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In Pursuit of Saints Francis and Clare View Comments
By Christopher Heffron

Assisi is a pilgrim's paradise. Seemingly untouched by the frenetic bustle of modern life, it's a place of peace and beauty that quiet the mind.

THE SWISS AIR flight from Zurich to Rome is the last stretch on a journey that’s proven one thing: I am simply not built for long flights. I’m taller than average: long on legs, short on tolerance for tight spaces. Sleep is impossible and sitting still for hours is a chore.

It’s my mind, though, that is my true adversary: Every time I’m in the air, Don McLean’s “American Pie” plays in my head like a cerebral iPod with a grudge. But all fears and discomfort vanish as our airplane descends over a spectacular Italian wheat field ablaze with a gold I have never seen. I know I’m not in Cincinnati anymore.

I have been selected, along with 28 others, to participate in Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs’ Assisi and Rome experience. We are also slated to visit La Verna, Greccio and other places that touched Francis and Clare.

A few of the people on this trip I already know, but most are strangers. In the coming days, we will become a family of ragtag seekers on a unique experience.

Our group assembles at Terminal C of a crowded airport in Rome. Here we are—drained and disheveled huddled close to Sister Joanne Schatzlein, O.S.F., and Father Joseph Schwab, O.F.M., our guides for the next two weeks.

Some pilgrims introduce themselves and make friendly small talk. Others look too tired to utter a word. I fall into the latter category: I can only sit on my luggage and ponder what the next two weeks will bring.

And all I can do is smile.

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Christopher Heffron is the assistant editor of this publication. He attended the June 2009 pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome.

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Rose Philippine Duchesne: Born in Grenoble, France, of a family that was among the new rich, Philippine learned political skills from her father and a love of the poor from her mother. The dominant feature of her temperament was a strong and dauntless will, which became the material—and the battlefield—of her holiness. She entered the convent at 19 and remained despite their opposition. As the French Revolution broke, the convent was closed, and she began taking care of the poor and sick, opened a school for homeless children and risked her life helping priests in the underground. 
<p>When the situation cooled, she personally rented her old convent, now a shambles, and tried to revive its religious life. The spirit was gone, and soon there were only four nuns left. They joined the infant Society of the Sacred Heart, whose young superior, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, would be her lifelong friend. In a short time Philippine was a superior and supervisor of the novitiate and a school. But her ambition, since hearing tales of missionary work in Louisiana as a little girl, was to go to America and work among the Indians. At 49, she thought this would be her work. With four nuns, she spent 11 weeks at sea en route to New Orleans, and seven weeks more on the Mississippi to St. Louis. She then met one of the many disappointments of her life. The bishop had no place for them to live and work among Native Americans. Instead, he sent her to what she sadly called "the remotest village in the U.S.," St. Charles, Missouri. With characteristic drive and courage, she founded the first free school for girls west of the Mississippi. </p><p>It was a mistake. Though she was as hardy as any of the pioneer women in the wagons rolling west, cold and hunger drove them out—to Florissant, Missouri, where she founded the first Catholic Indian school, adding others in the territory. "In her first decade in America, Mother Duchesne suffered practically every hardship the frontier had to offer, except the threat of Indian massacre—poor lodging, shortages of food, drinking water, fuel and money, forest fires and blazing chimneys, the vagaries of the Missouri climate, cramped living quarters and the privation of all privacy, and the crude manners of children reared in rough surroundings and with only the slightest training in courtesy" (Louise Callan, R.S.C.J., <i>Philippine Duchesne</i>). </p><p>Finally at 72, in poor health and retired, she got her lifelong wish. A mission was founded at Sugar Creek, Kansas, among the Potawatomi. She was taken along. Though she could not learn their language, they soon named her "Woman-Who-Prays-Always." While others taught, she prayed. Legend has it that Native American children sneaked behind her as she knelt and sprinkled bits of paper on her habit, and came back hours later to find them undisturbed. She died in 1852 at the age of 83 and was canonized in 1988.</p> American Catholic Blog It was important for some saints to vanish from view, to “decrease” so that God could “increase” in the scheme of things. Many saints actively fought promotions. If obedience required embracing them, they found other ways to remain lowly.

 
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