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Cottey College

2 Oct

“We’re not man hating femi-nazis,” my tour guide explained. “Actually, not having men around frees some young women to experience things they might not otherwise.” Freedom. It seems an interesting concept when talking about an all-girls school in 2012.

Main Hall at Cottey College. The central portion of this building is the original school structure built in 1884.

I’d come to Nevada on a bright fall day, perfect for taking in some women’s history. Cottey College was a mystery to me.  I assumed it sheltered women from society to instill a strict definition of femininity. I was wrong. What I found at Cottey College was different than all that. I found an institution that does not shy away from its history, but instead stays true to its founder’s vision, and is still relevant to women today. Not an easy task– learning about history is easy, finding relevance in history is much more difficult. But, let’s start at the beginning.

Virginia Alice Cottey grew up in northeast Missouri, one of 12 kids. She cared for her sisters, and watched her brother, Lou, enjoy opportunities not available to her in the 1850s and 60s. Lou attended Central College in Fayette, studied law, and served two terms as a Missouri State Senator– he became a leader. Alice couldn’t attend Central College in Fayette, study law, or serve as a Senator– she was female.

Virginia Alice Cottey’s portrait hangs in Main Hall.

Alice attended the local Catholic school, St. Joseph’s Academy for Girls in Edina, for a year, and eventually began teaching in small country schools in Knox County. In 1876, just before turning thirty, she landed a teaching job at Central Female College in Lexington. Soon the idea of starting her own school hit her– a school that would give women the same education as men. Her hero was Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke, one of the first proponents of equal education for women. Lyon kept her school free from religious affiliations, and affordable to women. Cottey wanted to build an academically firm program and was determined to stay afloat financially; a challenge, since she was not a wealthy woman. Her limited startup money (she only had $3,000 of personal savings) meant she couldn’t be too choosy about the location. Cottey College wound up in Nevada because Alice struck a deal with the mayor.  The town would provide the land, and she would finance the building.

The school opened in 1884, when Cottey was 36. Women’s educational opportunities were transitioning.  The University of Missouri began admitting women in 1871, while Missouri State University began as a co-educational institution but not until 1905. Domesticity was a part of Cottey’s school, but, her first catalogue states, “second to none of these is thorough mental discipline. An advanced course of study with a competent corps of teachers will afford ample facilities for the development and culture of the intellectual faculties.” Cottey also proved herself financially astute. At a time when women could not vote or hold office, she ran the business and academic aspects of her school successfully, keeping the college foremost in her life.  She married at age 42, but only under the condition that her school’s needs would come first– before her husband’s. Not your typical, demure Victorian lady.

Artwork outside Hinkhouse Hall by an alumni.

So, fast forward 128 years, and we find Cottey College still in the business of educating women. My guide tells me that the student body comes from all over the United States, and over twenty countries. We shuffle through the library and view flags from the home countries of international students, a bust of Virginia Alice Cottey, and some of her personal items. A table is set up with school archives– scrapbooks from the 1950s, newspaper articles, and a biography of Virginia Alice Cottey, out and available for students to peruse. I see a flyer for the “Virginia Alice Cottey Hour” and inquire about it. My guide explains it’s one of the secret and long-standing traditions at Cottey.  Traditions like this are so deeply rooted in Cottey life, helping to form deep bonds between students, and build a lifelong sisterhood. We stroll through a chemistry lab.  My guide tells me how important math and science are to Cottey students, proving that women can excel in areas traditionally seen as the men’s arena. We run into the “Spiritual Guide” on staff, and I’m eagerly introduced, and told she is on staff to address spiritual needs. Cottey is secular, but there is a chapel on campus, where all faiths are welcome.

Virginia Alice Cottey’s biography is central to this depiction of Cottey students.

Virginia Alice Cottey might not have thought of herself as a leader, but her legacy says otherwise.  What comes across vividly at Cottey College today is the idea that women can push past the boundaries of their gender to become leaders in today’s world, not only in their local communities, but on a global scale.  The school funds international trips for each second year student, to broaden their worldview. Alice also may not have envisioned her college sending young women to Italy, France, or Guatemala, but she was freeing minds in 1884 by instilling an intellectual understanding that wasn’t typical for female education. In that way, her vision for education is quite relevant today. As my guide heads off to class and I leave Cottey College, I’m inspired at how the institution has adapted to the needs of today’s young women, while still staying true to the founder’s vision.

