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Chapter 15

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 17

 p265  Chapter XVI


Bishop Flaget visits Loretto. — New difficulties. — Death of Mother Ann Rhodes. — Her burial: self-denial in death. — Father Nerinckx' tribute to her memory. — Dear Mother Mary Rhodes. — Practicing holy poverty. — Fortunate "old maids!"

In the midst of all these occupations, Father Nerinckx felt more and more keenly the want of money, which he could have used to such great advantage for the establishment and improvement of Loretto, and the erection of churches in the new missions that he had visited for the first time in 1810. Owing to the troubled condition of affairs in Europe, funds reached him but very rarely, and in such small sums, that he resolved to undertake the then dangerous journey to the old country, in order to procure the means for completing the works begun. He therefore applied to Right Rev. Bishop Flaget for the necessary permission. Having but eight priests to attend to the spiritual wants of the people in his extensive diocese, and Father Nerinckx' district embracing nearly half of the State, the Bishop saw no possible way of supplying the place of  p266 the courageous missionary. He might possibly have attended to those missions himself, but he had but just moved to St. Thomas, and was on the eve of undertaking a journey to Baltimore, on business connected with the missions of Kentucky. He accordingly induced Father Nerinckx to defer his departure for two or three years. Desiring, however, before leaving for the East, to testify his esteem for the self-sacrificing priest, and his appreciation of his labors, and in order to encourage the good Sisters of Loretto, he visited St. Charles and the convent on the 8th of September, 1812, returned to St. Thomas the same evening, and started the next day on horseback for Baltimore, accompanied by Rev. Mr. Chabrat.

No sooner was the Bishop gone, than the devil, trying as of old to thwart, by every available means, a work was to prove the source of so much good to religion, excited some of the priest's old enemies to circulate all kinds of evil reports and damaging rumors. Father Nerinckx had, the year before, published a prospectus, setting forth the inducements offered to catholics to settle in what he called the New Tract, and the advantages that would accrue to them by a change of residence; and he had collected some money on the strength of it, to begin the erection of the necessary churches. This plan his adversaries decried bitterly, and tried to prejudice the minds of the people against Loretto, and so cut off all hope of further help.  p267 They accused the priest so persistently of having used the money for other purposes than the ones it had been pledged for, that Father Nerinckx felt it to be his duty, in self-defense, to issue the following printed circular:1

"To all catholics or others to whom it may belong. (Sic.)

"Proofs are extant, and repeated accounts have been given of the employment of the offerings made by the well-wishers for the success of my undertaking, for the benefit of religion, for the improvement of the thinly inhabited counties, and for the spiritual and temporal good of several catholics, who have already moved, or others that are to move hereafter, to those parts that are mentioned in my once circulating Prospectus. An unfavorable rumor, spread through malice, ignorance, or avarice, that the subscription had failed, did reduce the subscription from the start to a very insignificant assistance, compared, I do not say only with the project, but with what has really been done and complied with, by erecting churches and making other provisions of that nature, according to the literal expressions of the Prospectus. Casey's Creek, Clifty, Hardinsburg, Union, etc., are extant evidences of my assertion. A nunnery and  p268 a school were projects still unfulfilled, I agree, but I hope not through my neglect. I protest that my sincere wish is now, as it was at that time, to move myself, however ill-qualified a subject, to the appointed places, and there, to the best in my power, to endeavor to fulfill to a jot my promises, notwithstanding the failure of the main bulk of the subscribers. In the meantime, Providence, whose ways are oftentimes different from the speculations of men, seems to have unexpectedly manifested a design of ordering the very object of a nunnery and school, to be erected under our eyes in our present neighborhood. The fact is, a long desired institute for the education of the female youth is begun by the lately established Little Society of the Friends of Mary, under the Cross of Jesus, in the congregation of St. Charles (Hardin's Creek), at their place called Loretto. The school is forming fast of every denomination. The scholars are instructed by two sisters of the society, and rules are strictly observed. We will not trouble our readers with praises of the establishment; the testimonies of the scholars, the approbation of parents and thinking judges of other denominations, as well as of catholics, besides the eagerness and the number of those who wait for the moment of the reception, are unexceptionable commendations. Reading, writing, needle-work, etc., sound morality and christian politeness, make up the sum of instruction received from the society. Aiming, and sincerely wishing  p269 to be useful to all, without any self-seeking, the terms are uncommonly low, to wit: $5.00 a year for schooling, of which one in cash; internes or boarders are moreover to find themselves — that is, to provide for bedding, washing, victuals, etc. None to be admitted for less than three months. No distinction made of religious denominations, if willing to submit to the rules of the school. Needy orphans, as much as possible, will be admitted gratis. One may even become a member of the society gratis, if sufficiently qualified for it. The same society will become, besides, an asylum or shelter for old age, decrepit and useless slaves, and whatever kind of sick or distressed fellow-creatures may call for their assistance, as far as their poor condition will permit. The work being begun on a small spot lately bought by the sisters, where housing is not only bad but entirely insufficient, and, as it is situated in a congregation under my care, I am, by the re­quisition of the Right Reverend Bishop, willing to assist in fixing for the temporal wants of buildings, etc. I trust the neighboring congregations will not be indifferent in the present need of the just-rising society and school, which can not fail to repay with an accumulated interest the small expenses and labor that are required at present for building a roomy and sufficient house, with some other necessities. I myself, besides my pains and very remarkable hardships, do sacrifice $400 cash to carry on this so necessary work  p270 for the religious and public good. I hope I will find some generous followers in the several surrounding congregations; and I trust that the old subscription will cheerfully be complied with, while the new one will be favorably received. For all must feel eagerly desirous to help us, in this important business, undertaken for their great interest, without any the least of our own. Mr. Vincent Gates has been requested to take the names of the subscribers and well-wishers.

