“Mitte Belgas” (send Belgians), implored Saint Francis Xavier in a letter written from India to his Father General, Saint Ignatius Loyola. The Indian mission of the East required religious who were not only proven in virtue but strong in physical constitution. Belgian priests almost always fit the bill. In later centuries, especially the nineteenth, this one country, no bigger than the state of Maryland, was supplying missionaries to every corner of the globe.
The contribution of “fortes Belgae” (strong Belgians) to the growth of the Church in America is inestimable. Here are the names of only a few who, in the 1800s, graced our land by bringing the means of salvation to hundreds of thousands of immigrants and native American Indians: Blessed Father Damien the Leper of Hawaii, Father Peter John De Smet, “Apostle of the Rockies,” Peter Paul Lefevre, missionary and first bishop of Detroit, James Oliver Van de Velde, second Bishop of Chicago, Father Charles Truyns, missionary and Kentucky pastor, Bishop de Neckere, early bishop of New Orleans, Father Ivo Schacht, missionary in Kansas and a pastor in Kentucky, Father Edouard François Daems, missionary and a pastor in Green Bay, Henry Gabriels, an early bishop of Ogdensburg, NY, John Baptiste Brondel, first bishop of Helena, Montana, Camillus Paul Maes, an early bishop of Covington KY, and author of the life of Father Charles Nerinckx, “Apostle of Kentucky.” Here is the condensed story of this remarkable Belgian missionary, one of the more hidden champions of the Catholic Church in America.
Charles Nerinckx was born in Herffelingen, Belgium, on October 2, 1761. He was the eldest of fourteen children born to a well-respected physician, Sebastian Nerinckx, and his wife Petronilla. His parents, by their good example and devotion to the Catholic religion, instilled a strong love for the Faith in the soul of young Charles. Firm believers in a good education, they sent him at an early age to grammar school, then to college at Gheel, and lastly to Louvain to study philosophy. When he completed his courses, he informed his parents of his desire to become a priest. Hardly surprised, they gave their first-born their total support and blessing.
Suffer the Children to Come Unto Me
In 1785, after completing his theology courses at the Belgian seminary in the archepiscopal city Mechlin, Charles was ordained and appointed vicar of the cathedral in the same city. During this tenure there he distinguished himself mainly by his zeal in laboring among the working classes and by his personal holiness. It was not until eight years later, however, that he received the assignment that would prepare him even more for his future mission. That was his appointment as pastor of the parish of Everberg-Meerbeke, which was near Louvain. The parish church in this city was in shambles and so was the spiritual condition of the parishioners. Building with one hand he instructed his flock with the other. To win more easily the parents back to faithful Catholic observance, he began holding catechism classes for the children. It was the same grand strategy of Saint Francis Xavier, and it proved very fruitful for Father Nerinckx. In a short time he had the both younger and older children attending classes regularly every Sunday evening. With the success of the classes came longer lines for confession, and the penitents were not just children; parents, too, who were much edified by the zeal of their new priest and the good effect that he had with the children, were restored to grace. The parish received a new life. Confraternities were formed for various devotions, charitable societies were established to visit the sick and feed the poor, and the faithful were once again defending the Faith publicly against the malicious propaganda hurled at the Church by revolutionaries. The shepherd, who had written several theological treatises in defense of the true religion, had prepared his flock well for the trials to come.
Belgium, at this time, in 1797, was under the power of the oligarchs of The French Directorate, successors to the Revolution of 1789. These freethinkers resented Father Charles’ activity and ordered his arrest, but he eluded the gens d’armes by hiding at the Hospital of Dendermonde, which was run by a nun who was a relative of his. For seven years he covertly continued his ministry at the hospital, offering Mass at two in the morning, and hearing confessions in lay attire for the sick, for those maimed in battle, and for the dying. At any moment his identity could have been compromised. This experience ministering to the sisters at the hospital would inspire him years later, in America, to found the Sisters of Loretto, a teaching order for the education of girls, also known as “the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross.”
Seven years in hiding is a very long time for a priest with the kind of holy energy that fueled Father Nerinckx. The anticlerical government was not going to ease its persecution anytime soon, he thought. So, what should he do to bring the Faith to more souls? There was more religious freedom in America, and, with so many Catholics emigrating there, there was a mounting need for priests. So, in August, 1804, he made his way to Amsterdam and boarded a ship for the United States. After a brutal passage of ninety days, on a ship with a profligate captain and crew, the “floating hell,” as our priest called the vessel, he reached the port of Baltimore in mid-November.
