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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 29

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 31

 p533  Chapter XXX


Burial at the Barrens, Mo. — "Father Nerinckx is in Heaven!" — Removal of his remains to Loretto, Ky. — His Epitaph. — Supernatural Events. — Rev. Chabrat again. — Tributes to Father Nerinckx' memory. — Loretto convent removed to his first residence, Marion county, Ky.

"Brother James had," at Father Nerinckx' desire, "sent for Right Rev. Rosati to come and see the reverend father before he died, but the Bishop came too late. He arrived on Friday morning, and, finding him dead, told them not to bury him at that place, but to take his corpse to Bethlehem, and bury him where the sisters were, and that he himself would go on before and tell the sisters that their father and founder was dead, and that his corpse would be brought there that night."​1 But Father Dahmen entreated the Bishop to honor the funeral procession by his presence, and he sent a member of his congregation with the sad message to Perry county.

On the night of Father Nerinckx' death, a  p534 very remarkable incident had taken place at the Convent of Bethlehem: "Sisters Benedicta Fenwick and Mechtildis Hayden were making the hour's adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament, when the latter, hastily rising off her knees, went to Sister Benedicta and said to her in a low voice, 'Father Nerinckx is dead, I know he is. He is now in the presence of the Blessed Virgin whom he so tenderly loved on earth; and, in a short time, I shall follow.'​2 Sister Mechtildis had been suffering for a long time from a cancer in the head, and was so very sick with consumption that she had to remain in bed the next day. On the evening of that day, August 13th, 1824, and whilst the corpse was being brought from Ste. Genevieve, a similar scene, as strongly savoring of the supernatural, and the truth of which is vouched for by Sister Eulalia Kelly, who was an eye-witness to the fact, occurred toward nine o'clock, P.M. Sister Mechtildis got out of bed and began running about the house, singing: 'Praises to the Lord! Our dear Father Nerinckx is in heaven! Alleluia!' Thinking that her suffering had made the poor sister light in the head, her companions did all they could to quiet her; but to all their entreaties she only answered; 'Father Nerinckx is in heaven!' About a quarter of an hour later, the messenger from Ste. Genevieve actually arrived, and brought them the first news of the death of their founder, adding that  p535 the funeral procession was on its way to Bethlehem, and would arrive there some time during the night.

"The sisters immediately repaired to the Seminary church, and passed the night in prayers, sighs, and thanksgivings, until the arrival of the episcopal escort at two o'clock, A.M., with the mortal remains, which were deposited in the church. Brother James Van Rysselberghe, who had attended Father Nerinckx ever since he left Kentucky, acceded, the next morning, to the pleadings of the sisters, and raised the lid of the coffin to give them a catch to behold once more the features of the dear departed; but they had scarcely time to satisfy this pious wish, for the seminarians having heard that Father Nerinckx had died of yellow fever, instantly forced down the lid, for fear of propagating the disease.

"The funeral obsequies were celebrated on Saturday morning, August 14th, Rev. Father Odin, of the Barrens, singing a Solemn High Mass, in the presence of the Bishop of St. Louis, who, being too fatigued from the effects of his journey on horseback, could not do so himself. He, however, performed the absolution over the corpse, and preached a moving sermon on the occasion; the corpse was then committed to its final resting-place in the graveyard of the sisters. 'But Brother James Van Rysselberghe, who had been so faithful to Father Nerinckx during the course of the journey, and who had  p536 attended him constantly day and night while he was sick, engaged some persons to build a tomb for him; and, on the Monday following, which was the 16th of August, 1824, the remains were taken out of the ground, and inclosed in the tomb.' "3

"I have said nothing," writes Sister Eulalia, "of the sisters' heartrending grief at the death of Father Nerinckx. It can not be told, and no pen can describe it. The sobs, which they in vain tried to smother, bore testimony of their grief, their filial affection, and their sense of their great loss. When his tomb was about being closed, they all surrounded it, and each one placed in it some little memento. Every day after dinner, for months after, all the sisters and pupils went in procession to his tomb to offer prayers for the repose of his soul; yet we felt more like praying to him, and asking his intercession with God for ourselves. I have often heard the good Bishop Rosati say he considered the remains of Father Nerinckx as the most precious thing in his diocese, and that, though the saintly Bishop Flaget and the Superiors of Loretto were constantly writing to him for permission to bring them to Loretto, he would never grant that permission."