"C. Nerinckx.

"Dated the 2d day of October, 1812.

"P. S. I wish to complete the big house and to have it ready for dwelling about next Christmas, if the subscription succeed.

"There are already thirty or forty scholars, and if the housing was sufficient, fully the double of this number would daily frequent the school."

People eagerly responded to the inelegantly worded, but truthful and matter-of‑fact call of the persecuted priest, and, on a copy of the document now in possession of the Loretto Mother-house, we find the following names, with amounts of subscription varying from two bushels of corn to three of wheat, and from seven dollars in trade to a hundred weight of pork:​2

William Mattingly, John Wheatly, Joseph Simpson, Mary Ann Montgomery, Aquilla Blanford, Ignatius O'Bryan, John Willett, John  p271 Simms, Joseph O'Robey, Frances Sims, Joseph Knott, Nicholas Beaven, Alethey Gibbs, Susanna Rudd, Thomas Hayden, Steven Yates, Barnaby Mattingly, Charles Hardasty, Henry Boon, Mary Boon, Robert Ryney, Alexander Hamilton, Walter Hamilton, John B. Tomson, John A. Montgomery, Margaret Montgomery, James Simpson.

Encouraged by this scanty but hearty help of his people, the poor priest continued the work with unabated energy, and, in less than two years, completed the buildings described in the preceding chapter. Francis Melton, of Washington county, built "three double cabins of the monastery each of two pens, of sixteen feet in the clear, with a passage between of eight feet, to be finished and workmanly completed before the end of July, 1813." The timber being scarce on the small lot of the sisters, it had "to be taken as much as possible from General Walton's and other willing neighbors' land." This agreement, concluded on the 5th day of February, 1813, stipulated that Charles Nerinckx should pay for the work "sixty dollars in cash, and sixty dollars in trade, rated at the common trade price, the goods to be delivered, beginning March 1st, at Mr. Charles Hayden's, on Pottinger's Creek."3