Father Nerinckx immediately reported to Bishop Carroll, who had been appointed Bishop of Baltimore in 1789 by Pope Pius VI. This was the first diocese in the United States, and it encompassed the entire nation as it existed at that time. In 1805, after first learning English (having been totally ignorant of the language) the Belgian priest was sent to Kentucky to assist Sulpician Father Stephen Badin who was the pioneer missionary in that state. Father Badin had been laboring alone for eleven years in the Bluegrass State before Nerinckx’s arrival. It is estimated that in his sixty plus years as a missioner Father Badin covered 100,000 miles on foot and horseback. When the forty-six year-old Belgian arrived in Kentucky at Saint Stephen’s Church in Pottinger’s Creek, the thirty-eight year-old Father Badin must have had some initial reservations on account of the newcomer’s age. In any event, French was their native language, and clear communication had huge advantages. For seven years the two priests worked from the same mission base, each going about separately on tours to distant outposts and villages across the state. When the two priests divided their territory in 1812, the portion given to Father Nerinckx’s charge was over two hundred miles in length and covered nearly half the State. Some years later, when Father Badin left for another assignment, the whole state became his parish. In fulfilling his pastoral duties, the Belgian spent more time in the saddle than he did in bed. Every year of his eighteen-year frontier apostolate was marked by the organization of a new congregation, which usually included the building of a church. In addition to horsemanship, Father Nerinckx had brought with him his carpentry experience from his labors in rebuilding the parish church of Everberg-Meerbeke. When he chose Hardin’s Creek as his home base the rugged missioner built his log rectory with his own hands.
Father Nerinckx entered upon his new field of labor with the zeal of a newly-ordained twenty-four year-old on fire for souls. He seemed never to rest, slept only a few hours at night, was always recollected in prayer, and never idle. His fasting would match some of the most rigorous of ascetics. Often he would ride all night to say Mass at some distant settlement, and having arrived, he would refuse any refreshment until he had finished holy Mass. Rather than be of any trouble to the settlers he would park his horse outside the village, catch a few winks, then say his Divine Office before anyone knew he was in town. He would only stay as long as necessary, hearing confessions, ministering to the sick and dying, healing enmities, instructing neophytes, and training catechists. He was a man of few words, never laughed, rarely smiled, and was very serious and to the point in conversation. For those who did not know him better, his rather stolid demeanor was mistaken for disinterest. His actions, however, proved the opposite, for what he lacked in social graces, he made up for by his priestly charity, especially his tenderness with penitents in the confessional. This charity was the legacy he left among the Catholic families in Kentucky. So legendary did his name become that generations of Catholic Kentuckians, whose parents and grandparents owed their virtue in the true religion to him, continued to speak of their “apostle” as fondly as the Irish speak of Saint Patrick.
Builder of Churches
Despite the poverty and remoteness of the woodland settlements the Belgian missioner would spare nothing when it came to the glory of God and divine worship. If there were no church in a village with a substantial Catholic population, a church would be built. Father Nerinckx himself would lead the building effort. People remembered his “herculean” strength, felling trees, and carrying three times the weight of lumber that ordinary frontiersmen were accustomed to carry. Before his death, he had built ten churches, two of brick and the others of hewn logs.
Fortes in Fide et Corpore
Such was the fortitude of the Belgian priest that people called him “fearless.” Trusting totally in God he would complete his missions in whatever weather: rain and storms; through snows and ice; over muddied and normally impassible roads; over swollen streams, traveling alone, and sleeping under trees amidst the beasts of the forest. Hardship and danger were challenges he seemed to crave rather than shun.
Once, in going to give the sacraments to a sick person, he came to a rapid flowing stream, which had swollen such as to be utterly un-crossable. A friend, who was accompanying him to the person’s cabin, refused to take the risk and attempt the crossing. And wisely so. But Father Nerinckx was not in the mood for natural prudence when a sick man’s salvation may be at stake. So, what did he do? He took the saddle from his friend’s horse and placed it on his own saddle; then remounting the horse, he placed himself on his knees on the top of the two saddles, and thusly he crossed the waters, which flowed over the horse’s back. On another occasion, attempting a similarly treacherous crossing, he was swept off his horse, which had lost its footing in the swift current. As they were being carried away downstream, the missioner saved himself by grabbing on to the horse’s tail and holding on until the horse found footing closer to the bank.
A somewhat humorous event made for popular over the table tale-telling in many a Kentucky home. It appears that Father Nerinckx was not the most eloquent of preachers, but his presence in town, nevertheless, drew even non-Catholics to his Masses. Many of these Protestants were just curious to see what Catholics do in church and what kind of sermons this strongly built foreigner would give. Well, Father Nerinckx’s poor English and heavy accent sometimes got in the way of the message he wanted to deliver. On one occasion a young tough guy came to Mass and, misunderstanding the words of the priest, imagined that he had personally been insulted. So, he stomped out of church uttering threats at the preacher. Fully intent upon giving the priest a beating, he waylaid him on his way to a sick call, and forced him to dismount his steed by cutting the stirrup straps from his saddle. Father tried to explain to the bully, who was provoking a mano a mano, that his profession as a priest forbade him to engage in fisticuffs, except in self-defense. That, apparently, was not what the local brawler wanted to hear because he prepared to launch a clenched fist. But before he could throw it he had to first get off the ground and get the priest’s knee out of his back. When he realized how impossible that was going to be the young rascal agreed to his victim’s demand and promised never to attack him again. News about the incident spread around town, not by Father Nerinckx’s doing, but from the mouth of the bully who was telling everyone that the priest had super human powers. Father Nerinckx couldn’t resist commenting when a friend asked him what happened, “these young buckskins could not handle a Dutchman!”
Teacher by Word and Example
But just as in his parish in Belgium, the children and poor laborers were the main focus of his zeal. He loved to instruct them and prepare them for their first communion. For this purpose, he usually remained a week at each of the parishes he had established and at the smaller outpost stations. Every day he would assemble the children and servants and go over the catechism and devotional prayers, instilling a deep love in all especially for the Blessed Virgin Mary. To the more deserving among them he would award prizes and he would always give special attention to the poorest among them and the less gifted. In this humble ministry he truly did lay down the foundations of Catholic piety in Kentucky.
After Mass, Father Nerinckx would have all the children gather around him in the center of whichever church he was visiting. He would then extend his arms in the form of a cross – the children also raising their little arms in the same manner – and recite prayers in honor of the five blessed wounds of the crucified Savior. The parents often joined in this touching devotion. After the prayers they would all process to the adjoining graveyard where they would pray over the graves of their deceased relatives and friends.
Rejects Offer to Shepherd New Orleans
In 1808, the United States were divided into five dioceses. One of these, New Orleans, part of the Lousiana Purchase of 1803, was without a bishop for many years. Having heard of the abundant fruit of Father Nerinckx’s labors, Bishop Carroll petitioned the Holy See to appoint the Belgian missioner as administrator of the Louisiana diocese, a position that would precede his consecration as bishop. The Holy Father’s appointment would become official upon Father Nerinckx’s acceptance. That was not forthcoming. Father Badin also wrote to Rome on Father Nerinckx’s behalf, explaining how necessary his confrere’s presence was in Kentucky, which now was enjoying such a vibrant resurgence of Faith. Pope Pius VII acquiesced to their entreaties and chose someone else to shepherd New Orleans.
Sisters of Loretto
Perhaps Father Nerinckx’s greatest accomplishment was the establishment of a religious congregation, the Sisters of Loretto, also known as “The Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross.” Young girls raised in the rough atmosphere of frontier life were often ignorant and illiterate, and subject to many temptations. Furthermore, their skills were merely domestic. Without the sacraments to strengthen them they became easy victims to unprincipled men. This was a major concern of Father Nerinckx’s. To rectify the problem he began organizing female sodalities in the six major congregations, which he served regularly. When some of these young women manifested a desire for a higher state of life, Father Nerinckx began to consider founding his own congregation of sisters who would have the advantage of being already adapted to the frontier life. It did not take long before he built a convent for these aspirants close to St. Charles’ church. They would be called the Sisters of Loretto. Approved by the Holy See and by the Bishop of Bardstown, Monsignor Flaget, who was sent to Kentucky in 1811, the congregation’s purpose was first and foremost to provide a proper foundation for the sisters’ journey up the ladder of the spiritual life in a communal and contemplative atmosphere, and, secondly, to educate women and girls. The congregation was so blessed that by 1823, the sisters had one hundred religious, six schools, and five convents. In addition to teaching, these discalced sisters led a very rigorous and penitential life of poverty and manual labor. So mortified was their life that Bishop Flaget once testified of them: “[T]hey were the edification of all who knew them: and their singular piety, and their penitential lives, reminded one of all that we have read of the ancient monasteries of Palestine and of Thebais.”
