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Chapter 3

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 5

 p50  Chapter IV


Father Nerinckx appointed for Kentucky. — "Again a schoolboy" at Georgetown. — His humility. — Mademoiselle de la Rochefoucault and the French ambassador. — Visit of the Trappist prior. — Father Nerinckx prepares for his western mission. — His arrival in Kentucky.

Bishop Carroll received the exiles with open arms, and was not slow in discovering the intrinsic worth of the hardy Flemish priest. Father Nerinckx was forty-three years of age when he entered upon his missionary career; and he brought to it, with the experienced skill which twenty years of arduous ministry, spiritual direction and mental suffering had given him, all the fervor of youth. Of austere virtue, tempered with sweetest charity, shining out of his rugged countenance; of an iron constitution and herculean strength; of the most profound humility, which thorough theological learning made all the more conspicuous; he was the very man whom the Bishop of Baltimore wanted for the abandoned mission of Kentucky, where Father Badin was roaming about in the most forlorn condition, and which no one elsewhere  p51 wished, or was indeed willing, to accept. The "solicitude of all the churches" kept the Patriarch of the American Church in continual dread, lest even the most distant regions of his diocese should suffer for the want of priests. To supply them all with pious and zealous workmen, obtained from Catholic Europe, was the constant aim of his heroic endeavors; and in this the Prelate succeeded beyond all human expectations. Had he sent to the church of Kentucky no other missionary but Father Nerinckx, it would still have ample reason to be forever grateful to him. The rugged and austere priest was a real treasure to the poor and laborious Kentucky mission, and Bishop Carroll fully appreciated his worth. During the short acquaintance of one month, which he had with our missionary, he conceived a great esteem and veneration for his virtue, of which their frequent correspondence of later years gives ample proof. He never decided on any measure of importance bearing on the future usefulness of the western missions, without having previously consulted him, and he often followed his advice.

The abandoned state of the Kentucky mission, its hardships and poverty, were the strongest incentives which Bishop Carroll could throw in the way of Father Nerinckx, who eagerly accepted the proffered appointment. He joyfully sped to the Georgetown College, whither the Prelate sent him to fit himself for his new duties, by acquiring a practical knowledge of the English language,  p52 which he had been studying with no great facilities and very little success during the last two years of his forced retirement in Flanders. Being of a very buoyant disposition, he went at it with all the ardor of youth, and he playfully states, in a letter to his aunt of the Dendermonde hospital: "I am again a schoolboy, learning how to speak, read and write; no holidays; and it will take a long time before I can spell; of course, I pray for you: but, alas, I am even less proficient in spiritual matters than in the English language." In his humility, he soon began to doubt whether he had not presumed too much on his abilities; and a few days after his arrival at the college, December 7, 1804 he writes to Bishop Carroll to whom he had "confided his whole being and his temporal and spiritual welfare," a letter in which, after thanking the Prelate for having sent him to so good an institution where he was treated with the greatest kindness, he says: "With regard to the English language, if there is any hope of progress, I am afraid it will be little indeed; for, besides my own mediocrity, which is a great drawback, the professors have so much to attend to, that I do not dare to trouble them, when they have a little free time, for some rules of pronunciation, or ask them to correct me when regard. Left entirely to myself, I try to learn the best I can, and to recollect what I hear; but I am getting old, and want of early practice tells on me. I therefore earnestly beseech your  p53 Lordship to judge with all the severity you deem proper and with your usual wisdom, whether there is any hope of my being of any use, and not to dread to tell me so, if you think there is none; for I have firmly resolved, if allowed, to consider you in all things as a tutor and a father . . ." Humble man! he who is to be such a worthy instrument for untold‑of good in the hands of God, is afraid he is of no use!

The Poor Clares, living on Lafayette street, Georgetown, where they struggled against poverty and hunger by keeping school, having heard of the arrival of a new missionary, who, like themselves, had been driven from home by the horrors of the French Revolution, manifested to Bishop Neale, their ecclesiastical superior, a great desire of seeing Father Nerinckx. He, therefore, visited them, and in a letter to his aunt of Dendermonde, dated January 12, 1805, he relates the following incident of his visit: "The Superior of the Poor Clares, of Tours, died here a few days ago, much esteemed for her piety. Among the sisters of this community is the niece of the two illustrious Brothers de la Rochefoucault,​1 martyred in Paris during the late revolution. In a conversation I had with her, she related to me that, a short time ago, the French ambassador paid her a visit, and offered  p54 her his kind services, stating that several ladies of her noble and respected family were among the Ladies of Honor to the new Empress of France, and that, being young, the same honor might yet be in store for her. The worthy nun was soon tired of his empty talk and, not less quick of tongue than noble of race, she gave him one of the wittiest and most cutting replies it ever was my luck to listen to." For fear of his letter falling into the hands of officials of the Imperial Government, Father Nerinckx withholds it, but states that when, toward the close of the interview, the ambassador remarked that he would try to live as long as he could, she dismissed him with the final remark, that he had to exert himself very much indeed to live a great while longer, since, "les marguerites du cimetière," — the grave-yard flowers (meaning his gray hairs) — were already growing on his head.​a

About a month later, the Rev. Father Urban Guillet, Superior of the Trappists of Pigeon Hills,​2 near Conewago, Pennsylvania, visited Georgetown on his return from Kentucky, whither he had been to select a more secluded and solitary spot for the establishment of his abbey. This naturally led Father Nerinckx to inquire into the state of his intended mission; and having previously received a few lines of encouragement  p55 from Bishop Carroll, he sent him, by the Rev. Prior, the following letter, full of practical wisdom and priestly humility:

"Georgetown, February 14, 1805.

"Right Rev. Sir:

"I would deem it wrong to neglect the favorable opportunity of the Rev. bearer's visit to your Lordship, to write you a few words, having placed my future into your hands, and knowing to whom I have intrusted that which I have committed to him in the name of the Lord.

"Spring is at the door, and I understand from the remarks of the Rev. Father Prior of the Trappist, that the way by water, which he says to be by far the best, will be closed before June, owing to the scarcity of water in the Ohio river. Since it has so pleased your Lordship to appoint me to the Kentucky mission, I might go in company with the Trappist Fathers, under such conditions as you might agree upon with the Rev. Prior, for I would like to take two trunks along. When the Trappists are ready, and it seems they will be in March, I would like to be notified, so that I may call at Baltimore on my way to join them; unless your Lordship thinks proper not to send me on the mission, either because of my ignorance of the English language, or for other reasons known to you. For I confess openly, that I make little progress in the language, since, besides the lack of practice, for which there is hardly a chance here, I seem  p56 not to have sufficient aptitude to understand the English easily and speak it correctly. Of course, I know I can not try to be eloquent, which I was not even in my native tongue, and I think I need not. If, however, although deficient in speech, I am sent because of the great wants of the people and the lack of other priests, a statement which I found in the letters of St. Francis Xavier, will be a consolation to me: 'none of us know the Japanese language, nevertheless, by reading that half Japanese volume, we brought many over to the religion of Christ.' Surely, sinner as I am, I would not dare to expect such, evidently, supernatural help; but I despair not of the benevolent and powerful intercession of my patron saint, so dear to God and men, if the will of the Lord is manifest that I should work in some part of his vineyard or be of some use to his laborers, a thing which (I hope it ardently, and it is the only consolation of my troubled heart), I will know by the oracle of your word.

"Since, besides the Trappists, the Dominicans are also going to that region, and intend to leave soon, the number of priests will perhaps be increased so much there, that they will stand in very little need of my poor help, in which case your Lordship may dispose of me as you see fit. I would deem it not to be less foolish than sinful to offer myself, or to urge my being sent there; but if God calls and orders me, I consider: 1. The urgent necessity of the faithful;  p57 2. The present favorable opportunity for travel, which it seems is going to last only till June; 3. My desire to improve in English by a more frequent use of it; 4. My earnest wish to send some definite news to my countrymen, who are perhaps burning with zeal for the salvation of their neighbor, and whose fervor might flag and be extinguished by too long a delay. I might also add that several families of this and other congregations, having heard, I do not know how, that I was destined for the Kentucky mission, are preparing to leave for that region, and are, I understand, anxiously inquiring where I will be stationed, desiring, no doubt, to live near the priest.

