Trail of Death, St. Philippine remembered on journey

180th anniversary of Trail of Death and 200th anniversary of saint’s arrival recalled during four-state caravan


Father Simeon Etonu extended his arms in a blessing over the people and the ground they were standing on.

“May God, our hope and our strength, fill you with peace and the Holy Spirit,” the pastor of St. Mary parish in Shelbina and St. Patrick parish in Clarence prayed, sprinkling holy water onto the simple stone memorial plaque outside the Monroe County Courthouse.

Dedicated in 1988, the plaque reads: “In remembrance of the Potawatomi Indians who encamped at Paris, Missouri, Oct. 15, 1838, on the Trail of Death.”

About 40 people had stopped for fellowship, prayer and recollection at a place where about 850 men, women and children of the Potawatomi Nation had camped for one night 180 years ago, during their two-month, government-forced, 650-mile relocation from Indiana to Kansas.

That dark episode in U.S. history is known as the Trail of Death because of the shocking loss of life, especially among babies.

Fr. Etonu prayed: “Your grace has moved the hearts of these, Your friends, to love You more deeply, to serve You more generously. We ask You to bless them, that they may all tell of Your wonderful deeds and give proof of them in their lives.”

A man wearing traditional Native American regalia asked the priest for the remainder of the holy water, knelt down and poured it around the memorial, sprinkling it also with tobacco and offering a Native American Prayer to the Four Directions.

This is one of the now over 100 Trail of Death memorials marking the places where the Potawatomi stopped along the route. The seven-day Trail of Death Memorial Caravan led participants to or past all of them.

The people were retracing by car the journey of the Potawatomi, learning about the places they traveled through, celebrating the resilience of those who survived, and remembering and praying for those who died.

All 18 cars of the participants were marked by blue and red flags.

“We must have looked like a funeral procession,” said Sister Deanna Rose von Bargen of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJ), who was part of the caravan from start to finish.

Several times as travelers passed by, a farmer would step down from his tractor, take off his hat and stand with his hand over his heart.

“That got us talking: This actually is a funeral procession,” said Sr. Deanna Rose. “We’re commemorating the Trail of Death.”

Having grown up near the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho and recently spent nine years ministering with mostly Luiseno and Cahuilla peoples in southern California, she believes that each one who took part in the caravan experienced some sort of death inside.

“It will never leave us,” she said.

Forced to leave

The Trail of Death Memorial Caravan has been held every five years, starting in 1988.

This was Sr. Deanna Rose’s first. Along the way, she learned that two groups of Potawatomi people in Indiana had made the journey to Kansas voluntarily before the Trail of Death.

The last group of hold-outs was arrested one Sunday morning in church and forced to leave under military supervision.

“They said to the men, ‘We’re going to keep you tied up here,’” said Sr. Deanna Rose. “They told the women and children to go home and bring back whatever baggage they wanted to take with them.”

A statue of their leader, Chief Menominee, now stands in Twin Lakes, Indiana, where the Trail of Death began.

Soldiers led the Potawatomi people over primitive roads and trails to Kansas territory, mostly on foot — their elderly, babies and belongings in wagons — between Sept. 4 and Nov. 4, 1838.

Many of the Potawatomi were Catholic or became Catholic after arriving in Sugar Creek, just south of what is now Osawatomie, Kansas.

One of the soldiers in charge of relocating the Potawatomi kept a daily journal. His heartbreaking entries include accounts of babies dying from the heat and probably typhoid fever.

Always rushed, the people had to forego their traditional elaborate burial rituals when one of their loved ones died on the trail.

“They had to leave early each morning and stop to set up camp late in the afternoon and then go forage for food and water,” Sr. Deanna Rose noted.

Typhoid, contracted by drinking contaminated water, often infected the Potawatomi.

“What agonies these people went through, burying babies and also elderly people!” said Sr. Deanna Rose. “One of the toddlers fell off a wagon and got run over and died.”

Praying unceasingly

Ten people associated with the Religious of the Sacred Heart took part in the Trail of Death Caravan, which coincided with the 200th anniversary of the arrival in the United States of their forebear in religious life, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne.

St. Philippine and a handful of sisters from the religious congregation founded by Madeleine Sophie Barat in 1800 came from France in 1818 at the urging of Bishop William V. DuBourg SS, bishop of the Louisiana Territory and the Floridas.

Eager to teach and minister with the native people of this continent, Mother Philippine instead wound up establishing schools and teaching children in St. Charles, as well as in the state of Louisiana.

Only after age and infirmity claimed most of her energy was her request to be missioned among the Native Americans in Kansas granted.

The Potawatomi people in 1841 asked for Catholic sisters to come and teach their girls. Jesuit priests and brothers were already there, teaching the boys.

Mother Philippine spent a year with the sisters at the Potawatomi mission.

Mostly unable to understand the people’s language and struggling to withstand the harsh conditions, she held the children, mended their socks and prayed constantly.

“She was devoted to prayer and helped when she could,” said Father Barry Clayton, pastor of three parishes surrounding the place where the Kansas mission stood. “Her prayer was a real witness to the Potawatomi people.”

“She prayed a lot, for hours on end,” Sr. Deanna Rose noted. “The Indian children watched her very closely. They put leaves on the back of her habit and came back hours later and the leaves had not moved.”

That’s how she came to be known as “Woman Who Prays Always.”

“She only got to stay with them for a year,” Fr. Clayton noted. “But out of all of the sacrifices she had made, she could identify with the Potawatomi who had sacrificed so much in having to leave their homeland and relocate to this place. They knew what suffering and sacrifice were, and St. Philippine could certainly understand and relate to that.”

Members of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus remained with the Potawatomi in Kansas for 37 years.

They stayed with them in Sugar Creek for about a decade before the government moved them and the Jesuit priests who ministered with them to St. Mary’s, Kansas.

Childhood memory

Sr. Deanna Rose said she thought at least 70 percent of the people on the memorial caravan were of Potawatomi ancestry.

Among them were Bob Pearl, age 92, and his daughter, Janet.

Mr. Pearl, who wore his traditional headband throughout the caravan, was born and grew up on the St. Mary’s Reservation in Kansas.

Shortly before the caravan crossed into Missouri and the Jefferson City diocese, they stopped for prayer and silent remembrance around a Trail of Death marker outside St. Boniface Church in Quincy, Illinois.

A small relief on that marker depicts a woman nestling a child with a book.

“We had always heard the story that someone’s great-great-grandmother sat on Mother Philippine’s lap, and she brushed her hair,” said Sr. Deanna Rose. “Turns out, it was Bob Pearl’s great-great-grandmother, who survived the Trail of Death as a little girl.”

Several historical societies and other groups hosted the caravan travelers for dinner.

Among them were drama students from Milliken University in Decatur. Holding the students spellbound with his stories was 75-year-old George Godfrey, a Potawatomi descendant and retired entomology professor. He wore traditional period Potawatomi clothing throughout the journey, and charmed the students by explaining each piece of his regalia to them.

High school students in Richmond turned out to greet the travelers, surrounding them and the marker on their school property, and participating in the blessing and prayers. 

A family of Navajo pilgrims, who also traveled with the group, had brought their Eagle Staff for the blessing of this and each marker along the way.

In Paris, members of the Monroe County Historical Society set up a display in the courthouse rotunda, with books, photos and articles.

Alice Dye, who became Catholic a few years ago through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Mary in Shelbina, helped set up the display and greet the visitors.

“Not the end”

The caravan ended in St. Philippine Memorial Park near Osawatomie, Kansas, the original site of St. Mary’s Mission to the Potawatomi people.

An ecumenical group of ministers welcomed the caravan participants as they arrived and treated them to an afternoon meal.

Fr. Clayton offered Mass at an outdoor altar in a park where the Catholic mission to the Potawatomi people once stood.

Many of the caravan participants attended, as did several local parishioners and representatives from a school in Omaha that’s affiliated with St. Philippine Duchesne (Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart).

“The altar is where we believe the chapel was,” said Fr. Clayton. “That chapel would have been where St. Philippine prayed and where the Potawatomi people prayed. Many of them were Catholic.”

He spoke of the crucifixion, the Trail of Death and St. Philippine.

“St. Philippine sacrificed a lot with the grace of God, coming all the way to America by boat,” he said. “It took her about two months to get here. She kissed the ground when she arrived, so thankful for having made it.”

He commended the people for making the journey and for reflecting on the Trail of Death’s still-resonating significance in light of the Paschal Mystery.

“As Catholics, when we look to the crucifix, we know suffering and sacrifice are not without meaning,” he said. “It’s not the end. And through it all, we find hope with Christ.”

Grave on the Prairie

Sr. Deanna Rose believes the act of remembering St. Philippine challenges people to see what needs to be done, take risks, and do it.

“She was gutsy,” said Sr. Deanna Rose. “She came from a wealthy family and traded creature comforts for utter poverty and hardship here. And she loved it, in spite of the loss of easy contact with her family and the other sisters she left behind in France.”

In the midst of a seemingly irreconcilable culture clash, the sisters and the Potawatomi men and women watched and learned from each other and from how each showed reverence for God.

“On the caravan, we heard testimonies from the Potawatomi about how Catholic Christianity and their traditions meshed together,” said Sr. Deanna Rose.

Along the trail, she read a book researched and written by a member of her RSCJ profession class, Sister Maureen J. Chicoine, called Grave on the Prairie: Seven Religious of the Sacred Heart and Saint Mary’s Mission to the Potawatomi (iUniverse, 2018).

“We don’t cherish just the memory of St. Philippine,” Sr. Deanna Rose noted. “We reverence all of those who served with her and who came after her, as well as the people they served. This book tells the story.”

On eagle’s wings

At the end of Mass, a woman pointed out the large bird that had been flying overhead. It looked like an eagle.

“The eagle is symbolic of the Potawatomi of our prayers rising to God,” she noted.

A descendant of one of the Potawatomi people who survived the Trail of Death 180 years ago offered a hymn of praise in her ancestral language.

With that, the caravan concluded.

“It was awful having to say goodbye,” Sr. Deanna Rose said of the people she traveled with. “We got really close to each other throughout all of this.”

More photos and information about the Trail of Death Memorial Caravan can be found at: