capacity for getting children interested, and imparting to them without effort, and in a pleasing way, the rudimentary knowledge which so many possess without being able to communicate it to others. She ever maintained good order among the children, and had such winning ways as to be their idol. No wonder if such an acquisition was welcomed by the community, especially so when they learned that Nancy Rhodes, a young lady of solid virtue, and a sister to the foundress, accompanied her. Above all, they were now five in number, and the longed-for time to become nuns had arrived.

 p247  They applied without delay to Father Nerinckx for the appointment of a superior, whom they should look to as a mother, and he told them to go to their cabin and consult among themselves. The deliberations did not last long. In their holy simplicity "they sat down like children on the dirt floor," and the oldest voting first, they all agreed upon Nancy Rhodes, and immediately returned to the Director to inform him of their choice. He remarked: "You have chosen the youngest one among you;" but they replied unanimously: "If she is the youngest, she is also the most virtuous."

Miss Nancy Rhodes, now first Superior, bought the small tract of land, on which the cabins were built, for $75, and gave her negro, who was sold for $450. Under Father Nerinckx' energetic management of affairs, the sisters immediately set to work making the necessary improvements for the accommodation of their increasing number. They replaced and arranged the boards on the roof as well as they could, put boards across the upper beams or joists, forming a small attic, which they used as a dormitory; and they fixed up another part of the cabin for a kitchen, which was also their refectory. One table was made of some boards nailed to a stump which had been left standing in the middle of the cabin by the former tenants, probably for a similar use; this was the sisters' table. Another, for the pupils, consisted of a long slab, or more properly a puncheon with  p248 two tough legs under each end of it. They then inclosed a little yard around the buildings, and erected in it a small fabric, somewhat like a pen, covered with old boards, that served for a meat-house, and a similar one for a hen-house. Scarcely had these improvements been made, when a sixth young lady, Miss Sally Havern, a sister to Nancy Havern, of Madison county, came to share their labors. This additional help was most opportune. People of Holy Mary's congregation, desirous of having their children share in the benefits of the catholic education imparted to those of St. Charles, now applied to the sisters to have them received as boarders among them. Having obtained a favorable reply, they sent the good news to friends at a greater distance, who hastened to forward their girls to enjoy the same privilege. The slab table did very well for their meals; but where were they to sleep? "Their beds were to go on the high shelf, as we sometimes called it. At night, they were spread on the floor; and in the morning were placed one on top of the other in the most convenient part of the room, and they remained so till night."3

The new teachers were very happy in the midst of all their poverty. Whenever their pious founder would come to visit them, they clustered around him for lessons and information concerning the duties of their new state of life. He sometimes gave them regular instructions,  p249 but oftener conversed with them, answering their numerous inquiries. Viewing the infancy of his little community, and the inexperience of its members in religious life, he one day remarked to the young ladies, that it might facilitate their pious object, if he invited some nuns from Europe to teach and train them in the duties of a conventual life. To this they all frankly objected, saying they preferred to be instructed and guided by him. Upon mature reflection, considering that, left to themselves, they would be apt to agree better, and to suffer more cheerfully the many trials in store for them, he yielded the point. Before deciding any thing further, however, Father Nerinckx, always diffident of himself and desirous of being guided only by the holy will of God, the expression of which he always found in the wishes of his superiors, consulted Bishop Flaget. The Prelate approved of it all, and insisted upon his shaping and framing the new foundation without any foreign element, according to his own thoughts of what the Institute should be.

Father Nerinckx now called his little community together. Upon their expressing anew their ardent wish of organizing themselves into a religious congregation, he proceeded to unfold to them the plan which, during six years, he had fostered in his heart, and which was now reaching its happy, though humble realization. He imparted to them the Bishop's full approval of their desires, adding that they might now  p250 consider themselves Postulants, preparing, by their own free choice, to become nuns of their own new order. He exhorted them to have great confidence in Providence, who never forsakes those who piously trust in Him, and stated that as Religious they should have for their characteristic name: The Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. He then read to them the following instructions:

In their silent hours, in their labors and their devotions, the members of the community shall try to keep their minds in a state of contemplation on the sufferings of Jesus, and the sorrows of Mary, His Blessed Mother. The grand object of the Society will be "the glory of God, the sanctification of their own souls, and the salvation of their neighbors, by educating and instructing females." These three intentions are to be, in all cases, the leading motives in all their labors, teachings, mortifications, and meritorious works. They shall call each other Sister, and by name. A religious dress or uniform shall be adopted, and its colors, form, and quality determined upon; for the present, owing to their poverty, the sisters can only wear whatever dresses they already have. Silence shall be kept all day except during the recreation following the three meals, and prayers shall be said in common at fixed times during the day. He also exhorted them to great vigilance in the tuition and government of their pupils, a great zeal in teaching them their prayers and catechism,  p251 and a motherly care in forming their manners and morals. Every evening the children were to walk in procession to St. Charles' graveyard, distant from their cabins about a quarter of a mile, there to pray for the dead; on the way thither prayers were recited aloud by teachers and pupils for the relief of the souls in purgatory, and the return walk was a most healthy bodily exercise and amusing recreation. Sacred canticles and hymns were to be taught to the children as a most interesting diversion of mind, and Miss Nellie Morgan having been for years an assiduous frequenter of singing schools, and a member of the church choir, soon succeeded in making these exercises both agreeable and instructive.

The children soon learned to like the well regulated life of this beggarly little paradise; the sisters made rapid strides in the science of the saints. Nothing would have been wanting to their happiness, had Father Nerinckx been living somewhere near them, where they could hear Mass daily, and enjoy more frequently the benefits of his priestly ministrations.

The Author's Notes:

1 The historical details of this and other chapters about Loretto are obtained from the records of the Loretto convent, and reminiscences of the older members of the community, who were personally acquainted with the parties concerned.

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2 Personal recollections of one of the young ladies.

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3 Personal recollections of one of them.

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Page updated: 6 Sep 09