Roaming around downtown Nevada after lunch, I stumbled upon the county historical society’s “Missouri History Day”. Hundreds of area fourth graders are out in droves, being shuffled between stations about Civil War soldiers and bushwhackers, snakes, bison, and big, tough men who explored early Missouri with their big, tough guns. Stopping to watch the kids for a minute, I wondered how all of this hyper-masculine history was hitting them. Sure, snakes, bison and guns are cool, but what about the rest of our human story? It struck me as sad, especially when just a few blocks away there was a living example of the not-so-masculine side of Missouri’s history, in the form of 350 women living out Virginia Alice Cottey’s vision. I’m sure the local historical society isn’t full of woman-hating misogynists, but when it comes to the history presented to our children, we’re not hitting the mark when we only include one small part of a very complex story.

Virginia Alice Cottey is buried in Deepwood Cemetery, on the southeast side of Nevada.

For more about the history of Cottey, visit Cotteyphile.

Virginia Alice Cottey gave Cottey College to the PEO Sisterhood in 1927. The all female organization owns and operates it today.

Road Trip: Bonniebrook Historic Site & Museum

22 Sep

Driving on 65 toward Branson, it’s easy to miss the turnoff for Bonniebrook.  There are plenty of billboards to shock and distract and you with the news that Andy Williams is somehow still alive and that Yakov Smirnov is somehow still culturally relevant.  Bonniebrook’s signs aren’t as flashy.  But if you pass them, you’ll be missing out on one the best attractions the Branson area has to offer.

ImageBonniebrook was the home to Missouri artist Rose O’Neill… until it burnt down in the 1940s.  O’Neill’s loving fanbase rebuilt in the 1990s.  Why the cult following for someone you’ve likely never heard of?  Well, that’s where it gets a bit complicated…

Our guide is Larry, Bonniebrook’s live-in caretaker.  On the path toward the house, he asks us, “So are you guys into Kewpies, or…?”  The Kewpies are O’Neill’s most famous creation, and back in the teens and twenties, they rivaled Star Wars for sheer merchandising output.  We tell Larry that we’re mostly interested in learning more about Rose.  “Oh,” he says, breathing a sigh of relief, “That’s good, because the house tour is mostly about her.”

Rose O’Neill, it seems, has a dual legacy.  Nostalgia-drunk Kewpie collectors want to see her as a maternal figure, a crafter of wholesome childhood memories.  And, truth be told, she was… But she was also a worldly, hard-partying, Bohemian.  Her other creative work ranges somewhere between the Surreal and the Risqué.  Reconciling these two Roses is no small task, and it falls squarely on the shoulders of Bonniebrook.

As Larry takes us through the home, he points out furnishings that once belonged to Rose.  “A lot of this stuff is just from the time period,” he says, “but a lot of it is furniture that Rose gave away to local people.”  Rose, who earned a fortune from her work as a magazine illustrator, had a generous streak.  She bought one of the first telephones in Taney County.  Then, finding she had no one to talk to, she bought several more for her neighbors.

ImageGetting over the fact that Bonniebrook isn’t “real” is difficult at first.  But after a while, you find yourself caught up.  Many of the rooms feature old photographs of O’Neill, her family, and her friends living out their flamboyant lifestyles in the house.  And suddenly, it’s easy to visualize it all happening around you.  Every photo introduces some new, intriguing detail to the story.  We pause at one of Rose’s father, decked out in a cape and fez.  “He was never comfortable with the crowd around here,” Larry tells us.  “Eventually he went to live in a cave down in Arkansas.  Rose and her mother would bring him food now and then.”

Others photos depict Rose’s house-guests, artists and poets who would stay on indefinitely.  One of them is wearing a toga.  Rose turned Bonniebrook into an early sort of commune.  The Ozarks inspired her, and she wanted to share that with others.  One of the high points of the tour is stepping out onto the balcony.

“Here,” Larry says, “is where she saw her ‘Sweet Monsters’.”  The Sweet Monsters were Rose’s inspiration: an amalgam of humanity, mythology, and nature.  We linger, taking in the view of the Ozark forest, trying to find the human silhouettes Rose once saw in the trees.  Larry shrugs.  “She may have had a little bit to drink.”

After the tour, we head back into the museum, where we’re passed over to Susan, President of the Bonniebrook Historical Society.  Susan is the Great Conciliator.  She brings us into a gallery filled with Kewpies, where she talks about the values of the fictional imps: Playfulness, Generosity, Justice.  She points out that all of those ideals began with the Kewpies’ creator.  However non-traditional Rose O’Neill’s life may have been, it’s clear she had an unwavering faith in humanity.  One of the most touching stories involves Rose’s overseeing the creation of the first Kewpie dolls.  “She told the sculptors to take the most care in designing the littlest dolls,” Susan says, “because she knew those were the only ones that poor children would be able to afford.”

After going through the Kewpie memorabilia, Susan turns us loose in the gallery of Rose O’Neill’s artwork.  The historical society owns many of Rose’s early illustrations, including some she made for the Woman’s Suffrage movement.  In one, a belligerent father turns on his cowering young daughter.  “A woman’s place is in the home!” he shouts.  Behind them, at the window, dozens of astonished and disgusted Kewpies look on.

The gallery moves into Rose’s later life, and her Sweet Monsters.  Having stared into the trees outside Bonniebrook, it’s hard not to see Rose’s imagination at work.  The deformed human figures, with cartoonish trolls lurking in the background, precisely capture the uneven, gnarly nature of the Ozark forest.

When we leave Bonniebrook, it’s in a state of elation.  It’s so refreshing to see a historic site about a woman– that’s actually about the woman.  In Rose O’Neill’s case, it would have been easy to sidestep her life, in favor of the Kewpie, her product.  But instead, they chose to focus on who Rose really was.

Bottom line: Andy Williams can keep crooning softly to himself.  When we take our daughter to Branson– to reminisce about the Good Old Days– we’ll take her to Bonniebrook.

Bonniebrook Historic Site and Museum

St. Louis’ Kate Chopin Bust

3 Sep

The Writer’s Corner at Euclid and McPherson in St. Louis now includes a bust of Kate Chopin. Thanks to The Kate Chopin International Society, for allowing this reprint of their interview with sculptor Jaye Gregory.

How were you selected to do the bust?

The West End Association is responsible for creating the “writer’s corner” at the intersection of Euclid & McPherson in St. Louis. A bust of Tennessee Williams and one of T. S. Eliot have already been installed. I was invited to the unveiling of the T. S. Eliot bust by the sculptor, Vladimir Zhitomirsky, who suggested at the time that I do a bust of Kate, the association’s next project. His thinking was that they weren’t going to commission a sculpture until they had financing but that if they were offered an acceptable piece, they’d find financing for it. So I wasn’t selected so much as the portrait was.

What limits were placed on you–limits on size or materials, for example?

I assumed it would be cast in bronze, just as the first two were, and that they wanted a reasonably natural (not terribly abstract) portrait, but I didn’t think of those as limitations so much as something that I’d really like to do.

“Reading her works gives one an impression of a woman of tremendous compassion, a strong sense of irony, and a great sense of humor; reading about her life and the era in which she wrote, one realizes that there must also have been a great strength of character. And, of course, I wanted all that in the bust!” Sculptor Jaye Gregory

Were you able to choose Chopin’s age as you would present her in the bust or were you commissioned to present her as she looked at a specific age? Do you think of your bust as picturing Chopin at a given age?

The choice was mine and was based on the limited photographs available. I think of her as being in her late 40s, early 50s.

What had you known about Kate Chopin before you were commissioned to do the bust? Had you read any of her work?

I’d read The Awakening and a few of her stories many years ago, and was aware of some controversy when The Awakening was published, but I knew almost nothing about her.

What sort of preparation did you make before beginning your work? Did you read more of Chopin’s works? If so, which works?

The first thing I did was start a search for photographs. As it turned out, the ones I initially found on line were the best I was able to locate, even with my archivist husband’s help and connections. I read a book about her that was highly recommended and then her “complete” works, including stories that were never intended for publication.

