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Chapter 22

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 24

 p373  Chapter XXIII


Father Nerinckx resumes the direction of the sisterhood. — Establishment of Calvary, 1816, and Gethsemani, 1818. — St. Augustine's, Lebanon. — Father Nerinckx introduces Rev. Abel to his more distant missions. — He purchases Mount Mary's for a brotherhood. — Its subsequent history.

Before leaving on his diocesan visitation, Bishop Flaget wanted to resign into Father Nerinckx' hands the full superior­ship of the Sisters of Loretto, the duties of which he had now filled for two years with the most consoling results. But the humble priest, fully convinced of his inability to discharge so important an office, was unwilling to accept the burden. "He alleged his want of piety and prudence, of knowledge and experience, as a sufficient reason to refuse being the Superior of a community of nuns. He insisted upon it, that the Bishop should retain the office of Superior of the new community, and act in all cases as such; as for himself, he would willingly do all he could as well in temporal as in spiritual affairs. He felt all possible interest in the advancement of so useful an institution, and would be happy to devote  p374 himself to the welfare of the sisters, who looked upon him as their father and friend, if the Bishop thought proper. His Lordship fully yielded the point. He consented to assume the title of Superior of the community, with the understanding that Father Nerinckx would resume the full management of the affairs of the Society, of which he was in reality the founder; and all things being satisfactorily settled, Bishop Flaget gave his blessing, bade adieu to all, and returned once more to his cherished little Seminary of St. Thomas."1

When Father Nerinckx left for Europe in 1815, there were fourteen sisters in the community. At successive receptions and professions, ten new members were added to it, and this encouraging increase of the sisterhood induced Bishop Flaget to found, on the 10th of June, 1816, the first branch establishment, at Holy Mary's, under the name of Calvary. An effort had been made to form a society of widows, who should live there under a mitigated form of Loretto rules; an attempt was effectually set on foot, but, owing to the limid number of applicants who felt disposed to leave the world and live a community life, the idea was soon given up, and a colony of sisters sent in their place. Sister Christina was the first Superior of Calvary, and she died there. Father Nerinckx gives the following account of her in his notes of 1819: "Sister Christa or Christina died at  p375 Calvary, being Superior or Sister Eldest at the time. Already, before being a nun, she was reputed among all our catholics as the most pious and accomplished young lady then living in the country. I never saw one more attentive to religious duties than I have known her to be for eleven years in and out of the world. She died as she had lived."

On his return Father Nerinckx first directed his attention to the spiritual wants of his flock, and gave the sisters their first retreat, which ended September 24, 1817, with a solemn reception and profession. He then set to work with more energy than ever to increase the Society's field of usefulness. Mr. and Mrs. James Dent, whose generous offer we already noticed in a former chapter, again offered to Father Nerinckx their house and farm for the establishment of a convent, in the latter part of 1817. This place was well known to many, on account of the piety, christian benevolence, and hospitality of its owners. It was here the missionary would stop to say Mass, administer the sacraments, etc.; and, from a picture of St. Barbara, hung up in the room set apart for divine services, the place was known by the name of St. Barbara's. Having no children to provide for, Mr. and Mrs. Dent resolved to devote part of their property to the benefit of the Friends of Mary, and Father Nerinckx thankfully accepted the offer. Mr. Dent, having made suitable preparations, moved to a fine farm adjoining  p376 the one which he gave to the sisters, and in March, 1818, six sisters, with Sister Teresa as superior, took possession of the house, situated on Pottinger's Creek, in Nelson county. Father Nerinckx called it Gethsemani, in memory of the agony of our Lord in the garden. He gave the establishment a handsome share of the goods, which had arrived from Belgium on the previous 27th of December, and soon after built, at his own expense, a grist-mill on the place, for the benefit of the sisters.

The new community did not long enjoy the prudent and wise mother which their director had given them. She died shortly after its foundation, and is referred to in Father Nerinckx' notes in the following terms: "Sister Teresa, of the Grundies, had not a catholic father, and she lost him and her mother in the space of five days. Being left an orphan, she had a great struggle to keep from heresy and corruption among grand and wealthy relations. She chose Loretto for schooling, stood her ground, joined the society, behaved well and was beloved, became the first mother of Gethsemani, and died, as the Right Rev. Bishop observed to me in a letter, a Saint."

The Gethsemani house existed till 1848, when it was sold to the colony of Trappist monks, who came from France on a second attempt to establish their order in Kentucky. This venture was more fortunate than the first; they occupy the convent to this day, and are prospering.​a

 p377  But how did the sisters live? Who supported them? Father Nerinckx answers these questions in a letter to his parents, dated 1818.

