Over the past two centuries, the Society of the Sacred Heart has established hundreds of schools throughout the world, spreading its philosophy of educating the whole child and making God’s love known to the world. Today, this international congregation of Catholic women founded in 1800 by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat has more than 2,200 members in provinces in 41 countries. In the United States and Canada, more than 300 members engage in the mission of discovering and revealing the love of the Heart of Jesus in our world.

Here are the stories of three “founding mothers” of the Society.  

St. Madeleine Sophie Barat

Born in Burgundy, the daughter of a vintner and barrel maker, the foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart grew up in the modest town of Joigny, France with the unusual advantage of a formal education. This she received in weekly installments from her brother Louis, a seminarian. After Father Barat was ordained in 1795, he returned home to find that his sister, then a mature young lady of 15, was suitably prepared to share his apostolic work in Paris. Sophie’s early mission in the capital city was the teaching of young women. It was there that she met Father Joseph Varin, a friend of Louis’, who became her mentor and spiritual advisor. On Nov. 21, 1800 Father Varin presided over the consecration of Sophie’s and her three companions’ lives to the service of God. The young nun, 20 years old at the time, was the only one of the four to sustain her commitment. The spread of the Society of the Sacred Heart across Europe was to occupy the remainder of Mother Barat’s life. Laying aside her childhood dream of the contemplative life, she used her prodigious gifts to open more than 80 houses where education was offered to young ladies of means and position. Nevertheless her lifelong concern for the poor moved her to ignite that selfless spirit in her sisters and the children they taught. The commissioning to America of her dear friend and confidant, Philippine Duchesne, signaled the beginning of the missionary activity that would spread the order’s mission around the globe. The work of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, so energetically begun more than two centuries ago, was secured by the timeless principles and wise constitutions that its foundress provided during her long lifetime. Madeleine Sophie Barat died in Paris in 1865—13 years after the death of Philippine Duchesne. She was canonized in 1925.  

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Mosaic of St. Philippine Duchesne in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis

St. Rose Philippine Duchesne

Rose Philippine Duchesne dreamed of coming to the New World and teaching the Indians. Born in 1769 in Grenoble, France, she grew up in a loving and prominent family. Her decision to enter the religious life was not welcomed by her father, who terminated her attendance at the Visitation Convent at Ste. Marie d’en Haute. During the Revolution Philippine helped many of the poor, homeless, sick and dying who were languishing in the city. After the war she tried futilely to bring back the nuns who had lived at Ste. Marie. She was nearing complete failure when Madeleine Sophie Barat, who had just established a new congregation of religious women in the northern part of France, invited her  to join in her work of teaching young girls. And so, at the age of 35, Philippine was finally secure in a vocation.

Although fulfilled in her various activities in Sacred Heart convents in France for the next 13 years, Philippine never abandoned her dream to go to America and teach the Indians. And so, when Bishop William DuBourg visited the Paris convent in 1817, seeking teachers, Philippine implored Mother Barat to allow her to go. Permission was granted, and a year later she and four religious companions made the arduous 70-day voyage across the Atlantic to New Orleans. They continued by paddlewheel steamer upriver to St. Louis, and ended in a log cabin in St. Charles—site of the first free school west of the Mississippi.

That first year saw three little St. Louis girls come as boarders and 21 non-paying day students who came when they could during that long, bitter winter. The following summer the nuns moved to Florissant, a village on the other side of the Missouri River, where they conducted their school and Mother Duchesne established her novitiate for the Society. In 1828 the Jesuits asked the Sacred Heart nuns to return to St. Charles (to that same log cabin which was known as the “Duquette Mansion” because it was the biggest house in town) and conduct the parish school. They did so and finally, in 1835, built their first brick building, which remains the center of our sprawling complex.

Mother Duchesne established other schools in Louisiana and Missouri. She was finally allowed to travel to Kansas at the age of 72 and made a frustrating attempt at teaching the Indians. The lesson that she had taught the native Americans was a valuable one; the Indians called her Quakahkanumad (woman who prays always) and revered her for her deep devotion to “the Great Spirit.”

Philippine Duchesne spent the last ten years of her life at the Academy in St. Charles, where she died on Nov. 18, 1852. Her cause for canonization was introduced in 1895; she was declared “Venerable” in 1909 and “Blessed” in 1940. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Because the French word for “oak” is chêne (and because du chêne means “of oak”), symbols of oak leaves and acorns are often seen in Sacred Heart schools in America to recall the name of the woman who pioneered Sacred Heart education in the New World. It is our great honor that our school was her first in this country and that her holy remains are enshrined here.

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View photos of the Philippine Stained Glass Windows in Cribbin Hall.

Janet Erskine Stuart

Janet Erskine Stuart was a woman of great compassion, judgment and intellect. Born Nov. 11, 1857, in the English village of Cottesmore, she was the youngest of 13 children whose father was rector of an Anglican parish and whose mother died when Janet was 14 months old. Janet’s character was shaped in equal measure by her loving family and by the countryside where they made their home. First introduced to Catholic cathecism and writings through a distant cousin, Janet continued her studies under the tutelage of a Jesuit priest in London and was received into the Church at age 22. Entering the Society of the Sacred Heart three years later, she proved a natural and accomplished teacher, eventually outlining her educational philosophy in The Education of Catholic Girls. She believed that “it is not so much what we say or do that educates; what really educates is who we are.” Elected Superior of the English houses, she traveled to Paris, to Rome and around the globe. In the fall of 1898 she journeyed with Mother Mabel Digby to the scenes of the early days of the Society in America, where she wrote from St. Charles: ”I cannot describe to you how [Philippine Duchesne’s] presence seems to be constantly here with one, even in the chapel which she never saw, but especially in the old house, and above all in the little cell where she died, and which they have made into an oratory.” Upon Mother Digby’s death in 1911, Mother Stuart was elected the sixth Superior General of the Society. She determined to visit all the houses of the Society, but died three years later in 1914. Mother Stuart remains a preeminent figure within the Society of the Sacred Heart.

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