Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda reflected on the past, present and future of Sacred Heart education on Nov. 16 as they joined other schools around the country in celebrating the Feast of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, the woman who brought Sacred Heart education to the United States. This year, the celebration was extra special, because it marked the conclusion of the bicentennial celebration of Sacred Heart Schools in the United States. 

In 1818, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne journeyed to the United States from France with the mission of bringing Sacred Heart Schools to the new world. She traveled to what was still a new frontier – arriving first in New Orleans and then later founding America’s first Sacred Heart School in Missouri. 

During the Nov. 16 all-school Mass at Stone Ridge, students, faculty, Religious of the Sacred Heart and other members of the community celebrated St. Rose Philippine’s example of courage and dedication to following God’s will, despite setbacks along the way. Following the Mass, the school community gathered outside to dedicate a new statue of St. Rose Philippine.

“The spirit and zeal of Philippine continues to shape us as we become pioneers to bring Christ’s heart to the world around us,” said Catherine Ronan Karrels, the head of school at Stone Ridge. 

As he began the liturgy, Father William Byrne, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, noted that young women and sisters of the Sacred Heart had been gathering together to celebrate Mass throughout the 200-year history of Sacred Heart Schools.

“We don’t stand alone,” he said, adding that the students “stand on the shoulders of the great women who came before you.”

In addition to reflecting on the past, the community looked forward to the future, as Father Byrne carried on the tradition of the “blessing of the children” for St. Philippine’s feast day. The youngest members of the Stone Ridge community came forward in front of the altar to be blessed, including some of the children in Stone Ridge’s “Little Hearts” Early Childhood Program, as well as other babies who were joining in the liturgy, who Father Byrne referred to as the “class of 2036.”

But in his homily, Father Byrne encouraged the students to learn from St. Philippine the importance of focusing on the present. 

He told the students that St. Rose Philippine “was an amazingly courageous woman,” which she displayed first in her decision to leave her family and enter the convent, and then in her decision to cross the ocean to go to a part of America that was “absolute wilderness” at the time.

Father Byrne said she is the “patron saint of strong women” and of education, but “she could have easily been the patron saint of frustration,” because “every time she had a plan it never worked out as she thought it would be.”

First she entered the Visitation convent in Grenoble, but the French Revolution forced all religious houses to close, so she tried to live the rule of her order outside of the convent. When re-opening the convent did not work, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, the foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart, asked St. Philippine if she would begin a foundation of the Society in Grenoble. She did, and 13 years later, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Louisiana to found another community there with four other Religious of the Sacred Heart.

After the sisters arrived in New Orleans, they traveled up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, where they thought they would be assigned. But upon arriving, they found out that they would actually be going to the small village of St. Charles, Missouri, where St. Philippine founded the country’s first Sacred Heart School on Sept. 8, 1818.

Poor conditions forced them to relocate to Florissant, Missouri about a year later, where they attracted more students and religious vocations. In 1841, she moved to Kansas to establish a school for Potawatomi girls, fulfilling her dream of serving the native people. While she was there, the Potawatomi people gave her the name, “Woman Who Always Prays.”

In the story of St. Rose Philippine’s life, Father Byrne said the students could learn to “claim today,” rather than getting caught up in future plans. A quote from St. Rose Philippine on the new statue reads, “Do not look back to the past, nor forward to the future. Claim only the present, for it hold’s God’s will.”

Even in the midst her trials and setbacks, “she always trusted God’s will,” said Father Byrne. And though everything she had planned never worked out as she thought it would, “it turned out better,” he said, inviting the girls to look around at the school community for proof of that. 

Sister Suzanne Cooke, a Religious of the Sacred Heart and head of the Conference of Sacred Heart Education, told the students that for her and the other religious sisters visiting for that Mass, “I look at you and our hearts and filled with joy, filled with gratitude.” 

“All of you are making real Sophie’s dream, Philippine’s dream,” she said. “You are communicating through your life the reality of God’s love and God’s hope.”

The Society of the Sacred Heart speaks a lot about spreading God’s love, but Sister Cooke said, “We may wonder, ‘What does that mean?’” The answer, she said, is simple: “How you treat the people who cross your path communicates with people that they matter.”

“Each of us is the face of God in the world,” she said. “It is a simple message…the challenge is believing it and acting on it.”

Following the Mass, the students and guests processed to the new statue, which is temporarily located in the middle of the lower school circle. Stone Ridge is about to begin a campus project with a new quad and student center, and when that is complete, the statue will be relocated there to “bring joy to generations of Stone Ridge students, faculty and staff, alumnae and friends,” said Karrels.

She added that she hopes the statue will provide inspiration to the school community, so by “looking on an image of one who has followed Christ faithfully, we, too, will be drawn to a life of holiness; that we will discover a sure path to union with Christ.”

“Perhaps you might want to stop here occasionally in the weeks and months ahead to connect with Philippine,” said Karrels. “…Ask her for the gifts of courage and confidence that marked her life. And then, listen. Let her spirit, and the spirit of so many women Religious of the Sacred Heart, speak to you of the frontiers that call to your heart and God’s grace that will always support your response.”

Anna Trone, who donated the statue along with her husband, Robert, said she was inspired by Philippine’s journey to the United States, and learning about her difficult travel from Europe gave her greater appreciation for her parents, who came to the United States from Italy in 1955. In learning about St. Philippine, she found out that one of the saint’ miracles was curing someone from thyroid cancer, and Trone is also a survivor of that same type of cancer.

“Now I have another saint to pray to,” she said.

Harry Weber, the statue’s sculptor, whose wife graduated from the Sacred Heart School in St. Louis, said “everyone knows about Philippine’s spirituality and commitment to God,” so in his art, “I also wanted to portray her humanity and love for children.” In the sculpture, St. Philippine is looking down at a young girl, who is reaching up to hug her.

Although he has sculpted many brave people in his lifetime, Weber said he believes “none had more courage than she did.”

Patricia Byers, who retired last year from her roles as middle school campus minister and director of formation to mission at Stone Ridge, said St. Philippine speaks to her because she grew up in St. Louis, and she can imagine what the saint went through during the harsh winters there.

“She never had it easy,” said Byers. “…She doubted herself. She is a woman that speaks to everybody who thinks they are not doing enough.”

In particular, since St. Philippine often felt like she was failing, Byers said she thinks young women at the school can learn from her that they do not need to be perfect, because “God calls us to be exactly who we are.”

Kathryn Heetderks, the school’s current director of formation to mission, pointed out the humility exemplified by St. Philippine, who came from an aristocratic family in France and left it all behind to live on the frontier in primitive conditions. They both agreed that St. Philippine would be amazed – and slightly embarrassed – to see such a large gathering to celebrate her.

After Father Byrne blessed the new statue, the students continued to praise their patroness in a hymn to St. Philippine, which asked God to “stir up in us her spirit and keep our hearts a flame with love to serve as she did.”