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200 years: The Academy of the Sacred Heart and the pioneer woman who founded it

Two-hundred years ago – before Missouri was established as a state – the first free school west of the Mississippi River began. That seed, planted in St. Charles County, gave way to education in the rest of what would become the western United States.

September of 1818 is when the story of the Academy of the Sacred Heart began.

Nestled on a beautiful, 10-acre plot of land in the heart of St. Charles City, the Academy of the Sacred Heart is a juxtaposition of old and new. Original walls and wood floors of the school blend into bright, pristine hallways of new additions – preserving history while allowing for modern expansion. This is as evident spiritually as it is physically.

Education philosophies and religious values that the school held in the 1800s still are relevant today, but with a modern take for the 21st century. Students from pre-K through eighth grade learn through innovative programs – robotics, language and global studies, daily health and PE classes, personal laptops, etc. – but the spirit and values of the nun who started it all remain ingrained in everything the students do.

“From the absolute very beginning … even in kindergarten, we began learning about her story,” said Ann Tollefson, an alumna of the Academy [Class of 1972] and Duchesne High [Class of 1976].

The woman who started it all

Missionary-turned-pioneer woman St. Rose Philippine Duchesne was born in 1769 to an affluent family in Grenoble, France. As a child, she met Jesuit missionaries and was fascinated by their stories. She dreamed of a life like theirs and knew she wanted to be a missionary in the New World one day.

St. Philippine’s disapproving family, as well as upheaval during the French Revolution, slowed down her plans. But eventually, she was invited to join the Society of the Sacred Heart by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, whom she grew to revere as a mentor. Through that venture, St. Philippine was discovered by Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg of Louisiana, who asked her to come to America.

“So, here she is, at 48 years old, finally getting permission to do what she’d wanted to do her whole life,” Tollefson explained. “She had an unwavering determination that this is what she wanted to do, no matter how long it took. So, for us here that have been educated in the school she founded, thank God she stuck to her guns and wasn’t deterred.”

St. Philippine and St. Madeleine Sophie were driven by a mutual passion to spread the love of God through education – a passion that still is evident in the halls of the Academy today.

“Their main work was educating young girls, which was rather unique at the time. Most education was for boys,” Joan Runge, director of communications at the Academy, said. “[These nuns] thought educated women had a beneficial impact on society.”

In March of 1818, St. Philippine and four other religious said goodbye to their loved ones and sailed to America. After an arduous, 70-day voyage across the Atlantic, the group landed near New Orleans, Louisiana, in May. 

St. Philippine’s passion next carried her up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Missouri, at the request of Bishop DuBourg as part of a mission to start schools in the Louisiana Territory.

In August of 1818, she and her four companions arrived at the Market Street landing in St. Louis. They were directed by Bishop DuBourg to travel just outside the bustling, frontier town and, on Sept. 7, they claimed their stake in St. Charles on the Missouri River. Just one week later, on Sept. 14, the Academy of the Sacred Heart opened its log cabin doors.

As a pioneer, St. Philippine’s experience on the frontier was like that of most people of the time; she endured almost every hardship possible and it nearly killed her. She persevered for the sake of the school and, from that, a legacy began.

Sacred Heart education 

“When this school got underway and on firm-footing, [St. Philippine] went on to found other schools in Missouri and Louisiana,” Runge explained. “Today, there is a network of 24 Sacred Heart schools in the U.S. and in Canada.”

All Sacred Heart schools operate under five educational goals inspired by St. Madeleine Sophie, and brought over and implemented by St. Philippine.

“It’s how St. Madeleine Sophie’s vision from 1800 has been articulated for the 21st century,” Dr. Susan Dempf, head of school at the Academy, said. 

Those five goals are:

  • Personal and active faith in God
  • Deep respect for intellectual values
  • Social awareness which impels to action
  • Building of community as a Christian value
  • Personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom

Marcia Renken, principal of the Academy and an alumna of the school, said those five goals have been the consistent foundation of a Sacred Heart education, even through ever-changing times.

“It’s a continuation of what has always been present. The goals are not going to change, but the way we express them and live them out may change,” Renken explained.

