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Chapter 25

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 27

 p445  Chapter XXVI


Father Nerinckx' return to Kentucky. — How the original founders of the Jesuit mission in Missouri came to the United States. — Sketch of the establishment of the Missouri Province. — High mass of thanksgiving in Baltimore Cathedral.

Ever fearful lest he should be arrested, and see the fruits to be reaped from this visit destroyed, Father Nerinckx moved about without ostentation, unknown to all but his intimate friends. Without attracting too much attention to his movements, he gathered all the presents or purchases he could conveniently carry along; but he had to refuse a valuable library offered to him by an aged pastor, lest the gift might put the officials of the government on his track. It was also to prevent any such unwelcome interference that his arrangements for returning to the United States, for the shipping of various objects, such as vestments, books, and the like, which he acquired by purchase or donation, were all effected through a tobacco merchant of Mechlin, named Ketelaer, who had business connections in Antwerp and Amsterdam.1

 p446  As we saw in our last chapter, Father Nerinckx on his way to Europe, in 1820, passed by Georgetown College, in the District of Columbia, where he met with Oliver Vandevelde, S. J., a young Belgian, who, as already remarked, had accompanied him on his return to the United States, in 1817. Among the letters of which  p447 Father Nerinckx was made the bearer to Europe, was one from Mr. Vandevelde, of Georgetown College, to Judocus Francis Van Assche, a youth who was then a student in the Seminary of Mechlin. Mr. Vandevelde had formerly been the tutor of young Van Assche, and, on his departure for the United States in 1817, his pupil would have accompanied him, had not his youth and the lack of means rendered such a step impracticable at that time. The desire of joining his friend in America, however, the ardent youth never renounced, though he divulged it to no one previously to the arrival of Father Nerinckx.

Father Nerinckx delivered this letter from Mr. Vandevelde for young Van Assche to the parents of the youth; they dwelt in the village of St. Amand, about four leagues from Mechlin. On reading this letter, addressed to their son, they at first thought of suppressing it and keeping its contents secret. But, on reflection, the father changed his mind, visited his son at Mechlin, delivered to him the communication from his friend in America, remarking, however, that "there was no good sense in his thinking of going to America; that there was plenty of good to be done at home; that Mr. Vandevelde, who was striving to entice him away, was of a roving disposition, and had tried to induce a cousin of young Van Assche to go as a missionary to England," etc. To all these arguments, that were prompted by the natural affection of a  p448 father, the son said little in reply; but he kept the letter, and read, and reread it with avidity. The letter informed him that if he still had a mind of coming to America, Father Nerinckx' return from Europe, in the following year, would furnish him with a favorable opportunity to accomplish his purpose. This communication from Mr. Vandevelde was handed to young Van Assche about the end of July, in 1820. At the beginning of the following vacation, he determined to find Father Nerinckx, if possible, and with this intention, he visited Rev. Mr. Ver Loo, a pious priest, who resided about two leagues from Mechlin, and was supposed to know the hiding-place of the illustrious missionary from America. He was accompanied to Rev. Mr. Ver Loo's house by a young fellow-seminarian named John B. Elet. Rev. Mr. Ver Loo had once been a professor at the Seminary of Mechlin, and was subsequently the president, and to him young Elet was much attached. On the way to the residence of the holy priest, Van Assche revealed to Elet his design of going to America in company with Father Nerinckx; young Elet declared without hesitation that he, too, would go along with him. His friend, Van Assche, put little reliance, at the time, on a resolution which seemed to be so inconsiderately taken; yet subsequent events proved it to have been no merely passing notion. Rev. Mr. Ver Loo could not give the information sought for, but he accompanied the young visitors to the  p449 pastor of a neighboring church, who told them that Father Nerinckx was, perhaps, with his aunt, who was superioress of a hospital in Mechlin. Van Assche visited alone the hospital in Mechlin, carrying with him, as a passport, the letter from Mr. Vandevelde, S. J., addressed under care of Rev. Charles Nerinckx, and inquired of the superioress if her reverend nephew was then her guest. She answered that he could, most likely, be found at the hospital in Dendermonde, over which another of his aunts was superioress. Dendermonde is about two leagues from St. Amand, where the parents of Van Assche resided. He went home to his parents at St. Amand, but he still said nothing to them at all concerning his intention of going to America. After some days spent at home, he went to the hospital at Dendermonde, with his letter having Father Nerinckx' name superscribed as its bearer from America, and asked for the superioress. When she presented herself, he stated that he desired to see Father Nerinckx, who, he had been informed, was with her, handing her, at the same time, the letter. She examined the superscription carefully, and, without making any reply, went out of the parlor with the letter. Father Nerinckx entered a few minutes afterward. When young Van Assche made known his desire of accompanying the holy missionary to America, he said in answer: "I can do nothing for you. My situation is very  p450 precarious. I am suspected by the government authorities, and I must be exceedingly cautious, even to escape arrest and imprisonment. However, if you are resolved on going to America, it is not for me to prevent your doing so; the vessel in which I came will probably start on its return trip next May" (1821). Young Van Assche determined at once in his own mind to go with Father Nerinckx to America on this vessel.

