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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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 10

 p144  Chapter IX


The Jesuits in America. — Catholic progress in Kentucky. — A procession in 1807. — Wheeling. — Washington. — New Lancaster. — Chillicothe. — Quebec. — Boston. — Knoxville. — Holy Mary's. — St. Clara's. — St. Charles.

Working, as Father Nerinckx did, for the sole honor and glory of God, he must have keenly felt the loss to religion which the failure of his educational scheme necessarily entailed. But in the letters written during that trying period of his life, his humility causes him to ascribe those trials to his own incapacity and sinfulness, and, like a true priest of God, he takes delight in calling attention to the success of his brethren in the ministry. They were all working in the vineyard of the same master, and they had but one soul and one heart. Animated with the same spirit of self-sacrifice, all had abandoned fatherland and friends to devote their lives to the American mission, which, at that time, comprised the whole United States. The two or three native priests were missionaries in the full sense of the word, being foreign by education and ordination;  p145 and each State of the Union was but a parish or mission of the one Baltimore diocese, the Bishop of which was a Father to every one of his co-laborers.

The interest which Father Nerinckx evinces in the promising advent of the Jesuits in America, would be sufficient proof of his disinterested zeal and purity of intention, if proof were needed for what shines out of every line of his beautiful letters: "In the midst of our trials," he writes,​1 "consoling news comes to us, by letters from Maryland, purporting that, in Georgetown, the Order of Jesuits rises like an aurora, which will, before long I trust, spread its light through our wilderness, and through the woods which overshadow these our unexplored regions, darkened, more by the cloud of heresy, unbelief, error, and sin than by their foliage. Five Jesuit Fathers have arrived there from Europe, among them a professor of theology and one of philosophy. The others are: Father Malavé, who, having resigned his pastor­ship of Jodoigne, near Thienen, at the same time that I left Everberg-Meerbeke, accompanied me to Amsterdam with the intention of going with me to America. He there joined the Jesuits, under the impression that, as was told to us there, no catholic priests were allowed to land in America (a most egregious falsehood!). From Holland he was sent to Riga, in Russia,​a  p146 thence to Astrachan,​2 the capital of Persia, and  p147 is now in Georgetown, in the immediate vicinity of the capital of the United States of America — a rather memorable journey! 'Behold,' he writes, 'how wonderful are God's designs.'

"The fourth one is Father Henry, well-known in Louvain, and, it is said, a man of merit and talent. The fifth one is a German; whence the professors come I do not know. The Jesuits have now eleven novices and several postulants, and they expect twenty more from Europe. Six or seven old Jesuits were already in America at the time of the re-establishment of the Society, among them Father Molyneux, who is appointed Provincial. I told you in a former letter that the Bishop of Baltimore had also been a professed Jesuit; the coadjutor of Georgetown only a novice.​3 This is surely a brilliant prospect for our holy Religion, which never comes in travail but to give birth, and is seldom delivered but of twins. Europe has brought the mother in travail by sorrows and persecutions, but America is already busy nursing the new-born twins, who will soon grow up to manly strength. Jesuits and Trappists will know how to force the devilish wolf to make good so many devoured sheep.

"The Dominicans of Bornhem,º Belgium, four of whom are already settled in our neighborhood, will be especially useful to religion, if they succeed in obtaining a few more earnest  p148 workers of their Order. But all this will scarcely take place before my death, and contributes little to my own individual progress in virtue, for which I alone am responsible, and I alone have to fear."

But Father Nerinckx was doing his share toward the astonishing religious awakening which marked the beginning of the nineteenth century in America. Of the results of his efforts, we have his own humble and almost unconscious testimony; it passes over in silence the toils and sacrifices which they necessarily imply. Such is the customary price of success.

"In my last letter," he writes,​4 "I called your attention to the spiritual gains lately obtained. They consist principally in the growing number of catholics who settle in this region, and the moving away of non-catholics. New churches are rapidly multiplying, and the old ones are enlarged and embellished. There is also a marked improvement in our graveyards, in which I have every adult's grave adorned with a cross five feet high, and every child's with one of three feet, which the relations of the deceased must have in readiness before I perform the burial services. Every Sunday and holiday, after Mass, I go in procession with the choir to the grave of the last deceased, where we sing the Miserere or the Dies Irae in English, at the  p149 close of which I make a short speech on death or prayers for the dead.

