June 10, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Simon Bruté endures early tragedy and anti-Catholicism

The first bishop of Indiana, Simon Guillaume Gabriel Bruté de Rémur, was born in Rennes, the capital of the Province of Brittany, in France, on the night of March 20, 1779. He was baptized the next morning in the parish church of St. Germain. Both his mother and father were in their second marriage, having lost their first spouses in death. His father had seven children by his first wife. Simon and his brother, Augustine, were born of their parents’ second marriage.

Simon once wrote that as a child his mother said, “You were born to live in affluence.” Her family had inherited the title “Printer to the King and Parliament.” His father was superintendent of the finances of the royal domains in Brittany. The Brutés lived in an apartment wing of the Palace of Justice in Rennes. Their affluence was short-lived, however. In 1786, when Simon was 7, his father died suddenly after major surgery required by a fall from his horse. At his death, it was discovered that his finances were in disarray because he had lent large sums of money to friends that had gone uncollected. His mother was challenged to provide for her two sons. She taught them the faith, discipline and hard work.

Simon was only 10 when the Bastille was stormed, only 13 when King Louis XVI was executed on the guillotine; nine months later, Queen Marie Antoinette met her death on the guillotine. The Constituent Assembly had decreed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which put the French Revolution in opposition to the Church; indeed, the intent was to “de-Catholicize” France.

The French Revolution had a profound influence on Simon’s early years. His mother, a woman of strong Catholic faith, sheltered two priests in their apartment at great risk. She erected a secret altar where the priests could celebrate daily Mass attended by her and her sons, Simon and Augustine. When the priests had to seek shelter elsewhere, Madame Bruté gathered Catholic friends for prayer without a priest on Sunday mornings.

From an early age, Simon was given to sketching places with accompanying notes to keep his memories alive. One sketch illustrates the impact that the French Revolution had on him. It was of the Cathedral of Rennes, formerly the Benedictine Abbey Church and Abbey of St. Melanie, founded by St. Melanie, an early bishop of Rennes. Simon wrote of his early memory of the Benedictines of the abbey where he had attended liturgical services in 1787-88. He wrote that in 1791 the church and the abbey were usurped by the revolutionary clergy. In 1792, the church and abbey became a prison of the Catholic clergy who remained faithful to their vows and would not take the new oath. He wrote, “I visited them twice while they were confined there, disguised as a baker’s boy, a big bread basket on my head.” In 1793, the church was turned into a stable for the cavalry; in 1795, into the city hospital.

According to other reports, as a boy, on numerous occasions Simon carried the Eucharist to the imprisoned priests. On one occasion, he carried the Eucharist accompanied by a priest who posed as a baker. (Due to the poor prison conditions, the prison guards welcomed those bringing food for the prisoners.) Simon carried the Eucharist. The priest-baker heard the confessions of the imprisoned clergy. Simon’s visitation of the imprisoned clergy was at the risk of his life.

His early education, begun before the impact of the Revolution was felt in Rennes, subsequently was largely accomplished by private tutoring from priests who were in hiding. All the while, Simon was working in his mother’s printing business. He also continued to go to confession and receive Communion from a priest who was in hiding.

With the fall of Robespierre in the summer of 1794, the worst of the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution began to fade. Rather than being executed, priests were imprisoned for life or deported.

Simon himself began to think of a profession, having decided that he was not a printer. He chose to pursue a career in medicine. Initially, his study of medicine could be pursued in Rennes, where Simon became the apprentice of a local Catholic practitioner, a Dr. Duval. In an era when strict requirements for the practice of medicine did not yet exist, Simon read the books on the doctor’s shelves and accompanied his mentor when he visited patients. In those days, a physician had to be his own pharmacist as well. After two years, Simon would pursue his medical career in Paris.

Madame Bruté’s insistent Catholic faith and courage in the face of possible persecution had a profound effect on her son, Simon. His emerging strength of character, personal faith and conscious concern for imprisoned clergy mirrored that of his mother.

Next week: Simon Bruté’s academic background and pursuit of a medical career.

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