July 22, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Father Bruté ministers to a future saint

The life of the future bishop of Indiana was intimately tied to that of a future canonized saint for 20 years.

While living in Maryland, Father Simon Bruté tended to the pastoral and spiritual care of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton until her death on Jan. 4, 1821. He left detailed accounts of her declining days. On Oct. 6, 1820, he wrote: “I found this morning that she had kept fasting this night for the Communion of the day, though afraid I would not give it. Though I disapproved, I could but give it. Her joy was so uncommon that when I approached, and as I placed the ciborium on the little table, she burst into tears, and sobbing aloud covered her face with her hands.”

On the last day of all, he wrote, “Towards midnight, one of the nurses tells me, offering her a drink she refused a moment, ‘in hope,’ she said, ‘that on the morning she might be granted one Communion more… .’ ” Although Father Bruté kept in touch in her last hours, he arrived a quarter of an hour after Elizabeth had died. “Oh so thankful!” were her last words. She was buried in the wood near her convent among other sisters who had died before her.

Father Bruté wrote of her: “O, such a mother! Such faith and love! Such a spirit of true prayer, of true humility, of true self denial in all, of true charity to all! … But, mark well, that even our love for one another, all, all in this world is vanity, except it be for God, of God, in God. … For eternity! For God and Eternity! All in all… . And indeed to live for this, to live for heaven, is at the same time to lead the happiest life upon earth. Is it not so, O Mother? Answer from your little wood. Pray now and then for me.”

It is said that profound loneliness descended upon Father Bruté at Mother Seton’s passing. She had been his friend. He had been her spiritual director. And she had been his adviser in difficult times. He wrote of her, “No soul has so forcibly excited mine to see what it is to be the priest of my God.”

St. Elizabeth Seton had been a calming influence for Father Bruté’s restless spirit and his recurring desire to go to India or China as a missionary. She wrote to him on one occasion, “Your restless thoughts strike me to the soul. You make the lesson of the grace of the moment so very plain to me, I owe you perhaps my very salvation by the faults and sins it has saved me from; yet ­physician you will not heal yourself … . If our God does indeed graciously destine you for China, will He not, seeing the overflowing of your boiling heart for it, open an evident door?”

Now that she was gone, Father Bruté had lost her calming influence.

Missionary he would become, not to India, but to Indiana. Fort Vincennes was 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. By the 1830s, Vincennes was no longer only a French settlement. Catholic settlers who had migrated to Kentucky from Maryland were beginning to drift north. With the construction of railroads, the Irish were coming from the East. Yet Vincennes was still largely a Catholic town.

That could not be said of the larger Indiana-Illinois territory. At the beginning of the 1800s, about 5,000 people lived in Indiana. By the 1830s, there were an estimated half million, but by most estimates, there were probably less than 25,000 Catholics. Unlike Kentucky or Maryland, the Catholics were not settled in groups in one or other county.

In Indiana and a large part of Illinois (which would become the Diocese of Vincennes), settlements would be found in the four corners of the territory. The missionary trail would cover a couple of hundred miles from one settlement to another. There was a predominance of French in one corner, Irish or German in another. And there was a tribe of mostly Catholic Pokagon Potawatomi near South Bend, expecting to be removed to a western reservation.

This missionary territory would become home to Father Bruté, the first bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes.

Next week: Rome calls upon Father Simon Bruté to lead a new diocese in Indiana.


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