Philippine forum: Florissant

The old St Ferdinand shrine, the church and convent where Philippine lived, struggled and suffered for fourteen years, is a kind of holy heritage centre. Its rooms are preserved and furnished to show us the spartan living conditions of both nuns and pupils in the 1820s and 30s; conditions showing a lack of even the simplest comforts and privacy we generally take for granted, but which were normal for that time and place. Thus, on our tour we saw only one bed - a lumpy mattress on a wooden frame in the infirmary; elsewhere, furniture was pushed back and "mattresses" unrolled and laid out to form a rather cramped and basic dormitory.

But on this hot, sultry day, the air humidly oppressive as a thunderstorm gathered, we had the full nineteenth century experience from the moment we walked into the church. There was none of the American air conditioning we had already come to appreciate, to make the interior blissfully cool - if anything, the air here felt even sultrier, wrapping itself heavily around us.  And so we fanned ourselves and swigged water and slowly melted, all too aware that unlike us in our thin cottons, Philippine and her companions would have been encased in thick black habits, several petticoats and a tight, starched cap. By the time we'd made our way up to the stuffy, dark attic where the novices studied and slept - via the lumpy bed, classroom-dormitory and the occasional wispy breeze from an open window - we were all declaring our admiration for the valiant, generous women who had endured these conditions, day by day by day (plus the other climate extreme of harshly cold winters) in order to establish the Society and its mission here. These, truly, were great-hearted women who lived and worked solely for the greater glory of the Heart of Jesus.

But there was one corner of the house where the chatter stopped and gasps became muted. Here we spoke only in reverent, awed murmurs, and didn't crowd around: by common, unspoken consent, each pilgrim was allowed to be alone, silent, in a cramped, airless, under-stairs cupboard, in which the tallest had to stoop. This is where Philippine slept for years, choosing this spot as it was closest to the chapel, and she could creep into "bed" after hours spent in work and prayer, without disturbing the others. Above and around footsteps thumped on the stairs, but within, there was only prayer, soaked into the very walls, as surely as the hundreds of written prayers which fill each crack and corner and cover the floor.

What is it that turns an otherwise negligible, nondescript cupboard into hallowed space? Is it the grace and power of God, or the spirit of the holy woman who slept here; the reverent memories of those who knew her or the prayer and faith of all who have come here on pilgrimage ever since? I don't know - probably, it's all of this and more. All I know is, for a minute or so, as I added my own prayer to countless others, I touched something sacred, and emerged, gravely thoughtful and aware that in this little cubby-hole I had indeed encountered holiness.


  1. I used to be president of the "friends" group that supports Old Sr. Ferdinand. According to Mother Callan - and I'm sure you have your own copy at hand - Mother Duchesne didn't sleep in the under-stairs cupboard every night for fourteen years. It was only when the house was full (it took a number of years after their arrival for the house to fill up). Also, Mother Callan implies that Mother Duchesne's choice was partly tactical - it's true that she was closer to the chapel, but she was also closer to the school of Indian girls (which used to be in the back yard), AND she could hear who was coming or going late at night, because the floors creaked. None of this, however, reduces the impression that you experienced - it is, indeed, the holiest part of the house. So happy you benefited from your visit.

  2. Thank you for this info - I do like my blog to be accurate - and thank you for all you have done to preserve the shrine. I know it's also about the architectural and general Catholic heritage in Missouri, but of course, for us it is a truly sacred space in OUR heritage.

    I've amended the post, so it just says slept there "for years". I'm away from home at the moment, but I'll go through Callan later - I had intended to re-read her biography before going to the forum, but only managed the first few chapters, so never got as far as Florissant.


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