What did you think of Chopin’s fiction? What impressions did her work give you? Did you seek to capture any of those impressions in the bust?

I enjoyed reading her works immensely and was impressed with both her story telling and her attention to her writing. I think her skill was most obvious in reading the stories that she felt to be unworthy of or not yet ready for publication. After reading those I became much more aware of how carefully crafted and beautifully written her published pieces were. Reading her works gives one an impression of a woman of tremendous compassion, a strong sense of irony, and a great sense of humor; reading about her life and the era in which she wrote, one realizes that there must also have been a great strength of character. And, of course, I wanted all that in the bust!

Which photo of Kate Chopin was most influential for you? Why?

I did study the photographs, and I think I was looking for evidence of the qualities I’d found in her writings as much as for her physical appearance. The most helpful in that respect was an almost 3/4 view with her hair pulled up and back and just a hint of a smile.

We notice that you say on your website that “my primary interest is in the female figure–as she is, rather than idealized, and introspective, rather than dynamic.” Does that describe what you sought to capture in your Kate Chopin bust?

Tough question. I pretty much discarded any negative information from her biography as basically unsubstantiated and, at least in some sense, trying to use Kate’s writing to justify that writer’s own agenda. I know nothing of her personal flaws, vanities, or weaknesses, leaving me with my own (certainly) idealized version of who she was. I’m sure that she did want her writing to be remembered and that she wouldn’t object to being remembered through that writing. So I guess I fudged on the “as she is” part and used an “as I think she would have liked to be known.”

What do you wish people who look at the bust would take away with them? Do you wish they would sense some specific aspect of Chopin’s life or work?

A sense of beauty, strength of character, compassion, maybe even a little curiosity about her work. . . .

You can see Jaye Gregory’s other work at Creative Gallery in St Louis or on her website.

Just 100 Years

26 Apr

When I read Kate Chopin, I always think to myself that the only thing separating us is time – just 100 years. The experience, the challenge of being female is the same. Connecting to a woman of the past is a powerful and inspiring thing, a reminder that I’m not alone, a reminder that as women, we’re part of a vast kinship of shared challenges, experiences, successes and failures. So, when I heard that Michele LaRue was using one of Chopin’s short stories in her Tales Well Told stage performance, I knew I had to talk to her.

Tell me a little about your background. Where did you study acting?

University of Kansas (Lawrence). My high school boasted a very strong theatre department, thanks to my first mentor: Richard C. Johnson. In my junior year, “Mr. J.” suggested KU, which circuitously led me to summer stock in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, where I met my late husband, Warren Kliewer … who introduced me to earlier American theatre and short stories.

I see several performances representing women of the nineteenth century on your website. What attracts you to these stories?

Oh. Dear. Do I know? With any of the older writers, we find their concerns to be no different than ours are today. Technologies and fashions change, but basic needs and emotions persist. I love the fact that with the most minimal tweaking or explanation of these authors’ works, I can conjure onstage the lives of a century ago and feel my present-day audience viscerally connect with them.

Though I devoured historical biographies as a child, two projects post-college truly “turned me on” to history: My first one-woman production (a near-verbatim dramatization of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper,”); and exploring my mom’s genealogy. For “Wallpaper” I read a great deal about everyday life, women’s issues, and medicine of the last quarter of the 19th century. I’ve never considered myself a feminist, but reading women’s history certainly has impressed upon me where we came from, how far we’ve traveled, and how many nameless, forgotten women brought us here.

I thoroughly enjoy the male writers I’ve “worked” with: O. Henry, Bret Harte, H. C. Bunner—and no woman’s story in my repertoire is more profound or “womanly” than Twain’s “Eve’s Diary” (as adapted by Gayle Stahlhuth). BUT, yes, I do connect more directly with the women. And I think for two reasons: First—women’s concerns and viewpoints often differ from men’s, so empathy comes naturally when women’s issues are involved (as with Edna Ferber’s “Representing T.A. Buck,” in which an unusually successful traveling business woman of 1913 (a “lady drummer”) longs passionately to clean house and roll out noodles. Second—I cherish “my” authors’ attention to the simple details of everyday life. Especially with the New England writers (Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Alice Brown), tiny, homely details are observed matter-of-factly, yet events that would seem inconsequential to an outsider radically change lives. When those changes are for the better, they are accepted with a humble gratitude that is more compelling for its lack of demonstrativeness.

Michele LaRue, Photo courtesy of Arthur Cohen

Can you give a brief overview of Tales Well Told?

Tales Well Told is a repertoire of stories from America’s Long Nineteenth Century (the period from the Civil War to WWI).  I offer about two dozen now, but I continually add to the roster so that my sponsors can choose programs that suit the time of year, a particular holiday, or a theme of their choice. Many of the Tales are about senior citizens, covering everything from self-worth to romance. A program of Tales runs from 25 minutes to an hour—again, depending on the sponsor’s needs.

The genesis of “my” Tales is the fundraisers that Warren Kliewer held for The East Lynne Company, which he founded in 1980 to revive the undeservedly underrated plays (and literature) of the late 18 and early 1900s. For  the ELC, we read old stories in the parlors and on the porches of Victorian Cape May. (The company continues to put stories on those porches every summer.)  Warren used to say that the stories of this period were written for the ear, not the eye; they were meant to be read aloud. In those days, not only children gathered around a grownup with a book. Adults of all ages—by candlelight, gaslight, and later electricity—sat back (the women often with sewing in hand), as a familiar voice and their own imaginations spirited them away to another time and place.

What is the audience reaction to hearing stories written 100 years ago?

Well, enthralled. Though the words are the writers’ and the voices are mine, the images are conjured up in the audiences’ heads. They’re listening so hard that they’re absolutely silent; they’re as actively involved in the story as a group of six-year-olds. It doesn’t matter that the words are 100 years old; they’re clear in context.  I don’t believe I’ve ever heard an audience member say, “I didn’t understand that.”  What I have heard are: “You could hear a pin drop!” “I could just see it all in my head!” “On my way home I could smell the apple blossoms!” [In response to: Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s “The Bedquilt,” Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Miss Esther’s Guest,” and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Apple Tree.”]

Why did you select A Pair of Silk Stockings?

I’m often asked that about my scripts. (In addition to Tales Well Told, I tour with several other solo productions from the same era.) It usually comes down to acting choices and my gut. These stories work so well when read aloud in part because the verbs are active, the adjectives evocative, the situations and characters intriguing (and they often speak in dialect). These elements are fun and challenging for an actor, and they make for well-written drama.

I read “A Pair of Silk Stockings” decades ago, in an anthology of Kate Chopin’s short stories, edited by my friend Dr. Barbara H. Solomon.  I loved Chopin in general, but of all the stories, years later, it was “Stockings” that first came to mind when I thought of her. I don’t want to give the ending away – but my heart goes out to “Little Mrs. Sommers.” Chopin describes her heroine’s unexpected holiday with understanding simplicity, as one detour leads to the next. And she does this so well that the story continues in your head after ending on the page.

Are there any specific ideas or themes you hope the audience will come away with?

We are who we were. The past and these writers should never have been “lost,” because they wrote about us.

How would people learn more about your work, or contact you to schedule a performance?

Thank you for asking! I perform nationally for libraries, historical societies, various clubs and academic conferences, private and corporate events, senior communities, colleges, and universities. I would love to bring these stories to literature, history, and sociology classrooms.

I’d welcome any inquiries. My email address is mlrprods@aol.com. You’ll find additional information on my web site—michelelarue.com—although, perhaps appropriately, it is very much out of date because I’m rather a Luddite.

A Pair of Silk Stockings – PBS Electronic Library

Kate Chopin

Rediscovering the women at Missouri’s First State Capitol

24 Mar

Research has shown that women in history are nonexistent to elementary age boys and represent just a glimmer in the minds of girls. So, it’s an awesome thing when historic site interpreters and managers continue to evaluate and question the message they give to visitors about the people who inhabited their site.  Because of their efforts, we have a better picture of how women and men lived in the past. Victoria Love, Site Administrator of First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site in St. Charles answered the following questions about changes in the interpretation at her site.

Tell us a little about the history of the site with regards to the Peck brothers – who they are and what they did in St. Charles. What does the site preserve and interpret in general?