"It being a thing of daily occurrence, that the devil, hater of all good, resists and harms with all the power and fraud at his command, the diffusion of the Gospel by jealousies and other miseries of that kind, I earnestly desire to take along, determinate in writing, all that relates to jurisdiction, to rights, to limits, and all things open to the danger of dissension; this will, moreover, in my opinion, help a great deal to peace of conscience. I would like to divide the mission intrusted to my care, as I formerly dedicate my parish, with the most consoling and satisfactory results, into different districts, with a view to the easier and more thorough instruction of the settlers; and, with the grace of God, I will devote myself to the utmost of my powers, to the good of my flock, visiting, helping, and guiding them.  p58 That I may effect this the more readily, I have thought proper to ask the faculties mentioned in the following schedule (our President tells me that I can easily obtain these spiritual favors), viz.: 1. To introduce the devotion of the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; To establish the confraternities of the Holy Name of Jesus, of the Holy Rosary, of the Souls in Purgatory, or any other, if deemed advisable, in every congregation of at least twenty-five communicants; that is, two of these societies in each, the favors to be gained on two Sundays of each month; 3. To grant, to those who teach catechism, the indulgences granted by the Popes to the societies instituted for that end.

"You will please remember, Right Rev. Sir, that I have brought nothing from the old country but a silver chalice, and I am informed by the Trappists, that the region I am sent to is entirely destitute, or almost so, of sacred vestments; also, that it is very difficult to get Mass-wine. They intend to take along from Baltimore a barrel of Mass-wine, and it will, perhaps, be necessary for me to do the same. I can get neither Ritual nor books here; hence, let not your Lordship take it amiss, if I ask of your zeal and piety to provide me with them, if at all possible; so that, going forth totally unarmed and unfit to fight the hard battles of the Lord, I be not entirely without the efficient aid of catechisms and pious books.

"I think there will be sufficient money sent  p59 from Kentucky to pay my way thither, since its use may be conceded to me, considering my poverty. Before my affairs are definitely settled in Belgium, I would not dare to use the little sum given me for specific purposes, except in a grave necessity. For the rest, I will, God helping me, try to seek his kingdom, less solicitous for the things to be added. May God spare me and those in power at the awful judgment day!

"This is all I desired to submit to your Lordship's consideration. The bearer, Rev. Father Prior, and our President, who intends also to travel through Kentucky, will, I think, add something by word of mouth . . .

"Your Lordship's obedient and humble servant,

"C. Nerinckx."

"P. S. Whatever you destine for me, Rev. Blosius, who took upon himself to prepare my trunks, will take care of."

The encouraging reply of Bishop Carroll, confirming the previous appointment, and instructing him to be ready within a month's time, dispelled all further doubts from the mind of the humble priest. What little money he possessed had to defray the travelling expenses of a three months' journey, and complete the little store of indispensable articles which the charitable endeavors of his Baltimore friends could not entirely provide.

Father Nerinckx describes the incidents of his journey to Kentucky in the following letter to  p60 his parents,​3 dated May 6, 1806:

"I left Georgetown College, the week before Pentecost. The next morning I arrived in Baltimore, where I remained two days to receive Bishop Carroll's instructions and blessing. Thence I travelled in a wagon belonging to the Trappist Fathers to Conewago (Adams County), Pennsylvania, fifty miles from Baltimore, where these Religious have their convent. A beautiful chapel has been built in the neighborhood by a Jesuit Father, and in the pastoral residence I found a precious library of Flemish and Dutch books left by a Franciscan missionary of Liege who had resided there.​4 The two resident priests who take care of the Conewago mission, received me with great kindness. They are both secular priests: Rev. Bart, a Frenchman, has spent fourteen years in the American mission: Rev. Merkx is a Luxemburger; they minister to about two thousand catholics, most of whom speak German but understand and speak English as well. I remained with them during Pentecost week and helped them in the Confessional; I also attended a neighboring town of about one hundred and twenty families called Hanover, and said Mass for the seven or eight catholic families residing there. Here I made my first attempt at an English sermon; you can imagine how I expressed myself! I managed,  p61 however, to say what I intended to say and bring it to a close.