Father Nerinckx twice crossed the ocean to obtain financial help, books, statues, vestments, and, most important of all, laborers for the American missions; he thus became instrumental in bringing from Belgium the first band of Jesuits who settled in the West, notable among whom were Father De Smet and Bishop Van de Velde.
At sixty-three years of age the intrepid missioner would not, could not, slow down. He decided that he would take the journey that would be his last. Having sent a colony of Lorettine sisters to Missouri, and hearing of their success, he decided to visit them and give them personal counsel in their fledgling establishment. One of his oft-repeated counsels to his sisters was the motto of his own life: “Do not forsake Providence, and he will never forsake you.” Too, he intended to meet with certain Indian tribes, who were more numerous in Missouri than Kentucky. His main hope was to persuade them to send their daughters to the sisters’ schools where they could learn English and also learn about the true religion. It was during the course of this mission tour that the mortality of this workhorse of an apostle caught up with him. It was August 12, 1824.
The account given by Bishop Flaget of Father Charles Nerinckx’s last days is worth quoting in full:
“After the arrival of [Father] Nerinckx at the residence of the Sisters, in Missouri, he wrote to me a most affecting letter, describing the good they had accomplished in that diocese, and the hopes which he entertained of their being one day useful to the Indians. Thence he went to visit an establishment of Flemish Jesuits, which is pretty numerous, and about ninety miles distant from the monastery. After spending some days of edifying fervor in the midst of those holy and beloved countrymen of his, he set out on his return to the monastery, and thence intended coming to Kentucky. Near St. Louis, he had an interview with an Indian chief, who promised to send him a great number of the young females of his tribe, to be educated by the Sisters. He made haste to carry this news to the monastery, and his heart burned within him, while his imagination pictured to itself the good prospect, which lay open to his hopes.
“On his road, however, was a path to a settlement of eight or ten Catholic families, who had not seen a priest during more than two years. Desirous of doing all the good in his power, he assembled them, heard their confessions, gave them instructions, and celebrated for them the holy sacrifice of the mass. He was thus occupied, from a little after daybreak, until towards three o’clock in the evening. Seeing the good dispositions of those Catholics, he proposed to them to build a church, in order to encourage priests to come to them; a subscription was immediately opened by those present; out of his own small means he gave ten dollars; and signatures for over nine hundred dollars were instantly affixed to the sheet.
“After all this exertion, in such broiling weather, he felt feverish symptoms. These continued the next day, but apparently much diminished. He wished to go to St. Genevieve, which was only fifteen or eighteen miles distant; and though the journey was short, still the exertion and the burning sun greatly increased the fever. The pastor of St. Genevieve (M. Dahman) received him with great kindness and affection. He was obliged to betake himself immediately to bed; the physicians came promptly, and paid him every attention; but to no purpose.
“[Father] Nerinckx was, I trust, in the eye of God, ripe for heaven; and his Lord saw that it was time to bestow upon his faithful servant the recompense of his labors. He had the use of his reason to the last, and edified all who saw him by his piety and patience. On the ninth day of his sickness, about nine in the morning, he received the holy viaticum and extreme unction, after having made his confession; and about five in the evening, he breathed out his pure soul to return to its Creator, with entire resignation, and without a struggle. The Lorettines in Missouri requested to have his body, which was accordingly conveyed to their cemetery from St. Genevieve.”
His mortal remains were later brought back to the Loretto motherhouse on Hardin’s Creek. In 1910 the sisters there erected a marble statue of their founder. Although he did not shed his blood as a martyr, his life was a continual sacrifice. He carried his cross silently. No one knew what he suffered except God and the Church Triumphant. And the fruit of his labors exceeded any measure. He was the Apostle of Kentucky.
A biography of Father Nerinckx is available at Antiqbook.com: