July 1, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Father Bruté’s dream of becoming a missionary
becomes a reality

The future bishop of Vincennes had become a Sulpician and the mission of Sulpician priests was to prepare candidates for the priesthood. His first assignment as a priest was to teach in the seminary in Rennes in Brittany, France. By all accounts, Father Simon Bruté was an effective teacher. Yet the young priest began to dream of being a missionary to India or China. In fact, he did receive a call to become a missionary—not to the Orient but to the New World.

At this point, Father Bruté’s life intersected with that of another pioneer missionary in America, Father Benedict Joseph Flaget. Father Flaget, the newly named bishop of Bardstown in Kentucky, had come to Paris in 1809 to plead with his Sulpician superior to intervene against his being made a bishop—to no effect. Father Bruté met Father Flaget in Paris.

In his early missionary life, Father Flaget had been sent for several years to Fort Vincennes, a French settlement on the Wabash River. A military post had been established there in the early 1700s, and by the middle of that century a church had been built there by Jesuit missionaries. It was described as built of logs set upright and roofed with thatch covered with adobe. Its parish records date from 1749. The Jesuits placed it under the patronage of St. Francis Xavier.

During the American Revolution, George Rogers Clark had captured Vincennes—by then under British control and named Fort Sackville—and won the entire old Northwest. Father Pierre Gibault, a priest of the Diocese of Quebec, had been for a long time the only priest in Illinois and Indiana. When George Rogers Clark captured Vincennes, it was largely owing to Father Gibault’s influence that the inhabitants submitted without protest. This angered his bishop in Quebec, a Canadian under the rule of Great Britain, and Father Gibault left Vincennes.

Father Flaget was sent to replace Gibault in Vincennes after Indiana had been without a priest for three years. The old church was falling into ruins, and severe poverty was extensive. In 1794, Father Flaget was recalled to serve as a professor at Georgetown College.

Father Bruté was fascinated by the stories Bishop-elect Flaget told of his missionary adventures in America. In France, Father Flaget, who would become his friend, encouraged him to go to the missions in America.

Father Bruté wrote to two of his friends: “Read low and alone. It is at this moment that I have need of my friends before the Lord… . I depart for the American missions. My spiritual directors have been unanimous in their opinion. The Bishop consented with a readiness that confirmed me in the hope that it is a call from Providence. Mother did not resist. Her sacrifice is complete.”

On June 10, 1810, in the company of Bishop-elect Flaget, he sailed for America.

Once he reached the new world, Father Bruté found that he would not be a missionary in the way he had hoped. Once again, he was assigned by his Sulpician superiors to teach. The Sulpicians had founded a college and a seminary in Baltimore, and Father Bruté’s education and talent was sorely needed. He was assigned to teach moral philosophy. The Sulpicians also had responsibility for Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., which had been founded by Father Jean Dubois, a young priest who had fled to American in 1791 to escape the French Revolution. After two years in Baltimore, Father Bruté was assigned to teach at Mount St. Mary’s.

In America, Father Bruté encountered two difficulties. First, he was without his beloved books; his substantial library was still in France. He also found it extremely difficult to learn English. He wrote to Bishop Flaget, “I am trying to learn practically my English. I have said Mass and preached, bad preaching as it may be, in six different places. This must force this dreadful English into my backward head, or I must renounce forever to know it.” He would develop his ability to write in English, but never would become fluent in conversational English.

For one thing, Father Bruté wasn’t sure he would stay in America. Once more he found himself longing to go to India or China as a missionary. He even wrote to his superiors in France, asking that he be sent there, all the while knowing that the Orient was beyond the mission of the Sulpicians. Before receiving a response, he wrote again to his superiors and said, “Our America is suffering too.” And he urged that more priests be sent to the missions in the New World. And so he continued to teach, even as he would struggle with the idea of going to India or China for years to come.

The beginning phase of Father Simon Bruté’s missionary life in the New World found his obedience tested by his confinement to teaching future missionaries for America. His dreams of foreign missions continued to test his fidelity. In addition to uncertainty, he also struggled with the challenge of learning English. Our first bishop’s obedience and perseverance in the face of difficulty and disappointment are valuable examples, and they are an encouragement to trust in Providence. And note: his mother’s “sacrifice was complete.”

Next week: Father Simon Bruté’s reputation as a pastor, theologian and teacher grows.


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