"The great pastime of our population consists in racing, the horses running for premiums, and they take great delight in it. It is often attended by deathly accidents and is the source of many sins. It is hard to keep our catholics from these amusements, but they have given up balls and dances, which are, however, much frequented by non-catholics. . . .

"Here, like every-where else, it was customary to run out of church immediately after Holy Communion. I have remedied this sad indifference toward the holiest of our mysteries, by assembling all those who approach the Holy Table, and reading aloud acts of thanksgiving, followed by the recitation of the Rosary to gain the indulgences.

"I should also mention that I have at present some twenty persons, white and black, under instruction who desire to join the church; I have received several this year. Five or six couples, who were married out of the church, have begged to be admitted to public penance. . . .

"Owing to the preparatory exercises which I introduced, first communion is received with much more devotion and fruit than heretofore. Persons who are about to enter the matrimonial state also have to prepare themselves by a retreat, before being admitted to it; and the number of those who attempt to marry persons of other denominations or of their own kindred is  p150 considerably diminished. None are admitted to the wedding feast except parents, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts; no cousins or strangers, except the witnesses, can attend. And as they used to object here, as every where else, that Jesus and Mary attended the wedding of Cana, in Galilee, I have insisted upon their not excluding these Holy Persons, and, as a consequence, I direct the bride and bridegroom to say aloud with all those present at the feast, the whole Rosary immediately after sunset, and most of our catholics are faithful to my injunctions.

"But I must tell you all about our procession on the octave of Corpus Christi of this year (1807). It is the third one we had at Holy Cross church within a year and a half; I have it regularly in my own congregation. Three men on horseback opened the march, the middle one carrying a silk flag surmounted by a large cross, the two others holding huge green boughs in their hands. Another man in the dress of an acolyte followed them with the processional cross, heading the double row of people, consisting of boys, girls, and grown‑up people, marching two and two, carrying green branches instead of torches, and forming a line of march three miles long;​b many non-catholics were present. At distances of twenty paces a leader marched in the middle of the lines, saying the holy Rosary, which all answered aloud. The canopy, which I had made myself, was held aloft by four men,  p151 and immediately behind the Blessed Sacrament followed fourteen armed men, led by a uniformed sergeant. Three other men on horseback, also uniformed, with drawn swords, brought up the rear, and held back the surging crowd following and saying the beads. Choirs of men and women sung alternately hymns in honor of the Blessed Eucharist, until we arrived at the residence of the Trappists, where a repository altar had been erected. Rev. Badin, assisted by two Dominicans, officiated, and I acted as master of ceremonies; a squad of horsemen acting as marshals saw that every thing proceeded in an orderly manner, and every thing passed off with more decorum and piety than the most enthusiastic had dared anticipate. Our rites and ceremonies exert a powerful influence upon sectarians, many of whom are favorably impressed by them, and are led to investigate the claims of the catholic church on their allegiance, and are led into its fold. . . .

"Feast of St. Augustin, August 28, 1807. — This day I received into the church eight persons, converts from various sects whose false tenets they have repudiated. . . .

"Lent is kept very strictly. Lard in the preparation of food is allowed every day, but we have to abstain from meat the first four days of Lent, the entire Holy Week, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays of every week. This year (1807) we were dispensed on Mondays. On the days that meat is allowed, we  p152 can use only one kind and one course, a practice that is kept up the whole year round, although it is not ordered by the church. Lent, as well as the rest of the year, is wonderfully free from all diseases which might be caused by fish-bones, since the animals that might harm us that way are totally banished from these regions.

"Every night, and in every house, besides the customary evening prayers, which are said in common the whole year through, even in the houses of mixed catholics, they say the Litany of all the Saints, and if they can not read, the Rosary. Since New Year's, we have encouraged our people to come together every morning before daylight, and say the prayers aloud in common, a pious practice which many follow."

