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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 14

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,
please let me know!


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Chapter 16

 p252  Chapter XV


Churches of the Long Lick and Casey Creek. — Father Nerinckx removes to St. Charles. — First taking of the veil at Loretto. — Black dye and chemical experience. — First regular election of a Dear Mother. — First rules and their author. — Building a new convent and residence.

Up to this time, Father Nerinckx had been living with the Bishop and Father Badin at St. Stephen's, whence he regularly attended his many missionary stations, and superintended the erection of new ones. In 1812, he built St. Anthony's, on the Long Lick, Breckinridge county; the same year, he began the erection of St. Bernard's church on Casey creek. The first catholic settler of Casey county was John Wethington, senior, who came to Kentucky from Maryland in 1798. He first located on Cartwright's Creek, near St. Ann's church. In 1802, he, with four families in addition to his own, named respectively Wheatly, Miles, Clements, and Speaker, moved to Casey county, of which they were the first catholic settlers.

In going back and forth to St. Charles, Father Nerinckx never failed to visit the school, instructing  p253 and questioning the children, encouraging the teachers, or giving them such directions as circumstances suggested. But as the work was growing in his hands, and assuming an importance which his own estimate of its usefulness did not allow him to underrate, he now fully realized the necessity of living nearer to the school and residence of the sisters, whose spiritual training and progress in religious perfection the Bishop had intrusted to his vigilance and care. He therefore, with the consent of Monseigneur Flaget, removed to St. Charles, and took up his residence in the vestry room, built in the rear of the church. Father Nerinckx lived there for several months, nearly half a mile away from the school and from the nearest neighbor. The crosses which adorned the last earthly homes of the dead, were the only objects which recalled the living in his voluntary seclusion. None disturbed his solitude, save a poor old neighboring woman, who, taking her delight in serving the minister of God, as Martha served our Lord, prepared his meals in her own cottage, and carried them over to him whenever he was at home.

The school being of more easy access than the church, to the few who were able to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on week-days, Father Nerinckx gave the necessary directions to the sisters for fitting up the best of their apartments as a temporary chapel. He himself erected in it a suitable altar for the celebration  p254 of the holy mysteries, and adorned it with a fine statue of the Blessed Virgin which he had brought over from Belgium, and had kept in his room at St. Stephen's ever since. When not abroad on the mission, he frequently, during the week, walked over, from his lonely residence at St. Charles, in the early morning, and said Mass in the poor little cabin, to the great joy of its inmates.

All these doings necessarily awakened the interest of the public in the new establishment. In order to satisfy the curiosity of the people, as well as to prevent unnecessary excitement, and forego idle comments, Father Nerinckx announced to his congregation the fact of the foundation of a convent in their midst, taking care to explain to them its objects, and the good which was to result from it to the country at large. This he did a short time previous to the day appointed for the taking of the veil by the three first postulants — Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart, and Nancy Havern.

On the festival day, April 25, 1812, a numerous crowd assembled at St. Charles to witness this to them new ceremony, the first of the kind ever performed in the Western country. Preceded by the children, and surrounded by their companions, the three postulants walked in procession from the school to the church. There, at the foot of the altar, they made before Father Nerinckx, and in the presence of the whole congregation, their solemn promise to renounce the  p255 world and its maxims, and to persevere in the choice of life they had made. A uniform veil of such material as could be had at the time, of size and form like the one used ever since, was ready at hand; and Father Nerinckx, having blessed it with the prayers of the church, spread it over the head of each of the postulants. It hung loosely over the shoulders, was of very poor material, and of black color. The ceremony, and Mass which followed, being over, Sisters Mary, Christina, and Nancy, with their companions and pupils, returned in silence to their quiet little cabin home.

On the same day, the two aspirants, Misses Ann Rhodes and Sallie Havern, were, with the permission of Father Nerinckx and the consent of the new novices, admitted as postulants. Miss Nellie Morgan, who, although received, had been unable to dismiss her school until the term would be up, was ready by the 29th of June following.

With what loving care did not these pious souls set about providing for the religious uniform which extreme poverty prevented them from assuming on this blessed day! Forced to wear the colored garments which they made use of in the world, they went immediately to work devising a means to procure a dye which might yield the requisite black color prescribed by the rule. Poverty is so ingenious when assisted by a true love of God; misery so inventive in a good cause when spurred on by an indomitable  p256 will to a desired end! A first attempt with oak bark stripped from trees of the adjoining woods, was very unsatisfactory; a rusty red-brown gives any thing but an attractive look to the garments, let alone the desirability of a grave color for the apparel of nuns. The addition of copperas to the extract of oak bark proved more creditable to their skill in the dyers' art, and made a jet black, if it did not prove a durable coloring mixture. The homespun goods for habits and veils likely went through the blackening process oftener than the poor sisters cared to tell to the new-comers, but they were according to rule, and the holy souls were happy.