"They keep boarders at $50 a year, in order to give an opportunity to all classes of procuring a catholic education for their daughters. The great objection is: How can those different establishments subsist without miracle? How can such an institution go on without incurring the blame of rashness, since the church always requires sufficient means of support before she approves of an institution? I acknowledge my inability of giving you a satisfactory answer; but I know this much: The institute has been commenced under the sanction of a legitimate Bishop; it has grown in the most wonderful manner to its present proportions; it now exists, for the last six years, without incurring a cent of debt; the Sacred Propaganda has taken it under its protection, and enriched it with many spiritual favors; it works wonders of spiritual fruits for our catholic population; the protestants themselves approve of it, and desire to have houses established in their midst. In one word, and here I think is the great secret of success, we here behold feeble women seeking first, and above all, the kingdom of God and its justice, so that we may believe, without presuming too much on the promises of the infallible providence of a God ever true to His word, that every thing else will be added unto them.

 p378  We may here add, in answer to these questions, what the humble priest did not say:

"Mr. Nerinckx watched over the new institution with the tender solicitude of a parent. He devoted to the spiritual instruction of the sisters and of their scholars all the time he could spare from the heavier duties of his missionary life. He endeavored to infuse into them his own spirit of prayer and mortification. He labored assiduously, both by word and example, to disengage them entirely from the world, and to train them to the practice of a sublime christian perfection. He ardently sought to keep alive in their hearts the true spirit of the religious vocation; to make them despise the world, trample on its vanities, and devote themselves wholly to the service of God and of the neighbor, by a faithful compliance with the duties growing out of the three simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience they had taken.

"Especially did he endeavor to impress upon them the obligation of placing implicit reliance on the good providence of God, not only in their spiritual, but also in all their temporal concerns. A favorite maxim, which he had always in his heart and frequently on his lips, was embodied in this golden saying: 'Do not abandon Providence, and he will never abandon you.' How would that good Heavenly Father, who 'clothes the lilies of the field, and feeds the birds of the air,' abandon those who had put all their trust  p379 in Him, and had devoted themselves entirely, both in body and soul, to His service?

"In fact, this unbounded confidence in the providence of God was almost the only legacy he was able to bequeath to the Lorettines. They had, in the commencement of their society, but little of this world's goods to depend upon. It was not difficult for them to practice the poverty which they had vowed: they were already extremely poor and desolate; and, in fulfilling their vow, they had but to love and submit chiefly to that which was a stern necessity of their condition. Their houses were poor and badly furnished; their clothing was of the plainest kind, and their food was of the coarsest.

"Mr. Nerinckx himself set them the example of the poverty and mortification which their institute required them to love as well as practice. According to the testimony of his Bishop, 'he himself led an extremely austere and mortified life; his dress, his lodging, his food, was poor; and he had filled his monasteries with this holy spirit. Those women sought for poverty in every thing; in their monasteries, in the plain simplicity of their chapels. The neatness, the cleanliness, the simplicity, of their dwellings and of their chapels, excited the wonder of their visitors.' "​2

About this time, Father Nerinckx was also  p380 seriously contemplating the foundation of a house in what is now the State of Missouri. On this object, he wrote, in 1818: "During my absence, the request which Father Lacroix, a young Flemish priest of Missouri, had made before my departure, of sending a colony of Lorettines to Louisiana, has been reiterated; and I have directed seven of our sisters to hold themselves in readiness to leave, in order to found a new house in Louisiana or Missouri Territory, my intention being to have them consecrate themselves to the welfare and education of the young Indian girls. This new colony will be established under the name of Olivetines, near Bois Brulé, four hundred miles west of Loretto, at a short distance from the Mississippi and Missouri, where a Seminary is being built."3

Whilst attending to the most urgent needs of the sisterhood, Father Nerinckx was just as solicitous about the wants of his several congregations. He had made arrangements sf the building of a brick church, St. Augustine's, Lebanon, in 1815, and on his return had set to work with all possible haste in order to make a good start before the Winter of 1817‑18. It was the third brick church built by the catholics of Kentucky, St. Patrick's, Danville, being the first, and St. Rose's the second. The fourth one, the cathedral of Bardstown, was, it appears, begun  p381 early in 1818. The first trustees appointed under the direction of Father Nerinckx for the Lebanon church, were Clement Hamilton, Clement Parsons, and Clement Hill. The church was not completed until 1820, under Father David Deparcq.