Runge added, “It’s a very holistic approach to education. The Religious of the Sacred Heart were some of the first to take the approach of educating the whole child.”

Today, St. Philippine’s legacy in the world of education has left an indelible mark – Sacred Heart education spans nearly 40 countries around the world, in about 140 schools. Villa Duchesne in St. Louis is a sister school.

St. Philippine is buried in St. Charles on the campus of the Academy.

A lasting legacy

The Academy of the Sacred Heart consistently strives to keep St. Philippine’s dream alive. As the school closes out its second century and prepares to head into its third, the question that remains is “what’s next?”

“It is something that is on my mind. I certainly have a responsibility,” Dempf said. “I am following literally in the footsteps of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. Really, what I’m mindful of is making sure that it is present for the next 100 years. We need to be able to prepare children for a future that we cannot even envision. What will children need in order to be successful for their future?”

Renken describes it as an evolution of learning. 

“We prepare them for the future while helping them navigate the present,” she said. “It’s two lanes in the same road. It’s our job to make sure we don’t shortchange them.”

Alumni like Tollefson are a testament to the value of a Sacred Heart education, and its lasting impact over generations.

“My mother and her sister both went to school there. In my mother’s mind, there was no other place we were going to go,” Tollefson said. “Now, my children have all gone. We have three generations that have been educated by the Academy of the Sacred Heart. It’s just a very special place. There aren’t many schools that can say they’re home to a saint.”

Or a historical figure with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the Delmar Loop. On June 23, St. Philippine was inducted into the Walk of Fame. Her field of achievement is listed as science/education. Her star sits among those of Maya Angelou, T.S. Eliot and more than 100 other local “greats” who made an impact on our country.

“We are not resting on our laurels on our 200-year history. We understand the needs of children and families are changing and we work to meet those needs and grow,” Dempf said.

Celebrating 200 years

The celebration of the Academy’s 200th birthday has kicked off and will continue through the actual anniversary in 2018, culminating next November. Over the past several years, a Bicentennial Committee studied and discussed how to make the most of this opportunity to educate the public on the large piece of history that lies so close to home.

“We want the public to understand what a treasure we have in St. Charles,” Dempf said. “There are many people who have lived in the area their whole lives and do not know a saint is from St. Charles.”

In August of 2017, a book on the history of the school, “Two Hundred Years: A Legacy of Love and Learning” by Jane Cannon, was released.

“Working with a variety of people that have so many memories to share was a great experience,” Cannon said. “The book has a number of personal recollections from alumnae and members of the religious order.”

Cannon said it took her about 10 years to write the book, and described it as a privilege to write. Maryville University underwrote the book in honor of its history as a Sacred Heart school, founded in 1872 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart. The book is for sale at the Academy.

In September of 2017, the official bicentennial celebration kicked off with a “Home to the Heart” party. A Bicentennial Wine produced in the Grenoble region of France was unveiled at the celebration.

“That was a fun way to celebrate her,” Runge said, of St. Philippine. “It was just sort of the icing on the cake.”

This fall, monthly lesson plans will be distributed to area schools, both public and private, so students can learn about the history of education in the region. Students will follow St. Philippine’s journey to America and learn about her role in history.

Future events:

Nov. 1-3, 2017 – Students and representatives from Sacred Heart schools across the U.S. and Canada will travel to the Academy of the Sacred Heart to engage in dialogue, learning and discussion on being “keepers of the flame.”

“That was started in France by St. Madeleine Sophie, brought to the United Sates by St. Philippine Duchesne, and now each one of us is a ‘keeper,’” Renken explained.

Sept. 7, 2018 – Reenactment of St. Philippine’s arrival on the St. Charles riverfront.

Sept. 14, 2018 – The Academy of the Sacred Heart’s 200-year anniversary, Archbishop Robert Carlson will celebrate Mass at the Academy.

Sept. 15, 2018 – Global Day of Service, Sacred Heart schools from different countries will partake in a day of service during different time slots, creating a “wave of service” around the world.

Nov. 18, 2018 – St. Philippine’s feast day; the bicentennial celebration culminates with a 200th Anniversary closing Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.

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