First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site is the first seat of the state’s government. Its’ rough hewn timbers and dark wood floors whisper the tales of the state’s first legislature. Interpretive programs help visitors understand how the state’s government was formed and what life was like in the early 1800s in St. Charles, Missouri.

The buildings used for the First State Capitol were owned by Charles and Ruluff Peck and were offered as free to the newly formed State of Missouri if they located the temporary capital in St. Charles. The site has a residence and a mercantile exhibit that interprets the Peck’s roles here.

The Peck Residence at First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site

The Peck Residence at First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site

I remember being at the site previously and hearing they were bachelors. Did something specific prompt your research into the women in their life or did it occur organically?

I am always looking for the answer, “Where are the women?” (I have two books published based on this question.)  Often they are missed.  This time it was pretty shocking.  The Peck Brothers were interpreted as bachelors, when in fact, Ruluff was married in 1820, lived in the residence with his family until his death in 1827.  He had a wife, three children and a rented slave that lived in this one room apartment.  I started with looking at the Peck’s history in Ancestry.com, our files and the local historical society and found that there was a piece missing.

What did your research uncover about women at the site?   

I was very pleased to find a good basic history of Ruluff’s wife, Adeline.  She was a doctor’s daughter and from an old puritan family in Connecticut.  Her sister, Jane, married three of the most influential men in early 19th century St. Louis.  More importantly, Adeline and Ruluff had a daughter, who it is suspected, if not completely confirmed, was developmentally disabled.  Her life path is very clear with documentation including census and burial records.  And lastly, the 8 year old slave who was rented, needs to be looked at more.  We have found her broker and hope to get her name and maybe more history verified in the near future.

Another future research project will be looking at the wives of the governors to see what their role was especially Mr. McNair’s wife.

How has the way your interpreters tell the story of the site changed?

They have been able to give a more balanced view of early St. Charles.  Introducing the woman’s role in pioneer/frontier Missouri is paramount and we are lucky to have good documented women to interpret. We still have work to do; our website has not been updated to reflect changes which requires approval.

What do you hope visitors will go away with about the experiences of women in St. Charles?

We hope that people walk away always asking the question, “Where are the women?”  as well as other underrepresented groups in traditional interpretation.  The whole story is there, even if the groups are absent from the history and everyone deserves to have their story told.

First State Capitol State Historic Site

Bustable Women

9 Mar

The Hall of Famous Missourians has been in the news recently, igniting debate over who should be honored in our state capitol. Here at Missouri Women, we like to imagine a fantasy Hall of Famous Missourians. One that would include a few more women. Like these ladies:

Virginia Minor

Women can vote today because of women like Virginia Minor. She sued the St. Louis voting registrar for her right to vote as a United States citizen in 1872.

Maya Angelou

Poet, novelist, inspiration. She has changed the way we see ourselves.

Edna Gellhorn

She canvassed Missouri to get support for voting rights and taught countless women how to vote.

Fannie Hurst

Her book The Imitation of Life continues to challenge how we navigate race relations today.

Kate Chopin

Her book book The Awakening became a feminist classic.

Carrie Nation

She to smashed up bars with a hatchet. Her radical activism brought national attention to the issue of alcohol abuse at the turn of the 20th century.

Celia

Slave girl Celia killed her owner after suffering five years of repeated rapes. Her inspiring stand against abuse cost her her life.

Adeline Couzins

This nurse picked up the pieces after Civil War battles and was the first woman to receive a pension from the US government for it.

I’ll be talking about the seven women who are currently in the Hall on our women’s history tour of the Capitol next Sunday the 18th at 1:30pm. I hope you can join me.

Who do you think we should honor in our state capitol?

Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne

25 Feb

As a young nun, Philippine longed to travel to America.

In the late 1780s, France sat perched on the edge of Revolution.  But the mind of schoolgirl Rose Philippine Duchesne was somewhere far, far away.  Returning missionaries regularly spoke at Philippine’s school, captivating her with tales of their adventures in North America. Philippine felt God was calling her to the American frontier, to save the souls of the American Indians.  She spent her entire life trying to answer that call.

