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Chapter 7

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,
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Chapter 9

 p130  Chapter VIII


Catholic schools. — Father Nerinckx' zeal for the instruction of the children. — "Arms up!" — He plans the establishment of a religious community. — Its objects. — Building of a convent near St. Stephen's. — The building destroyed by fire.

When we read of the appallingº privations and the herculean toils of the pioneer catholic missionaries in this, our country, and compare the results as evinced in the progress of catholicity, it is discouraging to see how many of our people have fallen away from the faith, and rendered all these labors useless, and the question naturally arises in the minds of all well-meaning persons, and especially of hard-working priests: Why is it that the superhuman efforts of our self-sacrificing missionaries are so barren? The problem is one of vital importance, and after having been for years the object of studied researches, has at last been sufficiently cleared up, to awaken bishops, priests, and laity to the necessity of establishing catholic schools, where the minds of the young will be guarded against the poisoning influences of an infidel system of education, and imbued with the true spirit of  p131 catholic vitality. The rueful experiment of the last quarter of a century has convinced all men who believe in christianity and morality, that it is not enough to build churches, and erect magnificent structures to the honor and glory of God, in order to preserve the faith in the hearts of our children. Such and kindred enterprises speak well for the generosity of our people, and for the practical faith of the present generation of hardy pioneers, who lavish upon the temple of the most High a liberal share of the wealth which they accumulated by dint of persevering labor, by years of privations and toils. But what is to become of our children? Of what use are beautiful churches, if, ten or twenty years hence, they are to be deserted, be void of their worshipers, liberalized by a system of education that ignores God, and places religion and irreligion on the same footing? Catholic schools are a necessity which, thanks be to God, our priests understand, and for the maintenance of which they and their people think no sacrifice too great, no privation too hard.

Men of transcendent piety and thought, who are working exclusively for the glory of God and the exaltation of His holy church, have fully realized in all ages the urgent necessity of educating the young; and we would point with legitimate pride, to what the catholic church has effected in that direction, not only in Europe, but in these United States, where one of the first  p132 and foremost institutions of learning established was a catholic one,​1 were it not that the groundless accusation of know-nothing bigotry, that our church fosters ignorance, was long ago exploded and effectually set aside by even our worst enemies.

Father Nerinckx understood, in all its bearings upon the practical faith of the individual and upon the future of the church, the great question of education; and in the wilds of Kentucky, as in the rural village of populous Belgium, his first care was given to the children. On them he lavished his labors, and following the example of our Blessed Redeemer, he loved the little children with the most tender love. He would gather them around him wherever he went, and devote to their instruction most of the time that was not taken up in saying Mass, preaching, and hearing confessions; and that was no inconsiderable time, for he would stay a whole week at each of the churches and stations, mainly for the purpose of instructing them. Thoroughly acquainted with the restless nature of childhood, he would relieve the tediousness of a many hours' session, by all the successful little devices that refresh their minds, enlist their interest, or claim their undivided attention. After having explained the catechism with all the earnestness, which his serious nature brought to  p133 the fulfillment of a duty, so sacred as the one of molding the hearts of the little ones to the doctrines of the catholic church, and of preparing them for the reception of their first holy communion, he would call them around him, and teach them some simple little hymn, like the following, which he composed for their especial benefit:

"Come, dear Lord, possess my heart,

And fill it with thy love;

O stay with me, and ne'er depart,

But take me up above;

Where Jesus sweet and Mary dwell,

Where saints and angels are;

From snares of world and pains of hell

Oh! grant me to beware!

Oh! grant me to beware!

They then folded their hands in supplicating prayer and beseeched the Heavenly Father in touching strains for the enlightenment of infidels, the conversion of sinners, and the perseverance of the just. Another lesson would then follow, relieved at times by an interesting little anecdote, edifying and instructive, and the exercises would be wound up with the somewhat lengthy but touching practice of "Het Kruisgebed," a prayer with arms extended in the form of a cross. The poor urchins, writes a gentleman now in the Far West, who in his younger days attended catechism class at St. Charles, would sometimes, after a great deal of writhing, let the little arms sink, when a quick "arms up!" from the kneeling priest would bring them back to the desired position. But although the pious  p134 father's devotional exercises would at times tire his young audience, they loved him none the less for that; for, aside from the fact that sacred pictures, beads, and books were the reward of their application, he had a peculiar tact in winning their hearts, and they all felt the greatest affection for the grave and austere pastor, who made himself all to all that he might win all to Christ.

After Mass, he was in the habit of practicing the same beautiful devotion: "He went to the center of the church, where, surrounded by the little children, who so dearly loved him, he knelt down, and, with his arms extended in the form of a cross — the children also raising their little arms in the same manner — he recited prayers in honor of the five blessed wounds of our divine Saviour. The parents often joined the children in this morning devotion. After this, he led his little congregation, composed chiefly of children, into the adjoining grave-yard, where he caused them to visit and pray over the graves of their deceased relatives and friends."2

Father Nerinckx taught the little ones to practice what they believed; it was, as we have seen, with their help that he beautified St. Charles' church, through them that he brought the parents to their duties; and thus he laid broad and deep the foundations of catholic piety in Kentucky; thus he trained in solid and practical devotion these now flourishing congregations,  p135 whose beautiful churches, and more strikingly beautiful religiousness in them, commend them at once to the admiration of the thoughtful visitor. Half a century has elapsed since the rugged priest rested from his labors, and the name of Father Nerinckx is still on their lips and on the lips of their children as a household word, his memory is engraved on their hearts, and his spirit still imbues their souls.