Having taken all necessary measures for the continuance of the work, he started from Loretto, loaded with the church articles which he had reserved for his missionary stations, to visit, very likely for the last time,​4 his distant congregations, the administration of which he intended to leave to his American pupil, Rev. Abel, who accompanied him. They met at Gethsemani, twelve miles from Loretto, the rendezvous previously agreed upon, and started immediately for the new station of St. Ignatius, Hardin county, where they remained several days. Whilst here, Rev. Father Abel visited Elizabethtown, the county seat of the then Canton (now Hardin) county. Having previously sent word of his arrival, he found a numerous and motley assembly of Anabaptists, Methodists, etc., in attendance at the court-house, a neat and handsome structure for those times. He was listened to with the closest attention, and he explained, to the apparent satisfaction of all parties present, the to them unpalatable truth that out of the catholic church there is no salvation. At the conclusion of his speech, they all crowded around him and invited him to come  p382 again. One of the leading Baptists of the place was heard to exclaim: "Henceforth, I have done with all other preaching." An elderly lady of the same sect shook hands with the priest, and expressing her gratification at having been present, requested him to visit her family. A prominent merchant of the town, one of the county officers, invited him to dinner, and stated that he would not have missed that sermon for twenty dollars, and promised that, in case the catholics would build a church in Elizabethtown, he would be happy to contribute toward its erection, and would use all his influence to make the undertaking successful.

"The missionaries next bent their steps to the residence of a Methodist, twenty miles further, who had promised them five hundred acres for the erection of a church and convent. They were well received, and, notwithstanding the fact that the man had a brother who was a Methodist preacher, Rev. Abel was invited to address a promiscuous crowd, which had gathered around the house, and did so to the satisfaction of all, only two catholic families being present. They offered great inducements to have a catholic church, and a nunnery for the education of their children, established in their midst, and requested the two priests to call again, and favor them with a sermon.

"St. Rumoldus congregation (now Hardinsburg, Breckinridge county), twenty miles distant, was their next stopping place. Father  p383 Nerinckx had built a church there, and now secured some land for the erection of a priest's house and a convent school. Although this was the first missionary trip of the young American priest, Father Nerinckx insisted upon his performing all the pastoral duties, he himself filling the humble position of 'altar-boy,' as he playfully called it.

"On their wish to Morganfield, a hundred miles from St. Rumoldus, they stopped at St. Francis Xavier, a station of little importance, fifty miles distant from either place, and arrived, much fatigued, but ever ready for the arduous missionary work, at the county seat of Union county, a mission consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Father Abel again preached at the court-house, and the attentive gathering only found one fault with the lengthy sermon of the American youth: 'It was too short!' The most bitter animosity and prejudice against the catholic church were rife among protestants in that section of the country. And yet, at the conclusion of the sermon, the head of the Freemasons publicly testified his satisfaction. One of the most prominent townsmen loudly proclaimed that he never heard a better sermon, and that, should he ever join any church, 'he would be a Roman!' For the time being, Father Abel was the hero of the day. 'This is the noblest youth that ever was raised in Kentucky,' was the unanimous verdict of every protestant in Morganfield. As a result of their  p384 labors, one hundred and ten acres of land were donated toward the erection of a catholic school.

"Whilst here, letters were handed to the missionaries, inviting them to push on fifty miles further; but, their time being limited, they had to refuse the pressing invitation with the promise of calling the next time Father Abel would come around.

"Fathers Nerinckx and Abel remained three weeks in Union county, and, in retracing their steps to St. Rumoldus, visited several minor stations on the way. At St. Teresa's (Flint Island, Meade county?), where Rev. Abel preached, they were presented with three hundred acres of land for a church, etc. They also accepted the invitation of a protestant, living eight miles away from there, and preached before an exclusively protestant audience, with the same success as heretofore: 'Call again.' A thirty-two mile journey brought them to St. Anthony's, Long Lick, Breckinridge county, where a church was being built at the time. In St. James mission, Rev. Abel again preached for the protestants in the court-house of Litchfield, Grayson county. Having ascertained that the oldest minister of the place was among his hearers, with the intention, as was whispered around, of indulging in a little bit of controversy, Father Abel invited him up to a seat on the rostrum. The subject was the Sacrament of Penance, and our young orator handled his subject so eloquently that the poor parson did not open his mouth, and manifested  p385 ever afterward the most peaceful intentions."