When she was eighteen, Philippine went with her aunt to visit the local convent.  Once inside, she flatly refused to return home.  Philippine’s decision to become a nun infuriated her father, but he found himself no match for her iron will.  Philippine’s faith remained strong through the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, even after her order was disbanded.  She soon joined a different order, the Society of the Sacred Heart.

The nuns of the Sacred Heart admired Philippine’s passion, but did not share her dream.  For years, Philippine begged her superiors to send her to America, to fulfill her destiny.  In 1817, they relented.  At age 49, Philippine made the long trip across the Atlantic, steamed her way up the Mississippi, and arrived in the village of St. Charles, Missouri.

Finally, Philippine thought, she would be able to bring her faith to the Indians.  Her Bishop, however, didn’t see converting Indians as a priority.  He ordered Philippine to instead establish a paid school for white girls in St. Charles.  Philippine, with her characteristic stubbornness, negotiated a bargain: she would open a free school, and charge only those who could pay.  Also, one day a week would be reserved for teaching Indians and enslaved Blacks.  But even on her amended terms, the school was hardly what Philippine had had in mind when she left France.

Rose Philippine Duchesne, 1769-1852. This portrait is believed to have been made during her time in America.

Philippine’s first year in St. Charles was spent in destitution and near starvation.  And just when things started getting better, the Bishop called her away to a new task.  He sent Philippine to Florissant, Missouri, to oversee construction of a new convent.  There, she met a group of newly arrived Jesuit priests, sent to America to serve the Indians.  Philippine befriended a young priest named Pierre-Jean De Smet, whom she talked with about her calling and her frustrations.

In the 1820s, the government began removing Eastern Indian tribes to reservations in the West, and Philippine’s dream grew further from her reach.  Fortunately, she had plenty of work to occupy her.  She built new schools and convents up and down the Mississippi.  In 1828, she moved to St. Louis, where she raised enough donations to establish a large school and orphanage.  But her growing responsibilities took a toll.  At 65, she was slowing with age, and could not see eye-to-eye with the young nuns arriving from France.  Despondent, she resigned her position as Mother Superior, and returned to Florissant.  “I feel that I am a worn-out instrument,” she wrote, “a useless walking stick that is fit only to be hidden in a dark corner.”  Given her choice of rooms in the convent at Florissant, she selected a narrow cell beneath the stairs.

“It has always been my ambition to die among the Indians…,” Philippine wrote in 1833.  “But at close range, one sees that one cannot hope for that, and where there seemed to be reality, one finds only a beautiful dream.”  Her old friend, Father De Smet, felt her sorrow, and decided to do something about it.  When the Potawatomi tribe requested a Catholic mission and school for their new reservation in Kansas, De Smet applied to the Bishop for nuns to manage the enterprise.  His first choice was Rose Phllippine Duchesne.  When asked how a 72 year-old woman might be of use on the Indian Frontier, the Jesuit in charge of the project replied frankly: “She must come; she may not be able to do much work, but she will assure success to the mission by praying for us. Her very presence will draw down all manner of heavenly favors on the work.”

The tomb of Saint Duchesne in St. Charles.

When it came to prayers, Philippine did not disappoint.  Grateful to be realizing her life’s purpose, Phillipine’s typical day at the mission included a full eight hours spent praying.  A Potawatomi story tells that one night, while she knelt at the altar, a curious boy dropped a few kernels of corn onto the back of her flowing robes.  In the morning, he found Philippine still at the altar, and the corn undisturbed.  From then on, she was known to the tribe as “The Woman Who Prays Always.”  Despite her wish, Philippine did not die among the Potawatomi.  Only a year into her missionary work, her Mother Superior visited the reservation, and discovered Philippine’s health was failing rapidly.  She ordered the elderly nun back to St. Charles, and took personal responsibility for her well-being until Philippine’s death in 1852.

After she passed on, Philippine’s legend grew.  Father De Smet had always said that “never did I leave her without the feeling that I had been conversing with a saint.”  In 1895, her order introduced her cause for sainthood.  The Church canonized Philippine as a saint in 1988.  Philippine’s convent in Florissant is now a historic site, the Old Saint Ferdinand Shrine.  The site of her missionary work in Kansas is preserved as Saint Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park.  Philippine’s holy remains rest in a marble tomb in St. Charles, on the grounds of the school she founded in 1818.

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