People on and along the Ohio River were greeted by an unusual sight this week: five nuns on a flatboat, heading downstream. They are members of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph, from the Mount St. Joseph Conference and Retreat Center in Maple Mount, Kentucky. They are re-enacting the voyage that preceded the founding of their house 130 years ago. They are wearing full habits of the period that they sewed themselves and will be eating, sleeping, and cooking on the boat. If it rains, they will have only their small cabin to protect them.
"I hope we experience a little hardship or it won't be authentic," Sister Elaine Burke said shortly before the journey began in New Albany, Indiana. "Sleep or no sleep — who cares?"
In August 1874, five Ursuline Sisters of Louisville boarded a flatboat on the Louisville waterfront and journeyed down the Ohio River to Owensboro. Their mission: to establish a Catholic school in western Daviess County. During its 109-year history, this school, Mount Saint Joseph Academy, served hundreds of young women from across the United States and several foreign countries. With the closing of the Academy in 1983, the buildings reopened as Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center. The Center continues to be a sponsored ministry of the Ursuline Sisters.
The pioneer Ursulines were strong women who lived through many hardships. Sometimes they didn’t know where their next meal would come from. They had to deal with illness and lack of funds. They taught, took care of the buildings, fed the few animals that gave them milk and food, and constantly prayed for God to watch over them and their students. The Sisters reenacting the early trip wear the habits of the early pioneers, eat what they ate, and sleep on the boat. They will try to imagine what it must have been like to be on that first boat so long ago.
Though it does not provide all of the comforts of home, the flatboat has many. In the bow is a fireplace, complete with an ash pit and black kettle hanging from a spit. Inside the cabin are cots covered with quilts, pictures hung on the walls, and dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. When mealtime comes, the sisters will prepare cured ham, bacon, flapjacks, and vegetables from their gardens.
Many of our ancestors traveled on similar boats as they migrated across the United States in search of new homes and opportunities. You can see pictures of this boat and the Ursuline Sisters at http://www.ursulinesmsj.org/flatboatmain.htm.
The present-day journey is designed to provide education about the history, life and work of the Ursuline Sisters, vocations to religious life, and the history of Kentucky during the late 18th century. It will also raise funds to support the continuing mission and ministries of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Much of this will happen through the use of the website at http://www.ursulineflatboatadventure.org.
The present-day Ursulines are not as alone as those of 130 years ago. They have been accompanied by a pushboat that guides them down the river and keeps them out of the path of barges, snags, islands, and other obstacles. They also are connected via e-mail.
You can read more about the flatboat journey at http://www.ursulinesmsj.org/flatboatmain.htm