Satisfied that his congregations would only gain by the change, Father Nerinckx intrusted to the energetic Father Abel all his missions situated in the New Tract, and hurried back with a lighter heart to his dear Loretto, where new work awaited him.

"Bishop Flaget," he writes in 1819, "moved by the success of, and the great good brought about by, the institution of the Friends of Mary, desires me to establish a similar society for the young men and boys. The object is to have a religious community of men, whose aim would be the education of the boys, especially those of the middle classes and orphans, whose poverty so often prevents the Church and State from being benefited by their talents." Father Nerinckx went to work without delay; he made an appeal to the catholics of all the surrounding counties, requesting a generous contribution for an establishment which would prove so beneficial to their families; and the sisters, having called at the houses, collected about three thousand dollars. With this money was purchased, from Mr. Joseph Ray, a farm of three hundred and eleven acres, with dwelling-house and some out-houses, which Father Nerinckx christened Mount Mary's, as he intended to build on the hill a house dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The place, as intimated, was intended for the Brotherhood of the  p386 Loretto Society, and, awaiting the happy fulfillment of their founder's cherished plan, the sisters cultivated, for over a year, the newly purchased farm, one hundred acres of which were cleared. "The main building and four of the smaller ones were destroyed by fire, in the beginning of 1819; and, besides that great loss, the almost total destruction of a grist-mill on the place by a violent storm, has injured our prospects considerably." Writes Father Nerinckx in 1819: "Were it not for that last accident, the work would likely be commenced at this very time, for several of our young men desire very earnestly to enter the new institution."5

The blighted prospects of the new enterprise induced Father Nerinckx to consider seriously the possibility of a second trip to Europe, in order to amass funds for the prosecution of his plan. He spoke to Bishop Flaget, who approved of it without hesitation, and the zealous priest at once made preparations for his journey, although not without grave apprehensions about its results. That his apprehensions were well founded, fully appears from a subsequent letter to the Archbishop of Baltimore, written from Belgium, July 17, 1820. He says:

"I meet here with what I told your Grace  p387 and our Right Rev. Bishop I had to expect in the present metamorphosis — a persecution, and a warm one at that! You will no more wonder at it than I do. My projects nearly disappear in regione principum tenebrarum harum. I am frequently advised to make good my escape, although I have a sound American passport; and I think I will do so, for my friends and well-wishers suffer more uneasiness about my fate than I do myself. One would say: But what is the matter? I am only a missionary; I beg for the good of religion in a foreign country! . . . But less than this is enough to kindle a whole army of liberals with wrath. You need not wonder should I, if health permits, have the honor to see your Lordship before Winter. Mr. Chabrat can not come yet. . . . I think you will get an altar-piece of real worth for your Metropolitan church. . . . I hope I will be able to procure a picture for the altar at Mr. Thompson's, in the Alleghany Mountains. . . ."

But before accompanying Father Nerinckx on his second journey, we must give a short account of Mount Mary's subsequent history. During his absence, Bishop Flaget took upon himself to attend to the spiritual wants of the sisters of Loretto, and of some of his congregations. Having ordained Father Deparcq, a countryman of Father Nerinckx', Christmas, 1820, he shortly after appointed him to attend to the sisters of Calvary, and to take charge of St. Augustine's church, Lebanon, the construction  p388 of which that reverend gentleman completed in 1821. The Bishop further relieved himself of the too onerous missionary duties, which interfered very much with his episcopal occupations, by appointing the Rev. Wm. Byrne to attend to St. Charles' and Holy Mary's congregations.

The latter young clergyman had passed his life in collegiate employment, and the necessity of doing something for the instruction of the male youth so forcibly appealed to his energetic sympathies, that he resolved to begin a college immediately. Unwilling to await the return of its owner, he took possession of Mount Mary's farm, and with the consent of the Bishop of Bardstown, made all the necessary arrangements, so that, by the time that Father Nerinckx returned from Europe in 1821, the school was in a flourishing condition, and its president unwilling to give up to the missionary the farm which he had bought for the foundation of his new brotherhood.​6 Father Nerinckx was accompanied by three Flemish youths, with whom he had designed to begin the new institution. Several young Kentuckians also applied to him for admission into the society, and the self-sacrificing priest did all in his power to recover Mount Mary's and establish his brotherhood. But he met with no encouragement, and a great  p389 deal of opposition, so that the original project was never carried into effect.

One of the Belgian youths died of dropsy at Calvary convent, shortly after his arrival. The two others, MM. Van Rysselberghe and Gilbert, remained at Loretto until 1824, when the former accompanied Father Nerinckx to Missouri; after the missionary's death, Mr. Van Rysselberghe returned to Kentucky, and having married, settled in the environs of Bardstown. Mr. Gilbert, or Brother Gilbert, as he was more commonly called, remained until his death at the different establishments of the Loretto Society, attending to the farm work. He died at Cedar Grove, Mt. St. Benedict Academy, Louisville, Ky., in 1867.

After the death of Father Nerinckx, Bishop Flaget, at the instance of Father Chabrat, moved the Loretto convent to St. Stephen's, the farm lately held by Rev. Badin, which he gave to the sisters in exchange for Mount Mary's. From that time forward, St. Mary's Seminary, as it was now called, had a smooth course of uninterrupted prosperity.

Rev. Wm. Byrne conducted the college with much success till 1832, when, desiring to elevate the standard of studies, he proposed to Bishop Flaget to invite the Jesuit Fathers to take St. Mary's College, instead of St. Joseph's College, Bardstown, which had been offered to them as early as 1829. This suggestion met with the approval of all parties, and the college was  p390 transferred to Rev. Peter Chazelle, S. J., and companions in 1832, though Father Byrne, by request, continued to fill the office of president till his death, by cholera, on June 5, 1833. Father Chazelle succeeded him as president. He and his brother Jesuits that were with him, having but a limited knowledge of the English language, he applied to his Provincial in France for suitable professors in English literature. Father William Murphy and others of the Lyons province were selected, and arrived in Kentucky about the beginning of February, 1836.

Father Chazelle resigned the presidency of St. Mary's in 1839, and Father Murphy, who, assisted by Rev. Robert Abel, had, in 1837, obtained a charter for the college, was appointed his successor. He remained president till the Summer of 1846, when the Jesuits abandoned Kentucky, and accepted from Bishop Hughes, St. John's College, Fordham, New York, in August of the same year.

In 1847, St. Mary's College was again intrusted to the secular clergy. The following were its successive presidents:

1848. Rev. Julian Delanne, President.
1849. Rev. John McGuire, President.
Rev. Francis Lawler, Vice-President.
1851. Rev. John B. Hutchins, President.
Rev. Francis Lawler, Vice-President.
1853. Rev. Francis Lawler, President.
Rev. Michael Coghlan, Vice-President.

 p391  In 1856, Rev. Francis Lawler was President, and Rev. Edmund Driscoll, Vice-President, till spring, when Rev. John B. Hutchins became President for the remainder of the scholastic year, and again put the college on a sound financial footing.

In September, 1856, Rev. P. J. Lavialle, afterward Bishop of Louisville, was appointed President of St. Mary's College, with Rev. Jos. H. Elder as Vice-President. The latter remained only a few months, and was succeeded in the Vice-Presidency by Rev. A. Viala.

1865. Rev. A. Viala, President.
Rev. T. J. Disney, Vice-President.

Closed in 1869. The college entered upon a new era of usefulness, when the Resurrectionist Fathers assumed its control, in September, 1871, with Rev. L. Elena, C. R., President, and Rev. D. Fennessy, C. R., Vice-President.

1873. Rev. D. Fennessy, C. R., President.
Rev. R. De Carolis, C. R., Vice-President.
1879. Rev. D. Fennessy, C. R., President.
Rev. A. Vaghi, C. R., Vice-President.

The Author's Notes:

1 Personal recollections of Sister L–––––.

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2 "Sketches of Kentucky," by Archbishop Spalding; and letter of Bishop Flaget to Bishop England, in U. S. Catholic Miscellany, December 8, 1824.

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3 At the Barrens, where the Lazarists were building. The sisters subsequently went, and of course retained their name of Lorettines.

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4 We quote again Father Nerinckx' letter of 1818.

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5 Letter of 1819, to his parents. This place seems to have been haunted by what we commonly call ill-luck. The college, built on the same spot by Rev. Wm. Byrne, was again burned in 1822, and a third time some months later. In the light of subsequent facts, it almost looks like a retribution. It was again destroyed by fire in 1860.

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6 The facts as here related, although differing from the version given in the "Sketches of Kentucky," rest on most reliable documents.

Thayer's Note:

a Occupying the same grounds (although the original buildings of the Sisters of Loretto are gone), the Trappist abbey still flourishes: see its website. The Catholic Encyclopedia's article Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani has good historical information on the Trappist foundation; and details of the transfer from the Sisters of Loretto to the Cistercians, more precise than either those on that page or in Rev. Maes' account that you read above, are given in the article Cistercians in the same encyclopedia.

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