These incessant labors for the instruction of youth, however, did not satisfy the burning zeal of our missionary. Many and earnest were the consultations he held with his worthy co-laborer, Father Badin, about the best means of securing the catholic education of the children. In the course of their apostolic visitations of the catholic settlements scattered throughout the country, they had found a few pious souls, more favored than others by the grace of God, and sufficiently educated for the purpose, who had expressed their desire of living a more secluded life away from the world, and of consecrating their lives to the instruction of catholic youth. Father Nerinckx, therefore, resolved to attempt the foundation of a religious community. As early as September, 1805, he wrote to his parents: "Twenty young ladies are ready to follow me next Spring to my new residence, thirteen miles from here [from St. Stephen's to Holy Mary's on the Rolling Fork]. My intention is to give them a house near the church, if the Bishop consents to it. They will be able to support  p136 themselves by spinning, weaving, and sewing. The Lovers of Mary, as I intend to call them, would not be bound by solemn vows, and some of them would be intrusted with the instruction of poor children and slaves."

He made all the necessary arrangements; but this first attempt made by Father Nerinckx to establish a convent school at Holy Mary's failed through the apathy of those who were to be benefited by its success. Nothing daunted, but convinced of his own inability successfully to cope with the difficulties in their way, he urged the Vicar-general to make another trial. Finally, Father Badin, having been longer in the country and better acquainted with the people most likely to contribute to so worthy an enterprise, took it upon himself to procure the necessary means, leaving to his associate the task of establishing the proposed society somewhat in imitation of nuns in the old country, his humble protest to the contrary notwithstanding. Father Nerinckx wrote to Bishop Carroll, March 21, 1807: "Rev. Father Badin seems to approve very much of the institution, about which I wrote to your Lordship some time ago, and for which James Dent, a catholic man without children, offers four hundred acres of land, promising, moreover, to consecrate himself and all he possesses (which is not very much) to the same purpose. The undertaking is a difficult one indeed, and should not be intrusted to my littleness; but I can not deny its utility, and in  p137 my humble opinion, its execution and superintendence should be given to the able and worthy men whom I hoped would soon arrive from Belgium. I am told that the Dominican fathers also have the intention of establishing a convent of religious persons of the other sex, and if the whole thing is done in the right way, it can not but tend to the greater glory of God and contribute to the salvation of many souls. There are not a few who enter the matrimonial state more from ignorance of the proper means of leading a celibate life away from the disturbances of the world, than from a deliberate propensity for the matrimonial life, and in consequence they lead a most miserable existence. Nor is it likely that the Author of the evangelical counsels who was pleased to take unto Himself in celibacy, and that in the very court of Nero, the concubines of that impious monster, by the hands of Paul, should not deign to select any in this land, in which the women are about the only ones who have zeal for religion. There is, therefore, every reason to be anxious about a holy director to be put at the head of the undertaking.3

Little did the humble priest think that, in the designs of all-wise Providence, he was the very man exclusively selected for the purpose; and while deprecating the responsibility of so holy and important an undertaking, obedience  p138 prompted him to make preparations and plans for its success. The same year, 1807, he wrote to his parents:

"In my last letter I mentioned the impossibility of establishing a religious community of women and a school, institutions which would be very useful here. That project has now been taken up the Vicar-general who urges me ever so much to undertake it. There is in his congregation, the care of which he also lays on my shoulders, a married couple, who not long ago commenced with nothing, and who, by dint of economy and labor, have now in their possession four hundred acres of land, with some dilapidated buildings. Their only and constant desire is to offer it up for that purpose, besides offering themselves for their whole life (they are not yet forty years old), to work for the same intention under the direction of a spiritual superior. Such an action would, in certain countries, be called fanaticism, and people there make quite another use of their property, to the great detriment of society. It appears that the thing must be undertaken without delay, although I am afraid of it.

"The project will have three special objects in view, and will eventually be a threefold institution under the name of Friends of Mary. By order of the Very Rev. Vicar-general I commenced framing some rules of life, etc. — it would likely be good enough to practice some myself. The result will be some kind of rules and obligations  p139 like those of the Beguines,​4 giving the members of the society an opportunity to leave the world and the liberty to return to it. The second object will be, to provide from the community teachers for catholic schools; the third, to help the poor and take care of the sick, irrespective of religious belief.

"If this plan is carried out, never will any thing have been built upon weaker foundations, and evince in a greater degree the wonderful providence of God, to whom it was, however, an easy task to bring forth the whole universe out of nothing. The prayers of my friends, which I hereby solicit for this purpose, will be of great help."

Father Badin had left for Baltimore, in August, 1807, to confer with Bishop Carroll about several matters of interest to the Western missions and to consult him about the proposed religious community. He returned in the beginning of 1808, and set to work with such energy and zeal that he was soon enabled to begin the building of the convent about half a mile from St. Stephen's, on the road to Holy Cross church. Father Nerinckx writes,​5 February 23, 1808: "The corner stone of the convent for the religious congregation of females which I mentioned in former letters, has been laid. The brother of the generous gentleman who had already given four hundred acres to the church,  p140 donates one hundred acres adjoining Father Badin's land, and upon that farm the work has actually begun. That man, who is a widower with six children, has, notwithstanding Father Badin's reiterated refusals, insisted upon his accepting the land for the purpose mentioned, protesting that he relies on Providence who never yet left him in want. He has intrusted his son to the Trappist Fathers, and intends to place his five daughters with the sisters." Father Nerinckx advised the Prelate of the fact in the following letter, dated March 10, 1808: "Rev. Father Badin has happily returned from his laborious visit to your Lordship. He has met many of our poor people in the most extreme spiritual necessity, whom he helped and consoled as much as his short stay would allow. But, alas! what consolation can he afford who 'passes through Macedonia?'​6 It has been given him to have compassion on the multitude, and to witness the affliction of the people erring without pastor, and desolate. Nothing more! Ah! when will the dear Master of the harvest deign to send those whom he is to send? When will they be shortened, these days of perdition, to so many souls redeemed at so great a price? Father Badin is now building on a one hundred acre lot, which the widower Dent and children gave for the purpose, a house for the quasi-religious, to whom we are going to intrust the religious instruction of the girls; and he will  p141 soon begin, at a rather good distance from here, the erection of another house for orphans. These works will, I trust, do much good to religion, and they prove that we are in great need of workmen. God grant that they may soon come!"​7 On the second day after Pentecost, 1808, Father Nerinckx wrote​8 again to his parents: "You will doubtless hear with satisfaction that our convent school-house is under roof; it is seventy feet long, and will have a chapel about as long and wide as the house, surmounted with a turret. Some out-buildings will be added. It is situated one mile from Father Badin's house. Six or seven of our young ladies have applied to be the first religious, but it seems that there are many more who are anxiously watching how the undertaking will succeed, and who will join the community as soon as it is an accomplished fact. May God bless what has been begun for his honor and glory; His providence is our only reliance."

A few weeks later, the young ladies who looked forward to the completion of the house with an anxiety, which the long-cherished wish of their hearts and its unlooked-for accomplishment in the rude state of society of this early period of Kentucky's history, more than justified, were ready to make the necessary arrangements to enter the house; the last nail was driven, when, alas! by some unaccountable accident,  p142 a fire reduced the building to ashes, and blasted their hopes of ever seeing the realization of their pious designs. Young ladies who were ready for such sacrifices as they contemplated at that time, could not but become good mothers of families, when they saw their way to the convent hopelessly blocked up, by what they had to look upon as a permission of Divine Providence. They were anxiously sought after, and soon settled advantageously in the world.

The two brick chimneys, which alone had escaped the fiery ordeal, stood for years in the open field, amidst the blackened ruins of the destroyed building, silent monuments of the early efforts of the catholic church for the instruction of youth, at a time when her slanderers left their co-religionists in undisturbed ignorance and their backwoods dwellings unnoticed. The footsteps of their bible-peddlers had not yet crossed the shadow cast by these weather-beaten remains over the sandy hills of Marion county, when an institution, destined to bring forth hundreds of generous souls devoted to the instruction of the people, rose within sight of what seemed to be the grave of our penniless missionaries' efforts. But we must not anticipate.

However, this sad accident proved too much for Father Badin, who had spent his last cent for the cherished purpose, and used all he had of influence, business tact, and native go-aheadness for the success of the undertaking. He once more took up his original idea of attending the  p143 more distant missions, and gave up to Father Nerinckx the supervision of the congregations nearer to their home, leaving also to his associate the undertaking which had so sadly come to an end in his hands. This was to be the crowning work of Father Nerinckx' missionary career; and God, who always blesses the things that are His, with crosses and tribulations, prepared him for the task by the fire of contradictions. Not, until 1812, shall we witness the accomplishment of the enterprise, and that under circumstances so lowly and poor, that they must have been to the pious priest an encouraging sign of future usefulness. Was not the humble birth of our Saviour in the stable of Bethlehem the sign of the salvation of the world?

The Editor's Notes:

1 Georgetown College, designed by the venerable and patriotic Archbishop Carroll, in 1784, five years before his consecration; built in 1789 and opened 1791.

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2 "Sketches of Kentucky," pg. 145.

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3 Baltimore MSS.

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4 A religious community of females in Belgium.

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5 Letters in the Bollandist Library, Brussels.

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6 Act. Apost. xvi; 1 Cor. xvi.5.

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7 Baltimore MSS.

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8 Letters in the Bollandist Library, Brussels.

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