But whilst the struggling institution seemed in some degree blessed with material prosperity,  p272 God, in his all-wise Providence, saw fit to try the sisters and purify them by affliction, that they might look up to Him only for help, and sever themselves more and more from all earthly affections. In the glowing crucible only does gold lose its dross, and it comes out of it in all the pure brightness of its unalloyed nature. During the Summer of 1812, the health of Dear Mother Ann Rhodes rapidly declined. She had been suffering from consumption for years, and as the fatal disease seemed to gather additional strength from the comfortless position of its willing victim, the devoted sisters bestowed on their Dear Mother all the fond cares and soothing attentions which religious affection alone knows how to dispense. From the white-curtained bed in one of the two old cabins, where the Superior was patiently suffering, she directed her little community with, if possible, more care and attention than ever. When the absence of the Father deprived the community of the happiness of having the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered up in her room, which was also the temporary chapel, the sisters gathered around her bed to listen to some edifying instruction from her lips. These her last utterances sank deep into the hearts of sisters and scholars, and were afterward remembered and repeated for years. For like the busy bee, who at the approach of spring comes to the hive, laden with the fragrant dew of early flowers hidden to the eye of man, so, the provident Mother, nearing her heavenly  p273 home, seemed to borrow from God's own mysteries beyond the grave the glowing thoughts and burning words of divine love for the spiritual food of her sisters. In fact, her precious days were numbered. In the beginning of December, 1812, Father Nerinckx gave her the Last Sacraments of the church in the presence of novices and pupils, and on the early morning of the 11th, happy and fully resigned to the holy will of God, Dear Mother Ann passed to a better life, the first flower of the Loretto garden transplanted in Jesus' heavenly paradise. It was a cold wintry day; the snow thickly fell on the frozen earth, mantling it in pure attire, the more fitly to embosom the virgin corpse that was soon to be intrusted to its dark keeping. Father Nerinckx came down from St. Charles to say the Mass of the dead for the repose of her soul, and Mother Ann was buried according to rule, lying, attired in her religious dress, without a coffin, in the bare grave, preaching blessed and loved poverty even in death.

This method of burying the sisters was observed for over twenty-five years, when, in 1837, Father Boullier, having witnessed the burial of a sister in Perry county, Mo., burst into tears, and vowed that he would have that custom changed. He wrote to the Holy Father, whom he had personally known in Rome, and a Brief arrived about two years later ordering the use of a coffin. Mother Agnes, of Pine Bluffs, Arkansas, was the last one buried according to the ancient  p274 rite, on the 21st of August, 1839; however, the bystanders' tribute of roses, and a few boards, preserved her body from the immediate contact of the incumbent earth. The spirit of mortification which actuated Father Nerinckx in all he did, made him no doubt look at death in the light of "dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return," and in this matter he consented to the sisters' own wishes. Respect for the virgin remains, which in life were the temple of the Holy Ghost, dictated the action of the other reverend gentleman. Both had holy motives; the former showed more austerity, the latter surely acted more in conformity with the by no means reprehensible feelings of our sensitive and weak human nature.

In his few remarks upon the society, Father Nerinckx pays the following tribute to the memory of the deceased: "Dear Mother Ann was a pious lady before being a nun. She had given a negro girl to Rev. Mr. Badin when he was fixing for a nunnery, which house was destroyed by fire before any girls met to live in it. When Mother Ann came into the Loretto Society, in which she was the fourth in number, she was nearly spent with consumption, of which she died, having been for a few months the first Superior, and a holy one indeed."

Deprived of their Mother, the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross now realized better what their name implied. At the foot of the plain wooden cross which adorned the last resting  p275 place of their lost Mother, they gave vent to the oft-repeated aspirations "O Suffering Jesus! O Sorrowful Mary!" with more fervor than ever before, and gathered strength to stand with the Sorrowful Mother under the cross of the suffering Jesus when a sword of sorrow pierced their souls. But the consoling voice of Father Nerinckx was not wanting in this sad emergency; from it he took occasion to recall to their minds how short was their hard pilgrimage on earth, and how lasting and glorious their heavenly reward. They now had a mother who assist them with her prayers above, and should at once proceed to select one to guide them through trials and difficulties here below.

Sister Mary Rhodes, the first one who had applied to Father Nerinckx for leave to teach, and, in that sense, the foundress of the Society of Friends of Mary, having received the majority of votes, succeeded her sister as Dear Mother, and filled the position for ten years to the satisfaction of all, imparting to her children that first fervor and peculiar spirit of mortification which characterized the establishment of their beloved society. Father Nerinckx confirmed her in the charge, and directed that her assistant in the office should be Sister Christina Stuart, under the title of Sister Eldest. Sister Clare Morgan continued to act as head of the school, directing the children, and also the sisters employed in the school with her.

