St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, ‘Woman Who Prays Always’

St. Rose’s success came from spending every minute of every day praying to God, and listening to whatever he was asking her to do in that moment.

St. Rose Philippine Duchesne
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne (photo: RSCJ / Wikimedia Commons)

I am not good at praying.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do it. I understand its vital importance. My rosary is constantly in arm’s reach, and my day begins with a morning offering. I teach my children to pray, and we often pause our play to say a Hail Mary when we hear a siren, or ask for St. Anthony’s assistance when mommy has once again misplaced her keys.

But not one single bit of it comes easily to me. Thank God I was raised Catholic, with a host of prayers and devotions at my fingertips, because otherwise I would have truly been at a loss for how to start building a relationship with God. For most of my life, spontaneous prayer, poured from and received in the heart, escaped me. Prayer, true prayer, is surrender. It is allowing our will to be made one with the Father’s, and it is meant to be constant, an unceasing repetition of “not my will but yours be done.” I am, to put it charitably, a Type-A control freak with a bossy streak a mile wide and penchant for microphones. Surrender and acceptance are certainly not my strong points.

I love God. Really. But I feel much more comfortable acting out that love. I would absolutely have been in the kitchen with Martha, bringing out platefuls of impeccably prepared food to my Lord and Savior and ignoring the nagging thought that what he really wanted was just my listening heart. 

Perhaps this innate discomfort with contemplative prayer is why I have always been drawn to the more action-oriented saints. I can recognize the holiness and goodness of cloistered nuns and monks who receded from the world in prayer, but I do not fully understand them. Martyrs and missionaries, men and women of action, I can appreciate far more easily. Imagine my delight, then, upon reading of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, an 18th-century French nun who was a force of nature both in her native France and in the territories of the United States where she ministered for decades.

Born into a wealthy family, St. Rose defied her parents and snuck into a convent with the assistance of an aunt. Later, when the convent was shuttered during the persecution of Catholics during the French Revolution, she opened a school for homeless children, tended to the poor and sick, and aided priests who continued to operate in the Catholic underground.

After the religious persecution eased, she joined the fledgling Society of the Sacred Heart and founded a convent as well as a school in Paris on behalf of her new order. Ignited by the Holy Spirit with a desire to serve as a missionary, St. Rose obtained her superiors’ permission to leave for Louisiana. She left France for the United States with a handful of her sister nuns in 1818 and ultimately ended up in Missouri where she founded a free school for girls — the nation’s first — and then a Catholic school for native children. For more than 20 years, she established schools throughout the Missouri territory, evangelizing and educating thousands.

In 1841, the Jesuits requested her order’s assistance in founding a mission for the Potawatomi tribe in Kansas. St. Rose and several of her companions packed up and once again made the arduous trek into the wilderness.

But there, in Kansas, the story shifts. At the mission, St. Rose was no longer at the helm. She was 72 and her health was failing. She could do no substantive work and did not know the Potawatomi language in order to assist with teaching or catechesis. Undeterred, she sat down and did the only thing she could do. She prayed. In fact, she prayed so much that the native children fondly called her “Woman Who Prays Always.” The more mischievous among them would fling little pieces of paper in her habit, only to see them lay undisturbed for hours as the nun sat unmoving.

My first instinct is to feel sorry for St. Rose at this point in her story. There she was, a woman of iron will and tremendous ability who had survived revolution, persecution and the hardships of the wild Americas. Through sheer grit and unwavering faith she had built convents and schools into existence in the most inhospitable of regions. Yet as she neared the end of her life, she grew more feeble, nearly blind, and unable to master the languages that would have assured her a position of stature in her new community.

Of course, my reaction betrays only the silly caprices of my own heart. I had foolishly admired her decades of work as if such a productive life of faith could exist mutually exclusive from prayer. Obviously, that could never have been the case. St. Rose’s graceful acceptance of her reduced physical abilities and quieter role demonstrates a life where prayer was constantly granted priority over action. St. Rose may have had an indomitable spirit, but her success was because she spent every minute of every day placing herself squarely in front of God, and listened to whatever he was asking her to do in that moment. For many years this meant living a life of faith in action, serving his people in tangible ways. Until eventually, it meant remaining still, and sitting in silence with him, allowing her prayers to bear fruit in ways she could never know and for which she would never receive credit here on earth.

I cannot claim to have cultivated anything close to the interior life that St. Rose so clearly attained. Motherhood has tempered my need for control, and my patient husband has frequently and gently corrected my natural aversion to obedience and silence. I’m under no illusion that this will be anything but a lifelong process. I know any true changes in my heart have only been wrought by God’s grace, and any further evolution only achieved with his help. I cannot foresee ever being given the moniker “woman who prays always,” though I do know better than to question God’s miracles. But in the meantime, I am infinitely grateful for the inspiring example of this holy French dynamo and her beautiful life of prayer and active surrender.

St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, pray for us!