We have left Cape Girardeau and settle into a different current of American Catholic history as we travel along the Mississippi and eventually to the Missouri River. This leg of the trop as mentioned will focus on the French influence on the Catholic Church in America. It is a confessional influence in the sense of a profession of faith. But this blog entry is made to record a few experiences of that French Catholic faith as an initial and prevailing force which is still etched in history if you are sensitive to the etchings of history. It is in these aged wrinkles that wisdom might be found.
With relation to the French influence here, there are a couple wonderful sites to see along the way and they form part of the fabric of the emerging tapestry with fleur-de-lys knit tightly to the Burgundian Cross of Empire, which is itself a marvelous contradiction.
We stopped on Perryville about 25 miles to the north of Cape Girardeau (May 10). The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal is built there, and it is a properly pious place. We met the person responsible for promoting the Shrine, Pat Better. We first met her when we were at Bishop Rice’s rosary soiree. She invited us for a guided tour on Sunday, so we took advantage of her offer on Monday. The Shrine is a peaceful place, and it is tied together by a very creative Rosary Walk. The Shrine is on the former grounds of the Vincentian seminary which has been converted to a retirement home for the Vincentians. That is rather a sad testimony of the lack of vocations. However, if you are not familiar with the Vincentians, they owe their foundation to St. Vincent de Paul and are also known as the Congregation of the Mission. At one point they were one of the largest missionary orders. They rose in stature from their humble origins through royal patronage and eventually became an order that educated priests and such was the case in Perryville when the Vincentians established their seminary.
It is on the seminary grounds that the Shrine has been built and it honors St. Catherine Laboure who was a young girl that had the Blessed Virgin Mary appear to her. She was a daughter of Charity, which was the feminine counterpart of the Vincentians and Saint Louise Marillac. As with so many religious orders, there are both the priestly or masculine component and the feminine counterpart which complements the charism of the order. I have included a chart of the various orders and their masculine and feminine expressions. This may be a good point to reflect on in the future because of the important spiritual components these two expressions of one charism make. It is an imprint of redemption in our own Catholic identity. But for now, the intention is to convey our passage through this area of Missouri and relate it to the broader historical context. The trip has taken a character of both vocation promotion and pilgrimage, and it is wonderful how much `material there is to make a fine pilgrimage.
The Shrine has a wonderful depiction of the life of St. Catherine Laboure and her encounter with Mary and the promise of the Miraculous Medal. Among the painting is the very interesting depiction of Story of the Jewish convert Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne who was an avowed anti-Catholic and experienced a dramatic conversion in a Church after having taken up the prayer of the Miraculous Medal. Often, a cynic is a confused Christian that masks faith through skepticism. At least the old-fashioned cynics that would be open to discussion and introspection. Conversion implies an ability for introspection and a moment of honesty which becomes an axis of that conversion. Today’s cynic is a little different. They are fully distracted and are denied the very silent encounter with the truth that is required for conversions such as Ratisbonne’s.
We were given a bunch of medals by Pat Better and so we will leave them along the way hoping for an American Ratisbonne to find the benefit. We move along to St. Genevieve, a wonderfully charming town on the banks of the Mississippi. There is a ferry that crosses the Mississippi from the opposite side in Illinois. St. Genevieve sits opposite key French settlements like Kasakasia or Fort de Chartres. Unfortunately, the ferry isn’t running. The historic sites would be easy to reach and make a great compliment and reinforce the understanding of the French settlement of the area.
We stayed the night in St. Genevieve and participated in a rosary and mass for vocations this morning. As mentioned, the town is absolutely charming and holds important clues to the demystification process of French settlement and the Catholic experience in America. Among other things, they have a few still existing original French Creole houses.
These are unique in style and seem quite exotic. St. Genevieve was the first settlement in Missouri founded in 1735 by French Canadians expanding their reach for the fur trade and also representing a move westward as relationship with the neighboring native tribes improved. It is hard to travel with the RV for the ability to stop and take pictures is severely limited. There is a 9-foot clearance railroad bridge that I had the wherewithal to avoid.
One big difference in the architecture that was used by the French was the use of upright timbers. The English used horizontal timbers. These have withstood earthquakes and floods far better (that is the claim). Here on these shores of the Mississippi on what was the upper reaches of Louisiana is the spirit of the French Catholic confessional Church which is a very real heritage and can be a real dynamic principle of conversion and reawakening of vocations if understood. There is a lot to embrace here.