Yet, after nine years of pleading, their perseverance overcame his determination, and the long-desired treasure was taken up by Brother Charles Gilbert, of Loretto, one of Father Nerinckx'  p537 most enthusiastic admirers, on December 16, 1833, and carried to Loretto, Marion county, Ky. When he approached the main entrance, Brother Gilbert sent word to the Superior; the convent bell was tolled, and the whole community went out to receive the mortal remains of their cherished father. Mother Josephine Kelly and Mother Generose Mattingly had the happiness of carrying the precious relics to the church, a melancholy pleasure and honor which they never forgot. And thus, where the humble pioneer missionary first pitched his tent, his spiritual children, who had since removed to that spot, erected the monument of his well-earned glory.

The body was deposited in a suitable tomb, situated in the center of the Loretto conventual graveyard. It was built of brick, covered with plain oak plank, painted and sanded in imitation of stone, and surmounted by a large funereal urn. On each side of the brick-work was a projecting tablet with suitable inscriptions.

Subsequently, this was replaced by a white marble monument, the base of which is a parallelogram, about six feet long by three feet wide. The upper slab is adorned with a cross, at the foot of which is engraved:

Blessed are the dead who
die in the Lord.

— Rev. 14:18.

 p538  On the sides are engraved the following inscriptions:

At the head:

Loretto's mite
Esteem and Veneration
for its Founder.

Do not forsake
and He will never
forsake you. — C. N.

On the foot-end of the monument facing it, we read:

in pace.
Precious in the sight of the
Lord, is the death of His saints.

— Ps. 115.

On the right side:

In memory of

Rev. Charles Nerinckx,

A native of Flanders, who died August 12, 1824, in Missouri. His remains were translated to Kentucky, in 1833, by Brother Charles Gilbert, at the request of the Loretto society, and interred at this place by Right Rev. Bishop Flaget, and the Rev. G. J. Chabrat, Superior of the Society.

On the left side:

Mr. Nerinckx

Came to Kentucky in 1805, and devoted himself zealously to that laborious mission, during which time, he was nominated to the Diocese of New Orleans. But he refused that dignity, and, in 1812, he, with the approbation of the Holy See, instituted the Lorettines, or Friends of Mary, and died in performing the visitation of the Order, at Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, aged sixty-three.

 p539  Though willing that the Loretto Mother-House should possess Father Nerinckx' remains, the Sisters of Bethlehem felt sorely aggrieved at parting with them, and asked to be allowed to retain some memento of their founder. The request was granted, and Brother Gilbert left them the lower bone of the right hand's middle finger, which Mother Superior temporarily deposited on the shelf of a closet, enveloped in a piece of paper. Sister Margaret (now of Cape Girardeau) cleaning house, one day, inadvertently threw that little parcel, together with some sweepings, into the fire, when the thought struck her that that must have been the greatly prized relic of Father Nerinckx. Greatly distressed in mind, and alarmed at what she considered a great fault of carelessness, and at the sorrow the accident would cause to the sisters, she went to examine the ashes in the hearth (that being all that was left of what she had thrown into the fire), as people will sometimes almost unconsciously act although convinced of the inutility of their search, when, to her amazement, she actually found the bone, enveloped in the paper, untouched!4

This event created quite a sensation in the community, and augmented, if that were possible, the veneration they entertained for the blessed memory of their saintly founder. They, however, abstained from all outside comment on  p540 the subject, when a more astonishing occurrence drew the attention of the people to the sacred spot where Father Nerinckx' remains had rested for nearly nine years. The sisters religiously guarded it, and ornamented it yearly with grasses and flowers, bright emblems of their undying affection for their spiritual father; daily visits were made to the grave, and the surrounding settlers not unfrequently came to pray at the foot of the cross which overshadowed its grassy plot. A good old lady, living near the Barrens, Mrs. Burke by name, had been blind for many years. All kinds of remedies had been ineffectually tried, and the most skillful practitioners had given her up as a hopeless case. Having known Father Nerinckx, and entertaining a high respect and veneration for his memory, she finally resolved to apply to him for her cure. She was so positive, so fully convinced that God would grant to his intercession, what human means had failed to effect, that no entreaties of her friends could deter her from undertaking a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, which, considering her blindness and the infirmities of old age, they pronounced dangerous. "Take me to the grave of the old Saint!" she persistently repeated, and they finally acceded to her request. Mrs. Burke was led to the grave; stooping down, she took up a handful of earth from its surface, and, full of faith, rubbed it to her eyes, . . . a cry of joy and gratitude startled the less confident beholders of the  p541 scene. . . . Mrs. Burke's eye-sight had been instantly restored!5

As faithful children of Holy Mother Church, we refrain from characterizing these occurrences, upon which she never pronounces but with the greatest reserve. God's power is, and will ever be made manifest in the glorious death of His Saints, as His patience and endurance are made to astonish the world in their persecuted lives; but the church alone can pass a decision upon the facts.

Father Nerinckx had not had the opportunity of acquainting Bishop Flaget with the fact of his having been received into the diocese of Missouri; and the news of his death was the first confirmation the Bishop of Bardstown received of his final removal from Kentucky. Judging from the circumstances of his departure, and knowing how zealous and saintly a priest Father Nerinckx was, he had little doubt in his mind but what Bishop Rosati would welcome him with outstretched arms; but, unwilling to bestow his place on another, so long as there was the faintest hope for his return to Kentucky, he temporarily charged Father Chabrat with the direction of the Loretto Society. "After the death of Rev. Father Nerinckx," writes Sister Isabella Clarke, who very reluctantly stated to us these facts, which several other sisters yet living also witnessed, "the Right Rev. Bishop Flaget of this diocese came to Loretto accompanied  p542 by Rev. J. P. Chabrat, whom he installed in Father Nerinckx' place as our ecclesiastical superior. Being thus placed in full possession of his house and its contents, he, for some reason,​a burnt all of Rev. Nerinckx' writings and a considerable number of ascetical books, which the holy missionary had collected in Belgium during his journeys through that country in 1816‑17 and 1820‑21. Some time after that, he found out that I had Rev. Father Nerinckx' farewell letter, and he ordered me to bring it to him; he took it from my hands and threw it into the fire. Fortunately, three copies of it had been taken which escaped the fire." Yes, dear Mother, and more fortunate still, one of your sisters seized the original as it fell on the opposite side of the burning heap of books which the gentleman had built in the yard, and succeeded in hiding it, whilst he was facing you; and its venerable looking pages yet gladden the hearts of your spiritual daughters!

Personally convinced that Father Nerinckx was too rigid, Rev. Chabrat took that rather high-handed measure to counteract his severity, and to put an end to the grief which the good sisters were unable to repress at the loss of their devoted father. But the saintly director's rules and his spirit of mortification were already too deeply written on the hearts of his children, and too carefully treasured in their memories not to escape the devouring element. Although not written on paper, they still continue,  p543 to this day, to fashion and form the spiritual life of his daughters, the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross.

Well did the Right Rev. Bishop Flaget write in his letter to Bishop England, of Charleston:6

"The attempt of death to snatch Mr. Nerinckx from us has been ineffectual, for he still lives among us in his works; and the monuments of the zeal of my virtuous friend are so multiplied in my diocese, and his generous devotion so well appreciated, that his name and that of his beneficent country are embalmed in the memory of my flock. The legacy which my people value most is that of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross; this admirable institution is their delight. The virtuous daughters of this Society are the edification of all who know them; their singular piety and their penitential lives remind us of all that we have read of the ancient monasteries of Palestine and Thebais. Their number is over one hundred; they have charge of six schools. . . . It is now nearly twenty years since Mr. Nerinckx arrived in Kentucky, and has edified its inhabitants by his truly apostolic mode of life; a mode well worthy of the first ages of the church. During a considerable time, he had to serve alone with Rev. Mr. Badin, who well deserves the title of founder of this diocese, of the several congregations of this immense region. The continual travelling which Mr. Nerinckx  p544 was obliged to undergo, at all seasons of the year, and exposed to every inconvenience, would have terrified the most enterprising pioneer. As, at the time of his arrival, there were but one or two churches built, and the catholics were scattered throughout the country, he went about from settlement to settlement, celebrating the holy mysteries from house to house, hearing confessions every morning, and obliged to fast almost every day in the year. His instructions were extremely simple and quite to the point.

