August 11, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Study some of Indiana’s early history in Vincennes

John F. FinkIf you’re a history buff, August is a good time to visit Vincennes, Ind. This was by far the most important city in early Indiana history. You can do it in one day, but I suggest two days because there’s so much to see.

Connie and I did it last summer. We drove straight to the Old Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier. This is the oldest church in Indiana, built in 1826. It was the first cathedral for the Diocese of Vincennes, which became the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 1944. It was Bishop Simon Bruté’s cathedral. It’s an attractive little church, 60 feet wide by 115 feet long. There are several large murals. We walked down to the crypt where Bishop Bruté and his three successors are buried.

The Old Cathedral Library and Museum is behind the church. It contains more than 5,000 volumes of Bishop Bruté’s personal library, but only a few of them are on display. It’s sort of amazing that he was able to ship that many volumes, all of them large tomes, as they were in 1838, from Baltimore. President John Adams called Bishop Bruté “the most learned man of his day in America.”

Many artifacts from Indiana’s early history are displayed, and the books show Bishop Brute’s wide range of interests. He was born in Rennes, France, in 1779. He studied to be a doctor, but then decided to be a priest. He came to the United States in 1810. He was a seminary professor at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore for most of his life. He was also St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s confessor.

He was appointed to the wilderness of Indiana when he was 55. He wasn’t here long, though. He died in 1839, only five years after being named the first bishop of Vincennes. He accomplished a great deal in those five years, though.

The Old Cathedral is right next to the magnificent George Rogers Clark Memorial, high above the Wabash River. It’s the largest national monument outside of Washington. It’s where Fort Sackville once stood. Before visiting it, though, you should watch a 30-minute film that tells about Rogers’ capture of the fort during the Revolutionary War. It resulted in the United States adding the Old Northwest.

In another part of town is Grouseland, the mansion that William Henry Harrison built after he was named the first governor of the Indiana Territory, created on

July 4, 1800. It consisted of the Old Northwest, the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the eastern part of Minnesota. No other governor ever governed such a vast area of the country. Harrison later became the eighth president of the United States, but died after only a month in office, the first president to die in office.

Three historical buildings have been moved to an area beside Grouseland: Indiana’s first capitol building, the first school and the first printing press that published the first newspaper. These all stretch back to the early 19th century.

Next week, I’ll write about the Catholic connections to Vincennes history at the time of George Rogers Clark.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It must be more than a human institution.)

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