Whilst the new buildings were going up, the  p276 sisters had to protect themselves as best they could against the inclemency of the wintry weather in the two old huts. But they stood bravely that uncommonly cold and dreary season, going themselves to the woods to cut the necessary fuel. It having been found necessary to remove the huts out of the way of the new buildings, they took them down with their own hands. But the convent home was not yet finished; they therefore volunteered to put them up again; and, the walls being very low and composed of small logs, Father Nerinckx allowed the sisters to reconstruct their temporary homes in a more suitable spot, of convenient access from the new convent. "They all willingly undertook humiliating work whenever their temporal wants required any such labor to be done. In this, their humble Father gave them a most admirable example. He industriously took part with them in every kind of hard work, spending whatever time he could spare from his ministerial duties in chopping wood, rolling logs, burning brush, clearing the ground to plant corn, etc. His watchful eye was everywhere. Often would he be seen with hammer, nails, or other tools in hand, fixing doors, mending fences and gates, and always bareheaded, the sun bearing down on his bald pate."4

Poverty was, in fact, the characteristic virtue of the institution. Though industrious and always occupied, the sisters had at first hardly  p277 enough to live on. Their boarders paid only $32 a year; and many of them, being poor orphans, paid nothing at all for either board, tuition, or clothing. This accounts for the extreme poverty which compelled them to wear their secular clothes with a kerchief or bonnet for head-dress. In the early Winter months of 1813 they began spinning and weaving for their neighbors, and a small pecuniary remuneration enabled them to buy the provisions they stood so much in need of, and to procure clothing material for themselves. The latter was the great object in view; an extra effort was made to have habit and veil, leather belt and scapular ready for the coming festival of August 15th, when the great event was to take place — receiving the black veil and taking the religious vows! An attempt was also made to furnish each sister with a home-made cloak to protect her from the cold during Mass and morning and evening meditations in Winter time; but, unable to procure cloaks for all, they necessarily gave up the idea. Stockings and shoes were worn only from the 1st of November till March 25th, the sisters going barefooted the balance of the year. This severe custom was introduced at the request of the first sisters, who begged of Father Nerinckx to let them try and go barefooted as did the holy anchorites of old. He at first refused the desired permission, but yielded at last to repeated entreaties. Some time before his death, however, he ordered the sisters to  p278 wear shoes all through the year, and never to resume the former practice. During the first years, breakfast consisted of bread and vegetable soup or rye-coffee served in tin cups; supper of bread and milk or sage tea, without either meat or butter; dinner was dished up in tin plates, and consisted of one kind of meat (when they could get it) and vegetables; pious reading during meals was the only dessert allowed, unless some neighbor's charity afforded them the luxury of fruit. The beds were the simplest expression that useful piece of furniture is susceptible of, viz.: a shake-down of straw on the bare floor, without either sheet or pillow! The sisters were too poor to get any.

And yet, in the midst of this Bethlehemetic poverty, and notwithstanding the fact that no new candidate came to swell their number during the whole year, the good souls were happy and contented; they rejoiced because enabled to suffer in union with the suffering Jesus and the sorrowful Mary. Their clear and cheerful voices re-echoed in the woods, as morning and evening, before and after school, they contentedly sang the praises of God and of his beloved Mother, which, borne on the winds, reached many a worldly ear that had been listening perhaps that very day to some slanderous tale of profane scorn. For, indeed, the sisters had their share of the contempt which the world professes for all that is noble and pure. Had not Christ himself been slandered and vilified? And had not He said  p279 that "the disciple is not above the master," that he had to "take up the Cross and force him?" "Old priest Nerinckx thought he was doing great things by collecting women together and making nuns of them! But for themselves, they thought — the lofty geniuses! — he was doing a good thing for the country, by clearing it of all the old maids that were in it!" Such and similar were the comments of the worldlings of these early times, and such, indeed, are the remarks of the worldlings of the present day, when fair young maidens, the flower of society and the pride of their families, cross by the hundreds the threshold of the convent gate, to lay at the feet of their Heavenly Spouse, Jesus Christ, the richest and rarest qualities of heart and mind, of which the world is not worthy! Ah! truly, dear Sisters, the words of our Blessed Lord are as practical to‑day as they were eighteen hundred years ago: "If the world hate you, know ye that it hated me before you; if you had been of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember my word that I said to you: the servant is not greater than his Lord. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you."5

The Author's Notes:

1 We reprint this document just as it came from the press in 1812, without changing either expressions or construction, from a copy now in possession of the Loretto Mother-house. It is not stated where it was printed, and a mistake in the name of Father Nerinckx (ks) is corrected by his own hand.

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2 We notice only one subscription of $2 in money.

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3 MS. contract written by Rev. Nerinckx, in the Loretto archives.

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4 Personal recollections of one of the sisters.

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5 John xv.18‑20.

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Page updated: 27 Jan 12