Little did the pious priest think, that, what he looked upon as pious practices, were soon to become the text of malevolent accusations against him.

Nor did Father Nerinckx neglect the material progress of his numerous congregations. Among the following notes relating to his missions, will be found several facts relating to missions outside of his field of labor. As we do not deem it foreign to the scope of this work to notice items of interest for the history of the catholic church all over the United States, we refrain from curtailing their contents.

"August 17, 1807. — I have prevailed upon Father Badin to undertake the difficult journey  p153 of seven hundred and fifty miles to Baltimore, to further, as much as possible, the interests of this incipient church; I expect the most consoling results from this truly painful undertaking. I am now practically left alone on the mission. A Bishop, and some priests rich in virtue and talents, is what we now want and I pray the good God to grant them to us.

"I just now come home from Holy Mary's, where, after being much thwarted, I have finally succeeded in making the contract for an altar which is to cost $160, part of which I defray myself. Made after my own designs, it will be inlaid with different kinds of wood, and have a niche flanked with columns, in which I intend to place my statue of the Blessed Virgin; the beautiful crucifix from the chisel of Laurent of Mechlin, will be quite an ornament to the altar.

"October 28, 1807. — Father Badin's first letters have reached me. He writes from Wheeling, a city on the Ohio and about half way to Baltimore, where people going to Kentucky generally take the boat to sail down the river:

'September 26, 1807. — Last Sunday I said Mass in Washington, an incipient town of Kentucky, four miles from the Ohio frontier. I preached in the court-house, several representatives, and fifteen catholic families whom I had apprised of my arrival through the newspapers, being present. There are about thirty catholic families, who had not had a chance to hear Mass for  p154 years.​5 Almost every day and in every settlement through which I passed, I have found catholic families of every nationality — French, Italian, Irish, German, and American. By tomorrow evening I will be in the midst of catholic settlements, which, people tell me, are situated all along the road to Baltimore. Nothing but catholics all along the road! God only knows how many live in the backwoods, and not one priest! I derived great consolation from a German catholic settlement of twelve families, who have bought three hundred and twenty acres of good land for a church; they entreated me to pray to God that none should die without having received the Sacraments of Holy Church. They had not seen a priest for many years, and I promised to say Mass for them at my return. I have charged two catholic gentlemen to buy a lot or farm in my name to build a church in New Lancaster, a rising town thirteen miles from the above German settlement. I received several persons into the church, baptized some children, and noted down the number of catholic individuals and families. The Methodists, a new protestant sect, of which I spoke to you some  p155 time ago as Philistines, play their pranks about Washington, Ky. Twenty ministers, with their so‑called Bishop of Baltimore, assembled last week in the town, and converted ever so many sinners, viz.: had them fall to the ground like possessed by the devil and dance like Corybants; the religious exercises of this people are as foolish as they are sinful. The savages, who were thought to be preparing for war against the whites, are gathered in Chillicothe, not far from Wheeling, having at their head a Baptist minister who acts as interpreter and who has been several years with them. They declared, in a public audience granted to them by the governor of Ohio, that their intentions are peaceful; their only object in assembling was to accustom themselves to the manner of living of the whites, viz.: to live in towns, to till the ground, to become christians, etc., etc. If measures are not taken to supply them with priests, according to the treaty entered into with the United States, which promised the Indians to give them Black Robes, this, our inheritance, will fall into the hands of protestant ministers who have no right to it.'

"These are the most important items given me by Father Badin. No doubt he will have a great deal more to tell after his return; but is not this sufficient for a priest to wish he had the wings of the eagle, to fly to the help of these unfortunate people? . . . Father Badin also  p156 earnestly requests priests for the frontiers of Spain and America.

"The superior of the Trappists has lately received a letter from the Bishop of Quebec, in Canada, to whom he had written for help, that religious affairs are in a pitiful condition in that region, owing to the harshness of the English government toward catholics; it refuses to allow the foundation of any religious community. The Bishop also mentions that has consecrated a Bishop for Asia.

"In Boston, where a zealous Doctor of Sorbonne​6 was almost stoned to death, because he tried to plant the catholic religion in the city, the same reverend gentleman is now building a second church. If rumors are true, he will be one of the new Bishops.

