When the invitation of Bishop Louis William DuBourg to come to America was issued in the parlor of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Paris in 1817, it signaled the beginning of the international mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Philippine Duchesne, whose zeal to work with native Americans overcame the prudent advice of Mother Barat’s advisors, embarked a year later with high hopes, unswerving faith and a cohort of four religious who shared her dream for the New World.
The hardships of the long voyage across the Atlantic and the protracted trip up the river from New Orleans to St. Louis were crowned with the disappointment of learning, when they finally reported to the bishop, that their destination had been moved even farther from home. He had chosen the unlikely village of St. Charles, some 25 miles away, because he was able to find suitable housing for his new missionaries there. Although they were disappointed in the decision, the five religious bravely set out to begin their “first free school west of the Mississippi River” in a small log cabin which would, at times, house as many as 20 day students—along with three boarders and the nuns.
Conditions were desperately poor that first year. The nuns learned to “make do” with very little. They depended on friends, relatives and the fledgling Society in France for shipments of supplies to supplement their own resources. Almost as painful was the deprivation of communication which the distance necessitated. Mother Duchesne was forced to make decisions without consultation or to wait for the long delays of “opportunity mail” that found its way on rare occasions between St. Charles and her superior’s desk.
The school’s three boarders and day students (who attended school sporadically) survived the first year—although one girl nearly died that winter. By the time spring had come, Philippine importuned Bishop DuBourg to take her closer to St. Louis so that the school would attract more girls from that city. Much to the grief of the St. Charles residents, the new Academy closed on Prize Day, August 30. A few days later, the shabby belongings of the Religious of the Sacred Heart were heaped onto rafts to cross the Missouri River. Florissant was the next site for their mission. Here the boarding school grew, thanks to somewhat improved conditions, and the first novitiate of the Society was founded as well.
In 1828 the Jesuits, who had been working actively in this area for many years, built their first stone church in St. Charles (quite near the little log cabin that had housed the first Academy of the Sacred Heart). The priests asked the nuns to come back to St. Charles; and, much to the joy of the townspeople, they did—returning to that miserable cabin which had stood vacant for the nine years of their absence. Once again, the religious were eking out an existence in St. Charles. But, through the benefit of their hard work and the enthusiastic support of the families whose daughters they taught, they managed to erect a brick convent school in 1835. That building stands to this day along with all the additions that have attached themselves to it over the years. Philippine Duchesne wrote to Mother Barat in 1851 (just a year before her death), “If you could see the pretty place we have here, standing beside the church as it does, you would not have the courage to take it from us, even if there were only four of us to carry on the work.” Many of the years of St. Charles’ history can be summed up in the word “struggle.” That was the way of life for the religious here who held fast to this place because of the intense devotion of their foundress for her first house in America.
Enrollment flourished after Philippine Duchesne’s death (as she had predicted it would), and certainly the young women who were fortunate enough to attend the school derived the full benefit of a Sacred Heart education here. St. Charles has long been characterized by simplicity—often bordering on poverty—and a no-frills sense of purpose that reflects the spirit of its sainted foundress. (Indeed if ever we were guilty of the sin of pride it was in our boasting of St. Philippine—not so much in the fact of her canonization, but in the story of her life, which we are pleased to claim as integral to our history.) We believe that her pioneer spirit of rugged determination and zeal for the Sacred Heart of Jesus are as much our inherited fortune as the excellent education that is offered here.
In the mid-20th century, when Sacred Heart schools were closing across the country due to the decline of religious vocations and, perhaps, the waning popularity of single sex schools, it would not have been surprising for St. Charles to be one of the first to expire. (It was certainly not a shining example of fiscal independence! All of the other schools were in larger cities; and, only by the accidental choice of Bishop DuBourg in 1818, had St. Charles been selected.) And thus, because of its history as the first foundation and certainly because of the tomb of its foundress, lovingly venerated here, a way to keep the school afloat was devised: the secondary school would be closed and little boys would be accepted—for the first time—in the elementary grades. Thus in 1972, a boys’ school began to operate co-institutionally with the girls’. The name Perier Elementary was chosen for this school to commemorate the family (consisting largely of boys) that grew up side-by-side with the Duchesne family during Philippine’s childhood in Grenoble. The school maintained the Perier name until 1993, by which time it had become evident that there was no division between the boys’ and girls’ classes, and the title only served to confuse.
In 1986 another year was added to the Primary department, when four-year-olds were admitted to a half-day Pre-Primary class. And in 2017 our Little Acorns program opened its doors for three-year-olds. Thus, we now educate children from PK (3) through eighth grade. Wouldn’t Philippine be proud? We like to reflect on the words St. Madeleine Sophie wrote to her dear friend and spiritual daughter in 1829: “I hold firmly to St. Charles, and I am delighted that we have a house there. It may accomplish more good than any other house.”