Thursday, June 20, 2013

Desiree's Passing

Poverty predestined her to a life of servitude.  It wasn’t until she was 27 that she would be able to fulfill her dream of entering the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Her given name was Mathilde Erculisse.  She was born May 18, 1815 in Elouges, Belgium.  Even as a novice, her potential was recognized by her superiors.  Once she took the habit, she was known as Sister Desiree.  She went about her duties faithfully, but had an inner desire to serve God as a missionary, possibly in the new fields of the Americas.  In 1845 she made the long trans-Atlantic journey and ended up at the convent of the Sisters in Cincinnati, Ohio.  At first her duties were simple- sewing for the Sisters and being in charge of the clothes room.  Once she was assigned to a classroom she found her calling.  Desiree recognized that the condition of the poorest of the poor whom she served would not improve without education.  She gathered children, young women, and mothers into Sodalities that taught basic necessities while instilling the values of the Church.

Because of her efforts she was invited to open a new foundation among the Irish in Lowell.  Father Timothy O’Brien had sought a teaching order of Sisters to open a school for the swelling numbers of Irish children who lived in the Acre section of the mill city.  He had asked several different teaching orders to take on the task, but only the French speaking Sisters of Notre Dame would come.   Five sisters left Cincinnati by coach and made the difficult journey to a convent in Boston.  When the little group arrived in Lowell they were met by enthusiastic crowds.  Visitors arrived unannounced day and night to meet them.  They went to work immediately and opened their little school, first with 150 students and within days, over 300. The space that served as classrooms by day served as the Sisters’ dormitory by night.   In a short time Desiree opened a kindergarten for the children who wandered the streets as their parents worked.  The Sisters led night classes for women and girls who spent their days in the mills and as housekeepers.  Desiree also opened a small hospital for those who were not able to be part of the Corporation Hospital sponsored by the mills.  The caliber of the teaching at the Academy she instituted was such that wealthy Boston merchants sent their daughters to Lowell to be educated.  Having paying boarders allowed Desiree to afford educating the poor who would not be able to have such an opportunity.  On the weekends the Sisters taught religious education classes in the surrounding towns.  Within 25 years she had built a school for children, a convent for the Sisters, Notre Dame Academy for older girls, and grounds where cows and chickens were kept.  The food was often given to the poor who made their way to the convent door seeking a meal.  It was Desiree’s order that no person be turned away in case it was Christ calling at the door.
By 1879, her life’s work was coming to an end.  Just weeks before, she and the Sisters worked tirelessly to host clergy and guests for the Consecration ceremony of St. Patrick Church.  While the guests feasted, the nuns cooked, cleaned, and served, eating their meals in a crowded back room away from the festivities.  In October of 1879, a cry of one in agony broke the Grand Silence that the Sisters kept from sunset until dawn. The cries came from Mother Desiree’s room.  The doctor was called and opiates were given to calm the pains.  The Sisters gathered in small groups in the hallways kneeling and reciting the psalms of lamentations and the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary.  For days, a line of priests and Superiors from other convents made their way to the convent to say their farewells.  Acre residents knew her as Good Mother Desiree.  This woman with a strong French accent was like a mother to every child put under her protection.  A vigil was kept outside

Death of St. Julie
the convent by Catholics and Protestants alike.  A favorite priest of Mother Desiree, Father Bapst, saw her final agonies were upon her and began the Last Rites, anointing her hands and soles of her feet as a sign she would not walk this earth again.  Frequently her lips would utter shorts prayers such as, “Jesus, my Jesus.”  It was in the evening of October 16, 1879 that the bell began to toll announcing to all in the convent, in the school, in the streets, across the Acre and the City that the bride had returned to her bridegroom.  The cries of the mourners could be heard from outside the convent.

Her fellow Sisters bathed her earthly remains and clothed them in the habit of the Order.  Only eight of the 20 plus Sisters were allowed to attend the funeral.  The others remained in the convent.  The altar was heavily draped in black.  The bell in the church tower tolled a half hour before the Requiem Mass began.  At 9 a.m. dozens of clergy surrounded the casket and began the chant of the De Profundis.  Out of the depths I cry under thee, O Lord.  The body was carried up the main aisle flanked by 6 tall candles.   The sobs of the crowds made it difficult to hear the eulogy. 
Carriages awaited outside the church to take clergy to the gravesite.  Newspapers reported that the cortege was one of the longest seen in the City in a long time.  The Sisters of Charity and the children of St. Peter’s orphanage followed the carriages.  The students from the school and Academy, wearing black dresses and white veils, carried floral wreaths.  Several of the City’s temperance societies joined in, along with the different Sodalities of the Blessed Virgin she had founded.  The cortege stretched from Gorham Street to Market Street.  The casket was lowered into the grave in the little plot reserved for the Sisters at the Catholic Burial Ground on the edge of the city.  Once the prayers of committal were finished, many found it difficult to leave.  The afternoon sun was already beginning to fall.  But Desiree was not alone.  On either side of her were Sisters Francis and Rose, two of the other Lowell pioneers from 1852 who had earlier passed onto their rewards.  The Sisters made their way back to the Convent knowing that tomorrow the work that began with the little band of 5 would need to continue.  “Ah, qu’il est bon, le bon Dieu!” (How good the Good God is!)


  1. God bless Sister Desiree....such compassion, love and devotion.

  2. For a woman in the 19th century to do what she did is amazing. This short piece does not do her justice. Thank you for commenting.

  3. A touching tribute to a generous soul.