"The Right Rev. Bishop of Baltimore has been seriously wounded by being thrown out of his carriage; but I learn, through Father Badin, that he has already recovered.

"A Methodist preacher is receiving instructions preparatory to his reception in the church. Fevers are prevailing, and not a few die of them; they buried yesterday the tenth one who died without sacraments, owing to the want of priests. Several of these were advanced in age, and had not yet made their first communion. My own sickness may have been the cause of some dying without the priest. . . .

 p157  "October 25, 1807. — Rev. Charles Guny who came with me to America, and the Canadian priest spoken of, made their profession at the Trappist convent this week. . . .

"December, 1807. — I had suffered so long from the fever that I finally bethought myself of the chapel in Brabant, where people used to go to get rid of it. I resolved to take my recourse to the same means, having in vain used all known remedies. After a novena, I celebrated Mass in honor of St. Petronilla, and before I was through saying it, I was perfectly cured. . . .

"February 23, 1808. — Father Badin, who has returned from Baltimore, has received a letter from Knoxville, Tennessee, what miles from here, requesting him to go and visit the catholic families living there, who never yet saw a priest. I should not wonder if I had to go there myself, it being Father Badin's intention to go to Post Vincennes. Ah! if we had priests! . . .

"March 10, 1808. — The two trunks and the pictures which you [his Belgian friends] sent us, arrived in Baltimore last December. The Ecce Homo painting forms the altar-piece of St. Charles, the Crowning of the Blessed Virgin that of Holy Mary's, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin that of St. Joseph's church. The Visitation is reserved for the Convent church; the statue of the Blessed Virgin for St. Stephen's, and the Flagellation for St. Barbara's church. The chasubles have been equally distributed  p158 among us; the bell I intended to give to our future Bishop, together with the beautiful missal of the President of Oudenrode, the new gilt ciborium and monstrance. My catechism bell of Meerbeke calls us here to morning and evening prayers and to Mass; it is the first one ever heard in these regions. A silver pixis,º relics, a clock, books, statues, beads, etc., have been sent to me from friends in Antwerp, Ninove, Aelst, Dendermonde, Mechlin, etc.

"Pentecost Week, 1808. — Two weeks ago, I sang the first High Mass at the new altar of Holy Mary's. The altar is forty feet high. A new pulpit and communion railing make the church look as new inside, and the outside is graced with a steeple, upon which I myself planted the Cross. St. Charles is as well provided, but has no steeple. I hope to finish soon St. Clara's church, twenty-four miles from here, the foundations of which I have already laid, and St. Bernard's, sixty miles from the one just mentioned. The Dominicans are building a beautiful brick chapel on their premises.

"Father Badin just arrives from Post Vincennes. He there buried, in the presence of the United States governor, whose guest he was during his stay at the Post, and of many Indians, one of the neighboring Indian kings or chiefs, who was still young and had been baptized a short time previous to his death. Father Badin preached to the assembled Indians through an interpreter, and the troops rendered military  p159 honors to the brave's remains. He has great hopes for the conversion of these people.

"Octave of Corpus Christi, 1808. — I celebrated the feast in St. Charles. Last Sunday I officiated at Holy Mary's, where we held the first procession of the Blessed Sacrament; and next Thursday we will have the most solemn procession ever seen in this State, or perhaps in North America, outside of Canada.

"June 27, 1808. — Came home this evening from St. Clara's congregation. The church is finished up to the roof. I intend to build a steeple (I usually make them twenty-three feet above the ridge of the roof, with cross and weather-vane), in hopes of obtaining a bell.

"St. Clare's church is built on a hill. Many non-catholics have subscribed for it. God reward them with the gift of faith.

"Father Urban, Superior of the Trappists, is expected to be here soon on his return from the Illinois region, where he went to look up advantageous settlements for new missionaries."​7

The Author's Notes:

1 Letter to his parents, Ash Wednesday, 1807.

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2 Father Nerinckx confounds the brothers Malavé. Father Frank Malavé, formerly pastor of Jodoigne, joined the Jesuits in Polocks, Russia.​c He there found his younger brother Melchior, who had left Belgium some time previous with Mr. Motte. Father Melchior Malavé was sent to Astrachan, where he became so proficient in the Armenian tongue that he preached publicly in that language a few years after his arrival. He also soon spoke Turkishº and Tatar. Shortly after the departure of his brother for the Eastern missions, Father Frank Malavé left for Amsterdam, and embarked thence to North America with two other Jesuits — Fathers Henry and Britt.

The two others alluded to by Father Nerinckx are Fathers Beschter and Wouters.

Of these Fathers, Bishop Carroll writes in his letter of February 21, 1809, further referred to in the text: ". . . The Rev. Father Beschter is in Lancaster, a very flourishing town in the county of the same name, Pennsylvania. He attends with incredible zeal three congregations composed of Germans, Americans, and Irish. God blesses his work; he gains all hearts. Fathers Henry, Malavé, and Wouters attend numerous congregations on the right and oriental shore of the Potomac. The first lives about ten leagues from Washington below the river; the second, ten leagues further down, and the third, at about the same distance from Father Malavé, not far from the mouth of that majestic river, which flows into the Chesapeake."

And again, September 5, 1809: "I have the happiness of having with me for the last few days your excellent friend, Father Malavé, formerly pastor of Jodoigne, in Brabant, now a Jesuit. He writes to you, and no doubt tells you, that I recalled him from his former residence, Newtown, near the mouth of the Potomac, where the climate did not agree with him; I send him to a more healthy place. The regrets, veneration, and affection of his parishioners prove the assiduity and success of his labors for their salvation. I can render the same testimony to the Jesuit Father Henry, formerly a vicar in the diocese of Liege, and to Father Wouters, born at Wormhout, in Flanders, and singularly to Father Beschter, also a Jesuit, formerly pastor and dean in the province of Luxembourg, Netherland, in the several congregations which they direct." MSS. in Bollandist Library, Brussels.

Thayer's Note: The Old World geography in both text and note is odd. Astrakhan, on the north coast of the Caspian Sea, is now in Russia, as it has been since the mid‑16c; and it has never been the capital of Persia, although it would have been an excellent place to learn Turkish and Tatar, as well as Armenian because of a large population of Armenian exiles, some of them Catholic (Kurkjian, p283 f.). Less importantly, "Polocks" is a curious spelling, apparently derived from the Polish Połock, of the much more usual Polotsk: in Nerinckx' time the town was in Russia, having recently been taken from Poland; it is now in Belarus. Astrakhan and Polotsk had this in common, that though they were controlled by Orthodox Russia, they had sizable Catholic populations.

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3 See "The Catholic Church in the United States," by De Gourcey, pgg. 71‑73, who says that Coadjutor Bishop Neale had just pronounced his vows when the Society was suppressed.

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4 Letters of 1807. Cfr. Letters of Bollandist Library, Brussels.

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5 Major Erkuries Beatty has the following in his diary about Washington, under date September 2, 1786: "Crossed the North Fork of Licking about fifteen miles from the Blue Licks. . . . Four miles further on, we came to a quite nice village called Washington, within five miles of Limestone. . . . These people first began to build this place entirely in the woods last Christmas; and now, I suppose, there are forty houses in it, chiefly indifferent log ones and rather scattered." Magazine of American History, April, 1877, pg. 310.

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6 Louis de Cheverus was consecrated first Bishop of Boston, November 1, 1808.

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7 MSS. letters of the Bollandist Library, College of St. Michel, Brussels.

Thayer's Notes:

a Riga and the rest of Latvia had fallen under Polish then Swedish domination, only to be captured by Russia in 1710; the country would not become independent again until the twentieth century.

b With all the best will in the world, I still find this not believable. If double file, as stated, and stretched out so sparsely as to count one person every three meters (ten feet), a 3‑mile-long procession would involve nearly 3,200 people. In the woods of Kentucky in 1807, that figure seems extraordinarily high.

c Polotsk, in Belarus, occupied at the time by Russia; the country regained her ancient independence in the twentieth century.

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