"Feeling greatly the inconvenience which arose from celebrating the divine mysteries in rooms devoted to every worldly purpose, he did his best to inspire all catholics whom he used to visit, with a zeal for the construction of churches, and endowing them with lands for the support of pastors. His exertions, in this respect, were crowned with perfect success. The Catholic Church of Kentucky has acquired much land, which is worth very little at present, but which will one day have considerable value. We count ten churches built solely by his exertions; also six convents of nuns, and as many oratories. He made two journeys to Europe, in order to procure the means necessary for those great works; and the valuables which he procured exceeded the amount of $15,000. This aid was principally drawn from religious Flanders."

Another writer in the same periodical​7 says: "The employment of Rev. Mr. Nerinckx will be  p545 long cherished in Kentucky. The many young people whom he has trained up in the love of God and the practice of virtue, will hereafter speak of him to the children with a pious enthusiasm. Every one who knew him must give a grateful testimony of his zeal. His vigilant care of the churches which he had formed in various parts of the country was unparalleled. Night and day, at all seasons, he was ready to fly to the call of the distressed. Persons not acquainted with him, could scarcely credit the narration, were we to recount all the instances of the self denial and privations that he underwent in the service of his neighbor. In this particular, he was no less than an astonishing man; and it was a subject of just amazement to all who witnessed his labors, that he did not sink under their continual pressure. In all this too, shone conspicuous the most unequivocal disinterestedness. In this venerable priest the church in Kentucky has lost the most active and efficient promoter of her interest. He was munificent almost beyond what can be believed; every church in the State, yes, almost every individual catholic, could show some of the gifts of the Rev. Mr. Nerinckx. But to the churches he has been singularly liberal; perhaps $20,000 would not purchase all the sacred furniture he has distributed to the churches through the country and towns. Rev. Mr. Nerinckx was also very fruitful in resources. He was poor; yet he  p546 seemed capable of effecting every thing. He had numerous communities to maintain, yet, notwithstanding the state of the times, he found wherewith not only to maintain those numerous establishments, but also to found and establish churches. He undertook much, and never failed to accomplish what he attempted; and when we turn our eyes to the numberless improvements which he has scattered throughout the country, we are at a loss to know where he obtained the means of effecting so much."

After Rev. Chabrat had been at Loretto a few months, he, by the advice of the Right Rev. Bishop Flaget, concluded to move Loretto to another place. At that time, the Bishop owned the residence and farm of Rev. Father Badin, who had gone to Europe; so he concluded to let the Sisters of Loretto have this place in exchange for St. Mary's Seminary, now St. Mary's College, and Loretto was moved from its birth-place, so dear to the sisters because of its manifold associations with their early struggles and sufferings, to St. Stephen's farm, in 1824. Unwilling to have old Loretto desecrated by indifferent men for worldly purposes, the sisters set fire to the convent and chapel, after they had removed the rest of their household to the new place, in 1825. The log-house which Father Nerinckx used to live in at St. Charles, stands there to this day, and it was, in 1874, the dwelling-house of a negro family.

Thus did the cradle of catholicity in Kentucky —  p547 St. Stephen's, the residence of its first missionary priest and the palace of its first Bishop, the foundation of its first Seminary, and the headquarters of its first priests — become the permanent location of the Mother-House of the Lorettines; a fit monument to the zeal of Kentucky's greatest apostle, the crowning glory of its founder, Father Nerinckx, who had first lived on this very spot for upwards of seven years. Modern Loretto displays its spacious buildings and healthful gardens on the hill. It was from here that the zealous and energetic Father Nerinckx attended to his numerous and distant congregations; it is from here that his spiritual children spread throughout the States their powerful influence for good; it is here that the mortal remains of the holy man have found a last resting-place, and await, surrounded by those of many sisters who followed him to his eternal reward, the glorious day of the Resurrection.

The Author's Notes:

1 Letter of Sister Ann, already cited. London Catholic Miscellany, April, 1825.

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2 Record of St. Louis Cathedral. Sup. Cit.

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3 Letter of Sister Ann. Sup. Cit.

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4 Reminiscences of Sister Isabella Clarke.

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5 Reminiscences of Sister Isabella Clarke.

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6 U. S. Catholic Miscellany, for December 24, 1824.

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7 Discipulus, in U. S. Catholic Miscellany, December 1, 1824.

Thayer's Note:

a One possible reason is suggested by Fr. O'Daniel in his paper on the controversy between Fr. Nerinckx and the Dominicans (CHR:6:84, note).

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