June 27, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible saints: Kentucky’s Charles Nerinckx

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

This week’s possible saint served close by, especially for those who live in the southern part of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Father Charles Nerinckx is known as the Apostle of Kentucky.

Before coming to Kentucky in 1805, Father Nerinckx was a priest in Belgium. This was during the years following the French Revolution when the Church was still being persecuted.

In 1797, the Belgian government required all priests to take an oath of hatred against royalty, and Father Nerinckx refused to do so. For seven years, he hid during the day in the attic or chicken coop of a hospital administered by his aunt, a Benedictine nun. At night, he visited Catholics, instructing them and hearing confessions. His 2 a.m. Masses sometimes attracted as many as 200 people.

In 1804, when he was 43, he escaped from Belgium by walking for 10 days to Amsterdam, where he boarded a ship for the United States. After three months in what he described as “a floating hell,” he disembarked in Baltimore. He studied English at Georgetown University and lived with Bishop John Carroll before Bishop Carroll assigned him to the Kentucky Territory.

His pastoral area was a square, 200 miles from north to south and from east to west. He visited his flock on horseback, taking six weeks to make a circuit. Each year, he added a community and built a church. In 1815, and again in 1820, he traveled back to Europe in search of priests and money for his mission. Both times, he also returned with numerous crucifixes, chalices, paintings and other religious articles, many of which are displayed in the chancery of the Archdiocese of Louisville or at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto.

He founded the Sisters of Loretto, known formally as the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, in 1812. It was the first community of religious women founded in the United States. Their mission was mainly to teach girls, especially the poor, slaves and Indians. During the 12 years between their founding and Father Nerinckx’s death, the community grew to more than 100 members. It continues today, and its motherhouse and novitiate are in the small town of Nerinx.

In 1808, John Carroll, by then the Archbishop of Baltimore, recommended that Father Nerinckx be appointed Bishop of New Orleans. When the appointment came, though, Father Nerinckx declined it because he thought he had too much to do in Kentucky.

In 1824, though, he asked Bishop Benedict Flaget, Bishop of Bardstown, to permit him to move farther west after the bishop received complaints about Father Nerinckx’s alleged excessive rigor and austerity. Bishop Joseph Rosati of New Orleans accepted him and assigned him to the Upper Louisiana Territory, now Missouri. Father Nerinckx hoped to develop missions among the Indians there.

He left Loretto on June 16, 1824. But less than two months later, he died at St. Genevieve, Mo. His body was transported back to the sisters’ motherhouse at Loretto 10 years later. †

Local site Links: