Monday, October 22, 2018

The Life and Death of Father Rouquette

The intriguing details about the life and death of Rev. Father Adrien Rouquette (also known as Chahta Ima) were printed in the Daily Picayune newspaper on July 16, 1887. He died in July of 1887, and his obituary was a tribute to his faith, his poetry, and his work among the Native Americans living in New Orleans and the north shore.

Rev. Father Adrien Rouquette  

The obituary begins by noting that Father Rouquette was known as "a poet priest," not just because he wrote poetry, but because his whole life was a poem. "His thoughts were ever of the beauties of nature or the glory of God; his heart was constantly overflowing with human kindness and human sympathy; his happiest days were in spiritual self-communion in the wilderness, and his favorite mission was seeking out the Choctaws still living in the St. Tammany forests, and sharing with them the great faith in which he found the mainspring of his life purpose and the promise of eternal happiness."

The obituary writer felt that his death was a fit ending to the poem, breathing prayer and love and divine trust, "a gentle sinking to rest, with a smile the farewell to earth and the greeting to the grander sphere."

The Abbe Adrien Rouquette was one of the best known and most widely beloved of the priests of Louisiana.   He was born in New Orleans in 1813. His education was begun here, continued in the college at Nantes, France, and completed at a college in Philadelphia.

According to the obituary, young Rouquette was handsome and gifted and possessed a superior mind that had enabled him to acquire a great deal of knowledge with ease.

 "He graduated in law and in medicine and was skilled in arts and sciences.   A graceful bearing, a fine command of language, a flexible and pleasing voice, a poetic temperament, a natural eloquence, made him an ideal orator.   His friends looked upon him as a man who would be remembered among the first when the history of Louisiana should be written.

"His early manhood strengthened the promise.   Suddenly, although perhaps the resolve may have been the blessed decision of long months of thought, he announced that he would enter the priesthood.   It was to Mgr. Blano, then archbishop of New Orleans, that he confided his desire, and it was the good archbishop who welcomed him as a coworker.

"The ordination took place some forty years ago (1847), and since then he has ministered faithfully with never a thought of self.   His quarters were the poorest furnished, his clothing of the plainest fabric, his fare of the simplest kind, and his rare character shone all the brighter for its humble setting.

"Father Rouquette was alike to rich and poor, working for their welfare with equal zeal, and anxious for divine grace for all.

"In boyhood days he was wont to watch the Choctaws, who then lived in New Orleans in large numbers.   He visited their camps at the French Market and in the rear of the city, became acquainted with their manners, acquired some knowledge of their language, and looked on with tearful interest when they went rioting through the streets.

"When the city grew the Choctaw was gradually forced to retire into the forest strongholds, and when Father Rouquette took up the cross he bethought himself of his early friends, forsook by the land that bore them, and determined upon teaching them the comfort and consolation of Christ.

"He visited them, studied their language thoroughly, and worn them by the sanctity of his example and the spirit of kindness which permeated the gospel as he taught it.

"The Indians retained their tribal government, but in all else yielded to the priest, who came often among them and taught them the ennobling and civilizing influence of faith.

"During his early missions among them he built a little chapel among the pines at the head of Bayou Lacombe, where, at regular intervals they would gather round him.   The chapel had already done its work when it was destroyed by fire. It was never rebuilt.

The Vestment of Father Rouquette

"The Indians made the whole woods their sanctuary and worshiped where Chahtah Ima stood, for so they called him.   Chahtah Ima means like a Choctaw, and Father Rouquette was proud of the name.   As he made them more like himself they thought him more like themselves.   He was true to them regardless of personal comfort, coming among them in wet seasons and in dry, in health and sickness, finally sacrificing his strength to his fidelity to the cause to which he devoted his life.

"When he would hide awhile in his cell at the archiepiscopal residence at the Ursulines Convent, it would only be to live a few happy days with his books and pen.  He read fluently the modern and ancient languages and was a great lover of reading.

"Pere Rouquette was not only a wonderful student but a writer of rare excellence.   Some of his poems, reflecting his love of God and nature, were gathered Into a book, which he appropriately titled "Wild Flowers."   

The Missal and Altar Cards of Father Rouquette

"Les Savanes," another collection of poems; "La Thebalde en Amerique," in verse;  "Attala," a prose romance which acquired considerable reputation, and legends of "Indian Princes" were among his other works.

"He wrote frequently for the secular press, and was at work on a Choctaw grammar when his intellect became clouded.   One of his last prose articles was a fine tribute to Archbishop Perche, who was a lifelong friend of the distinguished priest.

"He signed all his writings with his favorite name of "Chahtah Ima."

Nearing the End

"It was about a year ago that the exposure to which he subjected himself left him wasted in body and mind.   He was taken to the Hotel Dieu, where the Sisters of Charity ministered to his every want and made his last days pleasant. Father Rouquette was a combination of child and saint in the year he lingered between life temporal and life eternal.

"He imagined himself in his old home at the convent, was unconscious of any change and at the same time recognized those who came to see him; would talk enthusiastically of his books and his missions, and grow eloquent when his thoughts would turn to poesy or religion.

"The love in which he was held was apparent during this period, for everyday people whom he had guided and befriended came to be near him and return the sympathy with which he had been ever ready.   His adopted children of the wilderness were frequent visitors and brought gifts of herbs and dainties.   Yesterday some came again to find the soul departed, and they sat around the coffin in tearful grief.

"Father Rouquette was in appearance such a man as a painter would have imagined him to be. His features were finely molded, every line was softened by benevolence, and large, bright eyes illumed his countenance with the sacred light of genius and holiness.

"His long locks, tingled with gray, fell about his shoulders. During his active life, his face was smooth shaven, but at the Hotel Dieu a long white beard grew and added to his venerable appearance.

"Three days ago his mind became clear again.   The old intelligence lit up his face.   His eyes beamed kindness.   His step grew steady.   The sisters and his friends were overjoyed with the new-born hope of his recovery.   But when he betook himself to bed and was too feeble to arise, they knew that God had blessed him with undimmed sight again so that he could respond to the call of his Master as his life deserved.

"His end was peace and when the watchers thought he slept the spirit had departed."

The funeral was held and the remains were taken to St. Mary's church, where the last rites were performed. Father Rouquette who served so many across St. Tammany Parish was then laid to rest in the archbishop's cemetery.

See also:

The Life of Abbe Rouquette, 1913, by Mrs. S. B. Elder