July 8, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Father Bruté’s reputation as a pastor, theologian
and teacher grows

Until he became the bishop of Vincennes, Father Simon Bruté spent most of his priestly life at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and College in Emmitsburg, Md., opened as a minor seminary in 1808.

This was the beginning of what would come to be called “the mountain,” or “the Mount.” Father Dubois envisioned the minor seminary at Mount St. Mary’s as a “feeder” to St. Mary’s, the major seminary in Baltimore. The Mount was sponsored by the Society of St. Sulpice until eventually it would become an independent major seminary and college.

Elizabeth Ann Seton and a group of like-minded women who were working with her in Baltimore moved to Emmitsburg in June 1809. A stone farmhouse, which was on 269 acres of land purchased for them by Samuel Sutherland Cooper, was not yet ready for occupancy, so Father Jean Dubois offered them his log cabin on St. Mary’s Mountain. They would live there for six weeks before moving to the farmhouse in the nearby valley, which Mother Seton named St. Joseph’s Valley. On July 31, 1809, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s was founded. They began living under the Provisional Rules of St. Joseph’s, following the charism of the French Daughters of Charity founded by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise Marillac.

Father Dubois, later bishop of New York, became the group’s third ecclesiastical superior.

Bruté was assigned to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in the fall of 1812. He and Elizabeth Ann Seton became acquainted and almost immediately sensed a spiritual kinship that would develop into a storied spiritual relationship.

She taught Simon English as he continued to struggle with the language. He, in turn, became the spiritual director of the future St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and chaplain to her community of sisters. In 1813, Father Bruté and Mother Seton exchanged their identical bibles. At the time of her death in 1821, she still had his bible in her possession. After her burial, Catherine Josephine Seton, the only surviving daughter took back Father Bruté’s bible and returned to St. Joseph’s with her mother’s bible.

Father Bruté became a revered presence at the Mount. He was an effective teacher of the sacred sciences to the seminarians. Because of the circumstances and developing culture in America, he had deep convictions about the need of solid philosophical and theological formation for the future priests. He was considered an exemplary priest, noted for his holiness and for his pastoral dedication as well as for his theological expertise. His austerity was considered both edifying and, at times, eccentric.

In addition to a full teaching schedule, he was much sought after to hear confessions and to bring the Eucharist to the home-bound and elderly in and around the environs of Emmitsburg, mostly going on foot. “How wonderful the day of a priest,” he would remark. He was a frequent contributor to the infancy of Catholic newspapers on the East Coast.

In 1815, Simon returned to France to visit his elderly mother. She was failing but was under the good care of his brother, Augustine, who had a successful medical practice in Rennes. His mother died in 1823. Simon was unable to be at her deathbed, but he returned to Rennes in 1824 to help arrange matters related to her property.

Madame Bruté had been a decisive and profound influence in the religious and spiritual development of her priest-son. She had never wanted him to enter the priesthood but eventually was resigned to God’s will and supported him with her letters and prayers.

Simon’s trip to France in 1815 was for two other purposes as well. He went to bring back his beloved books, which would come to be considered the most prestigious personal library in America. He needed them for teaching and as an esteemed theological consultant.

He also went to France to be an advocate for Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg to the general superior of the Sulpicians. Upon his return to the United States, Father Bruté found himself appointed president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore, an office he held from 1815-1818. His letters to Mother Seton during this period were absent of their usual joyful spirit. He was lonely. He had few friends in Baltimore, but of historical note to us, he would visit a Dr. Ferdinand E. Chatard, the father of a future bishop of Vincennes.

Apparently Father Bruté was made president of St. Mary’s College because of his reputation for being learned, not because of his administrative abilities. John Quincy Adams reportedly said on one occasion that Simon Bruté was the most learned man in America. He was known for “flashes of brilliant insight.”

When the bishops of the United States began to hold provincial councils, Father Bruté was a strong advocate for unity in Catholic teaching and practice. He was concerned for the integrity of the faith in the fledgling Church in the United States. Not surprisingly, during the Councils of Baltimore he was a primary theological consultant.

Our first bishop was an esteemed theologian and teacher, a ready confessor for those seeking God’s mercy, a pastor for the poor homebound and a spiritual companion for a religious foundress who would become a canonized saint. As it turned out, his mother must have died with pride in a son who lived as she had taught him. †

Next week: Father Simon Bruté lives the life of a zealous missionary in the New World.


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