November 24, 2006

Be Our Guest / Fr. Tom Widner, S.J.

St. Francis Xavier is a model for an ever-changing culture

On Sunday, Dec. 3, Jesuits at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, along with Jesuits worldwide, will close out a yearlong celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis Xavier, one of the most important missionaries of the Church, and patron of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

How did St. Francis Xavier come to be the patron of the archdiocese?

The cathedral of the original Diocese of Vincennes, the third structure on that site, is named for St. Francis Xavier.

According to Father Herman Alerding, an Indianapolis priest who composed a history of the diocese in 1883, French Jesuit missionaries from Canada and Louisiana began visiting the Wabash region toward the end of the 17th century.

French settlers arrived in the Vincennes area about 1712, Father Alerding wrote. They “demanded a missionary,” and a Jesuit named “Father Mermet was sent to them.” He is apparently the first priest specifically located at Vincennes.

A marriage recorded on April 21, 1749, at Vincennes between one Julien Trattier of Montreal and Josette Marie, the daughter of a Frenchman and an Indian woman, is the first official parish record preserved in the Vincennes archives. The entry is signed by Jesuit Father Sebastian Meurin. Records in Quebec identify Father Meurin as having arrived in St. Louis in 1736. He moved to Vincennes in 1748, and left about 1753.

Numerous Jesuits served the French villages over many years. Among them were Fathers Louis Vivier, Julian Duvernay and Pierre du Jaunay. Father Mermet was another as was Jesuit Father Gabriel Marest.

Father Marest had written a letter in 1712 from the village of Kaskaskia in Illinois to another Jesuit, Father Germon, about the Illinois and Wabash settlements.

Father Alerding, quoting an earlier history of Indiana, claimed that “the first white man who visited the territory, now Indiana, was a French Jesuit missionary, who came from the old French mission of St. Joseph, of Lake Michigan, which was one of the oldest Jesuit missions in the lake region.”

So it is not surprising that St. Franics Xavier should become the patron of a missionary diocese that grew out of a wilderness that has also given Indiana its first canonized saint.

Even though the French Jesuits disappeared from Vincennes after the Revolutionary War, St. Francis Xavier continues to be a model for a Church seeking to influence an ever-changing culture.

(Jesuit Father Tom Widner is rector of the Brebeuf Jesuit community and vice president for Mission and Identity at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. ) †

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