"The following Monday, being the 10th of June, I left Conewago with the whole Trappist community; Rev. Mr. Bart accompanied them a distance of fourteen miles, and forced me to accept four pair of stockings, some underclothing, and a handkerchief. The caravan consisted of thirty-seven persons, seven or eight of whom were priests, among them my travelling companion on the sea, Father Charles Guny, who is in excellent health and spirits. We lived a la Trappiste: bread and butter (the latter allowed because we were travelling), was our only food; water, our only drink; we invariably lodged in barns, which differ but little from the public inn known as the 'Blue Heavens.' The monks never spoke; however, they prayed aloud, and they were allowed to talk to me; but as we had nothing to talk about, they scarcely availed themselves of the permission. We travelled until late in the night, and were awakened about four o'clock in the morning, when I usually set out ahead of the party, to escape the midday's march in the scorching heat of the sun, and to think of my own spiritual concerns. I would never have tired of that company, had not their four wagons made our progress so exceedingly slow, that I thought myself in duty bound to follow Bishop Carroll's advice to push ahead if, as he foresaw, the Trappist party travelled too leisurely. Shortly after I had made up my mind to strike out for myself,  p62 their wagon broke down. After having waited for them a day and a half in Bedford,​5 I bought a horse with saddle and bridle for $75, and started alone, in God's name, through the lonely half-cleared woodlands of the State of Ohio.

"I must have made fifty miles a day for about ten days. Within thirty miles from Charlesborough, a woman rushed toward me out of the woods, thinking I was a protestant minister. When I informed her that I was a catholic priest she wept for joy, and entreated me to stop at her house, as she was a catholic herself, and had not seen a priest for four years. I there learned that several other catholic families, all of whom feared they would have to die without the consolation of receiving the rites of the church, lived in the neighborhood; that some were scattered in the woods, but had, through human respect or other reasons, given up all practices of religion.

"I arrived at the house of Rev. Badin, the center of the Catholics of Kentucky, on the 18th of July."

The Rev. Stephen Theodore Badin was at that time, 1805, the only resident priest of Kentucky; the Trappists arrived only in the fall of the same year.

Here, then, was to be the field of Father Nerinckx' usefulness. What was that foreigner, who, to use his own words, "had scarcely picked up a few words of English, and always spoke it  p63 badly and barbarously," who entreated his Bishop, "not to dread to tell him plainly that he was of no use on the mission, since he himself thought so," — what was that foreigner going to do in this field of labor, it being one of the most extensive and the most thoroughly English missions on the American continent? Would not the people render the verdict against him, which the kind-hearted Bishop had refused to pronounce? Would he be of any use? His works will answer.

Before we begin the description of his missionary labors, let us take a rapid survey of the early missions of Kentucky.

The Author's Notes:

1 Céleste la Blonde de la Rochefoucault succeeded Marie de la Marche the former abbess, in 1805; sold the convent to Bishop Neale, by deed of June 29, 1805, and returned to Europe with her companion, Sr. de St. Luc, the same year.

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2 They had arrived at Baltimore a few months before Rev. Nerinckx, and settled at the Pigeon Hills, August 15, 1804, remaining there about a year.

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3 MS. letter in the library of the Bollandist Fathers, S. J. Brussels, Belgium.

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4 Probably Rev. Stanislaus Cersonmont. See page 30.

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5 "A town where the house of an Indian chief still exists."

Thayer's Note:

a This French ambassador was the despicable Louis-Marie Turreau, born in 1756. An ardent republican, he was responsible for the infamous "colonnes infernales" of the Vendée campaign, in which he set up twelve units ordered to terrorize the province by shooting everyone in sight: in less than three months, several thousand innocent people were massacred. This so energized the opposition in the Vendée that the republican army retreated from the province and Turreau was recalled. He would die eleven years after this interview, in 1816.

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