July 29, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Father Bruté is called upon to lead a new diocese in Indiana

In October 1833, the bishops at the Second Provincial Council of Baltimore sent the name of Father Simon Bruté to Rome to become the bishop of a new diocese to be erected in Indiana and Eastern Illinois—the Diocese of Vincennes. Father Bruté had become a highly respected theological consultant for many of the bishops of the time, especially at the Councils of Baltimore.

When Father Bruté got wind of the nomination that was sent to Rome at the end of 1833, he tried his best to convince any bishop he could that he himself should not be named a bishop. In a letter to Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis, he said that he was prematurely old at age 54 and pleaded poor health. “This year my health gave way so rapidly that everybody thought I was falling into decline.”

In fact, he may well have already contracted tuberculosis, from which he would die. He claimed that he was disabled and that he would not be able to ride a horse on the missionary trails. He even claimed to be suffering from melancholy.

He argued that he was a recluse. “You saw me avoid all the banquets during the Council. I have acquired none of the American manners and am incapable after all of acquiring them. I am always with my books in my corner in the third story, or at the Sisters’.”

He protested that the sisters and his students “are accustomed to my Dutch or French English.” But he said that nobody asks him to preach; “having lost my teeth at an early age, and having neglected myself more and more in this regard, I am incapable of speaking in public.”

He claimed that the main shortcoming that disqualified him from becoming a bishop was his complete lack of administrative ability.

This was the tenor of the arguments Father Bruté would use when, in July 1834, the documents from Rome erecting the Diocese of Vincennes and naming him the first bishop arrived. He wrote to his bishop friends, Rosati, Flaget and David, Chabrat and Purcell, all the bishops of “the West”—St. Louis, Bardstown and Cincinnati. He left the decision up to them. With one voice, they told him that he should accept. He saw no further choice in the matter. In prayer, the bishop-elect surrendered himself to the will of God. In fact, the thought of going to the wilderness of Indiana and Illinois appealed to his missionary and pastoral heart.

The new bishop had to borrow money to make his way to the 13th diocese to be established in the New World. He could not afford to pack up and send his beloved library. It would have to follow later. He had $240, which Mother Seton’s sisters at St. Joseph’s in Emmitsburg, Md., had raised for him. His precious library and a gold watch he had received as a gift were his sole possessions. Later, he would ask that the brass crucifix he kept in the room where he heard the confession of his beloved sisters, including that of the future saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, be sent to him. He left a farewell note to Mother Rose White, the superior who had succeeded Mother Seton: “Pray, pray for Simon.”

And so he made his way down the Ohio River on a steamboat.

He stopped at Cincinnati and Louisville on the way. There he was reunited with his old friend and mentor, Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, of Bardstown, who recorded his impression of the bishop-elect: “During these five days that I have been in the company of this successor of the Apostles, I have nothing to do but listen, admire and bless Providence which attains its ends by inexplicable means, which would seem to be pure folly in the eyes of the world.

“The somewhat singular figure of this excellent prelate, the perpetual motion of his fingers, of his hands, of his head, and of his entire body while he converses; the English with an entirely French pronunciation, coming from a large toothless mouth would seem to render him entirely useless for the post to which he has been assigned, not so say laughable or ridiculous. But! mon Dieu, when he celebrates Holy Mass; when he speaks of Jesus Christ, of His love for men, my heart dilates and is inflamed like that of the disciples of Emmaus. I am beside myself. I then hope against hope and I anticipate miracle upon miracle that will be wrought by the venerable Apostle. Through the ages, the Church has learned that with God all things are possible.”

The bishop-elect and his friend, Bishop Flaget, set out for St. Louis, where Simon was to be consecrated by Bishop Rosati. They traveled by land this time because the new bishop of Vincennes wanted to visit his See City along the way.

Next week: Father Simon Bruté arrives in Indiana and finds much work waiting for him.


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