Anxious to have a regularly constituted conventual home, and the two postulants having expressed a wish to be more intimately associated with their sisters, they soon begged of Father Nerinckx to give the veil to Ann Rhodes and Sarah Havern, and admit Ellen Morgan as a postulant. The request was acceded to, and the public announcement of a ceremony similar to the first one again brought to St. Charles church a large number of curious spectators, all the more eager to witness the edifying spectacle from the fact that the young ladies had lived so long in their midst. Sister Ann and Sarah received the veil from the hands of their spiritual director, on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, 1812; and Miss Morgan, admitted as a postulant the same day, subsequently became a novice on August 12th of the same year, being  p257 named after the Saint whose feast the church celebrates on that day, Sister Clare.

On the very day of the ceremony, June 29th, Father Nerinckx paid the fervent novices an official visit in their happy solitude, and, as Spiritual Director representing the Bishop, called on them for the regular election of a Superior. This time, he himself presided, and a unanimous vote having been cast for Sister Ann Rhodes, he then and there constituted her Superior of the Novices and of the Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, under the title of Dear Mother. He also gave them a copy of the following short rules to be observed in community life, which are so simple and withal so thoroughly imbued with his spirit, that we cannot refrain from inserting them here. The reader will pardon us all the more readily for giving them entire, as they constitute the essence and foundation of the subsequently approved rule of the Loretto Society:

"Whereas, the ever Blessed Virgin Mary is the Universal and Heavenly Mother of this society, the members thereof are called Sisters. The Superior of the whole society goes by the name of Dear Mother (or Mother Superior); the Superior of each house shall be styled Mother N–––––.

The dress must be black and full in every way, having nothing of a novel or fashionable appearance. The head-dress will be a black veil, sufficiently  p258 large to hide the shape; a simple bonnet is allowed when abroad or in the rain. The sisters wear a leathern girdle, which, with the scapular, must be blessed on the day of taking the habit. A cloak or choir-cape is allowable for Winter use when in the chapel, and elsewhere, if necessary, but with the leave of the Superior. Straw beds to sleep on, with becoming covers.

"Meals. — The refection will be according to the means of the house, within the bounds of poverty, and free from all that flatters sensuality, or mere appetite; the sisters being mindful that a pampered body is one of the greatest enemies of the spiritual life.

"Fasts. — No fasting days besides the general ones of the whole Church, except the Friday of the Seven Sorrows, in Passion Week, and Good Friday, when the sisters will fast on bread and water.

"Vigils. — Every Thursday night will be a vigil, during which every one has to adore the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, for one hour. It begins, after night prayers, with the song, Jesus, the only thought, etc., and ends with the prayers of the next morning.

Silence. — Silence is kept all day, and every day of the week, except during the hour​a of recreation from after dinner till half-past one. No recreation in Lent, and more complete silence in Holy Week, and in the octave before the Assumption; also, on every fasting day of obligation  p259 during the year, and on days of abstinence. On those days, catechism instead of recreation, so to leave none not fully informed of religious and holy science.

"Although the sisters are to love silence and retirement, still their countenance and deportment ought to be modestly cheerful and becomingly affable when circumstances require, so that their retirement and silence, speech, countenance, and behavior may be equally edifying without any mixture of worldly levity. They will be taught the rules of religious politeness, and they are to be strict in keeping them among themselves, as well as before strangers. When they meet, they should salute each other by a slight inclination of the head, considering in the person of one another the quality of a Friend of Mary, and greeting at the same time their Angel Guardian, and in the person of their Superior, Jesus and Mary."

Nor was the holy man satisfied with prescribing rules to others; he was the first one to practice them. His mortified life made a lasting impression even on children, as appears from the following account given of him by an eye-witness, at the time, a fourteen year old school girl at Loretto: "Father Nerinckx' clothing was of the poorest kind, made of coarse homespun wool or cotton. His diet also was very scant and poor; indeed, he lived a most austere and mortified life. He was most vigilant in his endeavors to cultivate and form the minds and hearts of  p260 the sisters, who were as yet inexperienced and unacquainted with a life of seclusion from the world. This he did by his instructions, directions, admonitions, and corrections. His words were few, earnest, and to the purpose, and ever sank deep into the hearts of his hearers. Oftentimes have I heard the sisters say, at the close of his instructions, that they felt a new courage and zeal to brave every obstacle in their hard and laborious life, and to do all in their power to become worthy Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. Much more could be said of our dear and cherished Father and Founder, but I must leave it to some one more capable of discharging this pleasant duty."