When classes were resumed at the Seminary of Mechlin in September of 1820, young Van Assche and his friend Elet returned to prosecute their studies. Van Assche said nothing for a time to any other fellow-seminarian of Father Nerinckx, or of his own purpose of going to America, but he thought anxiously of different schemes for procuring the means necessary of the accomplish his object. He did not board at the Seminary, but at a private house near the great Seminary; for, at that time, the number of students was so great that the Seminary was not sufficiently capacious to lodge all of them. There were three seminarians who boarded at the same house with Van Assche, and, during the course of the Autumn, he manifested to them his intention of going to America with Father Nerinckx, but he confessed his embarrassment with regard to the method of obtaining the money which would be necessary for effecting his aim. One of the companions in the boarding-house — a Mr. Van Loo — said to him:  p451 "if you are in earnest, I can tell you how to procure the means for the journey." He proceeded to inform him that Mr. De Neff, of Turnhout, would surely furnish him with what he needed, if rightly asked to do so.

This Mr. De Neff had been a linen-draper, and amassed a fortune. He was a cultivated scholar, and was, withal, a man of solid piety. At the death of his wife, he discontinued all mercantile pursuits, and, as he had no responsibility after the demise of his worthy spouse, but one child — a daughter — and she was amply provided for, he thought seriously of becoming a priest. This well-meant project, however, he was induced, by prudent advisers, to abandon. He shortly afterward devoted a portion of his fortune to founding and maintaining a college at Turnhout,​2 in which young men of limited  p452 means might acquire the preparatory education requisite for entering the seminaries, and, in this college, he himself taught a regular class.​3 Mr. De Neff subsequently rendered aid to indigent missions in the United States, and he was a special benefactor to his Belgian countrymen who first established the Jesuit mission of Missouri, in 1823. The Mr. Van Loo above mentioned had been educated at Mr. De Neff's college, and hence the confidence with which he assured his young friend of relief from his difficulties by this munificent gentleman.

Young Elet had as room-mate at his boarding-house a fellow-student, named John B. Smedts, to whom he communicated the agreement made by himself and Van Assche to do with Father  p453 Nerinckx to America in the following Spring. Young Smedts expressed at once his resolution also to be one of the party. With this new accession, Van Assche was in due time made acquainted, and these two, Van Assche and Smedts, filled with pleasant expectations, visited Mr. De Neff, at Turnhout, bearing with them a letter of introduction from Mr. Van Loo, a former pupil of Mr. De Neff's college. They were received kindly by Mr. De Neff, who commended their undertaking; he assured them also that but for the want of available money, his ready means having been exhausted by heavy outlays recently made in building, he would, with much pleasure to himself, furnish them all they needed for the journey. As it was he gave them some money, and wrote for them letters of introduction to priests and presidents of seminaries in Holland, where, he felt confident, they would succeed in obtaining the requisite assistance; and, meanwhile, he invited them to make his house their home whenever they happened to be at Turnhout, or in its vicinity. After some respite, Messrs. Van Assche and Smedts started to Holland, to which they traveled all the way on foot, going directly to Bois-le‑Duc. At the Seminary of Bois-le‑Duc they were received cordially by the president, Rev. Mr. Van Gills, who spoke in their behalf to the professors and the seminarians, and he also gave them letters to some pastors of neighboring churches from whom, he judged, they might expect aid.

 p454  A few months later, Messrs. Van Assche and Elet went over the same grounds in quest of means for their proposed trip to America, but the amount collected by the youthful mendicants during both these journeys, when all taken together, was not adequate to their wants. They saw the necessity of resorting to other plans for supplying the deficiency, and, with this view, they resolved to sell their books, furniture, pianos, watches, and the like. But there was a difficulty in the way of this business transaction, arising from the circumstance that all was to be done secretly, and only with friends who were trustworthy; for, it must be observed, that even their parents were wholly ignorant of their intended journey to America with Father Nerinckx, or that they thought of taking such a step at all. They succeeded in selling, or rather in pawning, their movable wares and chattels for about one-half their value, but only by giving their assurance that the amount advanced on these objects would ultimately be refunded by their parents.

As already observed, there was at that time in Mechlin a wealthy tobacco-merchant named Ketelaer, who had business connections in Antwerp and Amsterdam, and these merchants were fully posted as to all the arrangements made by the ship on which Father Nerinckx had come to Belgium, and on which he was to return to America. Mr. Ketelaer took peculiar pleasure in giving the youthful adventurers all information  p455 and assistance, and with him they deposited their money, and stored the luggage which they were to carry with them to America. Henceforth, besides giving them all necessary directions, he kept them informed as to the progress of all preparations made by the vessel for its departure.

At this period of the undertaking, Mr. Peter J. Verhaegen got knowledge of it and joined the trio; and a little later, Mr. Felix L. Verreydt, Mr. De Maillet, Mr. Van Horsick, who were seminarians, and a Rev. Mr. Veulman, who, though still in the Seminary, had been ordained priest, all asked to be associated in the enterprise; and finally, at a still later date, Peter J. Desmet​a was added to their number. Each of the new recruits made his own arrangements to provide means for the journey, the original trio having already completed all necessary preparations of this kind.

The vessel, instead of starting from Amsterdam in May, as at first announced, delayed its departure till August. Meanwhile, the prospective missionaries to a foreign land went on with their scholastic employments at the Seminary as usual, keeping their proceedings secret from all save a few trusted friends, but holding themselves in readiness to move at a moment's warning. About the middle of July they were notified by Mr. Ketelaer to make ready, as the vessel would sail from Amsterdam in August. They started immediately by private conveyance,  p456 in different parties,​4 and proceeded, by the directions given, to a rendezvous in Antwerp, whence they were conveyed to Amsterdam; they there put up at the same hotel, and they were instructed to await at that place for further orders. P. J. Desmet, who had but lately joined the party, had borrowed from a friend of his family the money which he needed for the journey, and this friend had written to the young man's father, informing him that he had advanced money to his son for a trip to America. The father instantly dispatched an elder son in pursuit of the truant, who was speedily traced to his lodgings in Amsterdam. Young Desmet's brother did not believe him called to the priesthood, and imputed his action to the waywardness and love of novelty which are peculiar to youth, and accordingly he urged him to return home to his parents. When he perceived that his young brother was immovable in his purpose, and that further discussion was useless, he yielded, and furnished him with all the requisite means, recommending him, however, to write home for money when his mind was changed, and he wished to return to Belgium.

It having become known to their friends in  p457 Antwerp that their movements were no longer secret, it was feared, by those colleagues beyond the borders of Holland, that steps might be taken by the civil authorities to have the whole band arrested and countermarched back to Belgium. In order to avert this disastrous issue to all that had been hitherto accomplished, the young men were placed aboard a schooner and hurried away to the Texal,º a small island which is situated a few miles off the coast of North Holland. On this island dwelt the families of numerous pilots who steered ocean vessels into the harbor of Amsterdam, and back again into the open sea at their departure from port. This maneuver of the party was effected clandestinely, and was known only to a few reliable friends whose assistance was needed to shield them from danger. They were detained on the Texal about two weeks before the American vessel, the "Columbus," was ready to stand out to sea. All arrangements had been made by Mr. Ketelaer and other friends for receiving on board at the island the whole band, in such a manner as to elude the authorities.

Father Nerinckx had also come upon the island, accompanied by Charles Gilbert,​5 from London, and Jacobus Vanrysselberghe, a Belgian,  p458 who intended to become lay brothers at Loretto, Kentucky, but his arrival was, for some days, unknown to the young men. When they became aware of his presence, Mr. Verhaegen sought him out, and politely called upon him. This exhibition of his respect procured both for himself and companions a severe reprimand for their imprudence in wandering publicly about the island, and talking boisterously, quite heedless of their perilous condition. But to avoid inopportune cheerfulness, or to be thoughtful about the possible evils of noise and loquacity when danger is reported to be imminent, is not an ordinary employment of youthful faculties; and hence it is not to be wondered at that they had explored the whole island before the end of the first day, and that one of their recreations was to drill as soldiers upon the lawns, in order to be better fitted for their doom, in case they were discovered and pressed into the service, by the government authorities, as recruits for the national army.

There were two churches on the island, and the young men publicly attended divine service in a body at each of them, their boldness causing no little annoyance to the saintly, but rigid Father Nerinckx.

Whilst returning to their boarding-house from the more distant of the two churches, on August 15th, they were informed, by a pilot who met them, that the ship for America was nearing the island, so that they should prepare quickly to go  p459 on board. They hastened to get from their hotel all parcels, and went upon the pilot-boat to cross over the shoal water, beyond which the often mentioned ship for America rode at anchor. When they entered the pilot-boat, they soon ascertained that Father Nerinckx had already boarded it, and was concealed at the end of the vessel. After the boat was loosed from its moorings and was hurrying out over the breakers, Father Nerinckx stepped forth from his hiding-place, to reconnoiter the situation, and he again reproved his young companions sharply their incautious behavior whilst on the island, which, he assured them, had exposed both him and them to the risk of government interference with their departure from the country.

It will be noticed in what is thus far narrated, that Father Nerinckx, from the beginning, was careful not to commit himself by any explicit engagements or promises, which, if known to the civil authorities, could in any wise compromise him. The opposition of the government to young men's emigrating from Belgium was aimed, as will be readily inferred, to prevent the evasion of military duty at home. So secret and circumspect had the venerable missionary body, that though Mr. Van Assche had learned from him the name of the vessel on which he would return to America, the time when it would sail, and was put in communication with Ketelaer, Father Nerinckx' agent, yet not one of the young men had ever even seen him, except  p460 Messrs. Van Assche and Verhaegen, till they listened to his austere, yet prudent and fatherly monitions on the pilot-boat. They got safe aboard the Columbus, and were speedily out upon the high sea. As their vessel floated onward, they seemed to have cast no "lingering, longing looks" back upon the shore which most of them were never to see again. It was too magnanimous a sacrifice of home, and native land, and loved ones whom they were leaving behind, to be expressed by the tears of sensible affection.

All escaped sea-sickness, except Messrs. Elet and Desmet, who suffered much, especially whilst in the English Channel. In their distress, courage failed them, and they several times petitioned the captain to put them ashore, if such a thing were possible; but the hardy seaman merely laughed at them. Their ailment ceased in a few days, and the rest of the voyage was without any unusual occurrence. Father Nerinckx spent the day according to exact rule: He arose each morning at the same hour, and then, in a devout posture on his chair near his bed, with downcast eyes and body motionless, he was, for two or three hours, absorbed in prayer. About sunset every evening, he would stand on the prow of the vessel for a considerable time in prayer. He was kind and fatherly to his youthful companions for the American missions, but exacted of them regularity in spiritual exercises, and he strived, with moderate success, to enforce  p461 the gravity of deportment and demureness of manners, which were so marked in himself.

Father Nerinckx rarely smiled, though his countenance was benignant. He sometimes talked in the English language with the captain, who showed him special attention and kindness. His conversation with the young men was almost exclusively on spiritual subjects, but was not protracted beyond a few minutes at a time. Yet his equanimity and self-possession yielded on one occasion to human impulses: Rev. Mr. Veulman was reciting his office in the cabin, when the captain of the vessel and a Jew began to inspect a pistol near by him. The young clergyman took the fancy that their talk in English was about him, and that they were preparing to shoot him; being seized with sudden terror, he ran quite frantic up to that part of the deck where Father Nerinckx was, and was followed by the captain, whose countenance showed him to be much amused. When the cause of the occurrence and his rapid movements were explained to Father Nerinckx, their ludicrous character, with the frightened looks and the trepidation of the young man, completely conquered the severe gravity of the holy old priest, and he laughed convulsively, to the surprise even of the sailors. Several times afterward, when asked, in the presence of the young men, by inquiring friends for some favorable testimony to their good behavior on sea, it afforded him an opportunity for  p462 a little innocent pleasantry, quite characteristic of his simplicity and good nature, and he would answer: "I know nothing of them, except that Mr. Veulman can run very fast." Thus the agile Mr. Veulman's swift-footed exploit was never forgotten by his companions, even when afterward weighed down with the burden of more than three score and ten years.

After a pleasant voyage of just thirty-nine days, they landed at Philadelphia, on Sunday afternoon, September 23, 1821. The wharf was crowded with people, white and black, the latter complexion affording a striking novelty for the curiosity of the ingenuous young travelers. A number of gentlemen came on board, making various inquiries concerning the passage over the sea, the captain, his treatment of the passengers, about Belgium, etc. Father Nerinckx and the two candidates for Loretto landed and remained for a time in Philadelphia. The young Belgians lodged during Sunday night on the ship, and on the following morning they were transferred to a steamboat for Baltimore, reaching that place on the same day.

The archiepiscopal See of Baltimore was then filled by Archbishop Marechal. He invited the young men to remain with him, and go to the Seminary; but they were not to be diverted from their purpose, which, from the beginning, was to join Mr. Vandevelde at the Georgetown College. Of the crowd, however, Rev. Mr. Veulman remained in Baltimore; also Mr. Van  p463 Horsick, who, though he desire to go to Georgetown, yet, from the fact that he owed a sum of money to his brother, was ineligible to the society, and was compelled to remain in Baltimore. The remaining seven, namely, Messrs. Van Assche, Verhaegen, Elet, Smedts, De Smet, Verreydt, and De Maillet, proceeded by carriages on to Georgetown College. The Provincial of the Maryland province at that time was Father Anthony Kohlman; the master of novices at White Marsh​6 was Father Charles Van Quickenborne, a native of Ghent, in Belgium. After some opportune repose and recreation, the postulants were sent to the novitiate at White Marsh; they began their regular probation on the 6th of October, 1821. Father Nerinckx visited them at White Marsh before continuing his journey to Kentucky. His advice to them while on the sea, had been to prefer becoming members of the Society of Jesus, and his impressive words helped to confirm them in their resolution of going to Georgetown. It was not a small gratification for the saintly old missionary now to see those youths clad in the garb of Jesuit novices. They loved him for his holiness and his unfeigned charity. And Father Nerinckx was a man of God, who left some impress of his deep  p464 sanctity on all, even those with whom he was only transiently connected.

Father Nerinckx sang High Mass of thanksgiving in the Cathedral of Baltimore, a day of thanksgiving having been appointed at that time by the municipal authorities. Bishop England speaks of the pleasure it afforded him to hear that Mass, and to preach on that occasion. He says: "The good Doctor Tessier, the venerable Superior of St. Sulpice, in the Seminary in that city, was kind enough to introduce the celebrant and the preacher to each other, and to bring both to partake of his and Rev. Doctor Damphoux' hospitality. That day shall not be blotted from the Bishop's memory; nor shall his good friend, Mr. Nerinckx, be forgotten by him at the altar."7

The Author's Notes:

1 The following reliable narrative has been kindly contributed to our work by Rev. Walter H. Hill, S. J., of St. Louis University, who gleaned his facts from conversations held at various times with the venerable Father Van Assche, and committed them to writing. Father Van Assche retained a lively remembrance of the events here detailed and described as told by him in 1873. He died, whilst this work was in preparation, June 26, 1877, from the effects of a stroke of paralysis which he experienced, just a month before, on his way to a sick call at St. Stanislaus novitiate, Missouri, in his seventy-eighth year. Mr. Van Assche was ordained a priest in 1827, and assumed, two years later, the regular charge of the congregation of St. Ferdinand, at the village of Florissant. This congregation had been for a year in charge of the Trappists, who gave it up in 1810, removing to Monk's Mound, on Cahokia Creek, Illinois. When the monks left Illinois in 1813, to return to Europe, Rev. Dunand, a member of their order, remained in Missouri and had charge of the congregation at Florissant for some seven years, residing a part of that time in the village. His congregation was afterward under the care of Rev. Mr. De Lacroix, from 1820 to 1823, during which time he built the present brick church of that place. In 1823, Mr. De Lacroix made over the church to the Jesuit fathers, under whose charge it has remained till the present time. In 1823, Father Van Assche began to reside at Florissant. He lived a couple of years at Portage des Sioux; but, by advice of his physicians, he returned to Florissant in 1840, and, with the exception of three years' residence at St. Charles, he made it his home till his death. Father Van Assche lived fifty-four years of his long life in Missouri; and, except two short visits, one to Cincinnati, and one to Chicago, he never, in that time, went beyond St. Louis and St. Charles counties. He was a man of God, and, full of days and full of merit, he expired calmly in the arms of his brethren. May he rest in peace!

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2 Rev. Peter J. Aernoudt, S. J., (known by the English form of his name — Arnold,) who wrote the "Following of the Sacred Heart of Jesus," was a scholar of St. Joseph's College, Turnhout, then under the direction of Mr. Peter De Neff, in 1832. Mr. De Neff held the direction of that college for many years longer, when he confided it to the Fathers of the Society of Jesus.

This good and pious man did all in his power to educate his young pupils in the fear and love of God. Most of his scholars became zealous priests or devoted religious. His greatest joy was to have some devote themselves to the American missions. Hence his love and veneration for Rev. Father Nerinckx.

Father Aernoudt was born in Moere, West Flanders, Belgium, in 1811. He first took private lessons with a priest of his native village, went to the College of Thielt in 1830, and thence to Mr. De Neff's college in 1832. He there completed his studies, and entered the Society of Jesus, December 31, 1835. He left for America, September 24, 1836, landed in New York, November 16, and reached St. Louis, Missouri, December 2, of the same year. He made his novitiate at St. Stanislaus, taught in several colleges, and became a priest in 1843. His great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, intensified during a dangerous sickness from which he recovered, led him to write his "Following of the Sacred Heart of Jesus," completed in 1846. The manuscript, approved by his superiors in Rome, was mislaid and lost for fifteen years; hence the long delay of its publication. Father Desmet and Right Rev. J. B. Purcell, Archbishop of Cincinnati, had a great veneration for the man of God. Father Aernoudt made his solemn vows in 1854; he lived twenty-nine years in the United States, and died at St. Louis University, July 26, 1865. — C. P. Maes.

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3 It is said that, when Mr. De Neff was compelled by duty or illness to absent himself from the class-room, his accomplished daughter Mary took his place, and that she fulfilled the office of temporary professor, both with much credit to herself, and with great profit to her disciples. She led the life of a pious maiden in the world, performing magnificent works of charity, in imitation of her generous father, and died at an advanced age a few years ago.

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4 They met the King, William I, returning in his carriage from the Hague; they saluted him, even bidding him good-bye; but, fortunately, the full import of this innocent boldness was not understood by him. William I was King of the Netherlands, and, consequently, Belgium was subject to the government of Holland at that time.

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5 Mr. Gilbert was a convert to the church. He was an Englishman, born in London. He was a carpenter by trade, and remained with the Loretto Sisters till his death, about Easter, 1867. He died at Mt. St. Benedict, in Louisville, Ky.

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6 The place was so named in commemoration of the illustrious Father White, S. J., who accompanied the first colony of English Catholics, who, leaving their country for conscience's sake, settled in Maryland, in 1634.

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7 "Catholic Miscellany," December 8, 1824.

Thayer's Note:

a Pierre Jan De Smet, Jan. 30, 1801–May 23, 1873. (His name is properly spelled as I just gave it, but with one exception, Maes will spell it thruout as in the text of this chapter and the next.) A large and interesting site devoted to him collects much biographical material as well as what seems to be the entirety of his published works, among which can be found his own biographical sketch of Father Nerinckx (Letters 40‑42). That site also bears distressing witness (on this page and several following) to the transience of history in the United States: the last traces of the Jesuit presence at Florissant were obliterated in 2003, and the remains of Fr. De Smet and one hundred and twenty other Jesuits were moved to a much less meaningful communal plot in St. Louis. Photographs document the thorough destruction of the historical site.

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