Father Nerinckx now called upon St. Charles congregation for assistance in the good work. It had become, not only advisable, but strictly necessary, to erect more suitable buildings. Untiring in his efforts for the temporal as well as for the spiritual welfare of his little community, which was in the most destitute circumstances, he started a subscription that realized a few hundred dollars, mostly in trade, and he requested those who could do no better, to assist in getting out logs for the erection of a new convent. On that same memorable day, June 29, 1812, the first log was cut; and notwithstanding the greatest difficulties and hardships, the common share of every pious undertaking, the work progressed most satisfactorily. The trees around the two little cabins were felled and hewed for  p261 house-logs, thus, at the same time, clearing the ground on which the two rows of buildings were to be erected, and leaving between them an extensive square yard. The sisters themselves subsequently cleared this yard of stumps by chipping them away, and burning them down to the ground. Father Nerinckx made the plan of the buildings, and staked out the place where each one was to be erected.​1 Nor did he spare his strength. Many a log which the united efforts of three men could not move, was lifted by his powerful arms and thrown out of the way. He labored with his own hands, and put his shoulder to the timbers when they were raised up. The foundation timbers or sills having been placed in position, stone, hauled from Hardin's Creek, was built up under them as support or underpinning, and afterward the crevices were filled in with mud and straw. Through reverence for the One who was to dwell therein, the logs intended for the wall of the chapel and house connected with it were hewed. The different buildings were erected at a small distance from each other, forming two rows of houses on two opposite sides of the square yard. The first  p262 house to the right of the entrance to the yard was the school, and the one opposite in the left-hand row of houses was Father Nerinckx' dwelling. Like the school, it was a double cabin of one story with its wooden chimney outside; the space between the rooms formed a little entry protected by weather-boarding. He built most of his own dwelling-house himself; and the entire work done on it by others, only cost him six dollars and fifty cents!

His kitchen, the second building in the left-hand row, being smaller, was soon finished; and his old cook, who was living in the neighborhood, came to take possession of it, continuing to carry the priest's meals to St. Charles sacristy, where he was still living. The poor woman also made herself very useful to the sisters, carrying their messages, and doing their errands to the neighbors, when necessary. Whenever home, Father Nerinckx came over and assisted at the building, lifting and raising logs, preparing mortar, and plastering the walls in the very primitive fashion of the day, viz., filling up the empty spaces between the logs with handfuls of clay mortar, which displayed for years afterward the imprint of his fingers. Having finished his own house, he left his sacristy residence at St. Charles, and moved to Loretto. One room of this house served him for sitting-room, study, bedroom, and refectory; the other one being reserved for the accommodation of the Bishop or of any priest who might visit him.

 p263  This was the unpretending place of Father Nerinckx, whom popular instinct, which is scarcely ever at fault, spoke of as "the saintly priest," and it was his home for the last twelve years of his life.

The building next to the school, on the right hand side of the entrance to the grounds, was the church and convent. It was two stories high, and consisted of two square cabins with upper rooms; the space between the cabins was weather-boarded in, and it thus formed a rather neat looking chapel. When finished, it was blessed, and received the name of Little Loretto, in honor of Our Lady of Loretto, in Italy,​b for whom Father Nerinckx had a most tender devotion. The two rooms at the sides of the chapel were intended for the use of the community, but they were not finished till about two years later.

The school-house was soon occupied by the boarders and day-scholars. A similar double cabin built next to the convent was used for kitchen and refectory, and the church not being completed at the time, the same room was also used for dormitory, and the second one fitted up as an oratory. The altar and statue of the Blessed Virgin were transferred to it, and Mass was said in it by the Director, whenever home from missionary duty. Thither also sisters and children repaired for their daily devotions. The building fronting this one in the left-hand row, and like it in all respects, was reserved for work-room,  p264 and was used, as necessity required, for guests' room, and for infirmary.

Father Nerinckx now inclosed the buildings and yard with a rail fence, thus dividing them from the garden that extended to the summit of the hill, the opposite portion of which stretched to the brink of the creek, and its declivity was utilized as an orchard, which the holy priest set out with his own hands. The large square yard he leveled down, and sowed in blue grass, thus giving a neat and pleasant appearance to the whole. Finally, at the outer side of the church, he paled in a small plat of ground which was to serve as a graveyard for the sisters, and in the middle of it he planted a large square cross surrounded by an evergreen arbor and with shrubs, trees, and flowers. He now tore down the two old cabins, and with the serviceable lumber built a small double cabin at the further end of the yard, which was used for meat-house; later, it became the home of an old Mr. Gates, of whom we shall have occasion to speak hereafter.

The Author's Note:

1 Our readers will excuse this lengthy and detailed account of the building. Every circumstance of its erection is lovingly treasured in the memory of the Missionary's spiritual children, and it is of interest to catholics because relating to the foundation of the first convent in the West. Whilst in Europe, in 1815, Father Nerinckx had a print of the new establishment engraved. We regret our inability to reproduce this very rare and interesting relic of Kentucky's early history.

Thayer's Notes:

a "Hour" may be loosely used here: elsewhere (p326) Father Nerinckx will call it a half-hour.

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b The name of the place in Italy (in the province of Ancona in the Marche) is spelled Loreto, and was so spelled in Nerinckx' time; the -eto ending is not a diminutive, but from the Latin suffix -etum, meaning a grove or wood: a loreto is from Latin lauretum, a grove of laurel.

The name of Father Nerinckx' order is, however, correctly spelled Loretto; the name "Sisters of Loreto" had already been taken by another order altogether, since 1609.

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