August 25, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

An Indiana priest who should not be forgotten

John F. FinkLast week, I wrote about Indiana Catholics, mainly Father Pierre Gibault and Francesco Vigo, who played important roles in the Battle of Vincennes during the Revolutionary War. This week, I’ll jump ahead a few decades and tell you about a priest who should not be forgotten.

Benjamin Petit was born in Rennes, France, in 1811. Rennes was also the hometown of Bishop Simon Bruté, the first bishop of Vincennes. In 1835, while visiting his hometown, Bishop Bruté recruited Petit to join him in the Diocese of Vincennes. Petit gave up his law practice, studied for the priesthood under Bishop Bruté, and the bishop ordained him on Oct. 14, 1837.

Bishop Bruté assigned him to work with the Potawatomi Indians, who lived just south of modern South Bend. The year before, though, the Indians had been forced to sign the Treaty of Yellow River, which required them to move to Kansas. Chief Menominee rejected the treaty because an earlier treaty had guaranteed lifetime occupancy of the tribal lands.

Indiana Gov. David Wallace ordered the Indiana militia to remove the Indians by force. The militia attacked on a Sunday morning while the Indians were at a Mass being celebrated by Father Petit. The militia surrounded the village and fired their muskets. When Chief Menominee left the chapel he was quickly lassoed, yanked to the ground, tied up and put in the back of a wagon.

The soldiers lined up the Indians and forced them to march out of the village. As he went with them, Father Petit saw smoke rising from the roof of his chapel.

Near present Danville, Ill., Father Petit wrote a lengthy letter to the bishop of St. Louis, asking for faculties to continue to minister to the Indians while he was in the Diocese of St. Louis. The letter also described the Indians’ ordeal as they were forced from village to village on the way to Kansas.

Father Petit also kept a journal during what was called the Indians’ “Trail of Death.” “Almost all the babies, exhausted by the heat, are dead or dying,” Father Petit wrote. He reported that the soldiers had discussed whether or not to kill an elderly woman and finally decided to “let her die a natural death.”

By the time the Indians arrived in Kansas Territory, several months after they left Indiana, more than 150 had died.

The whole incident received this comment from Edward A. Leary in The Indianapolis Star: “It was not a proud record, less proud when one considers that the white man had made promises he had not kept, and to a good and Christian friend. Chief Menominee’s people had been one of the few tribes who had not sided with the British in the War of 1812.”

Father Petit also became sick during the journey. He made it back to St. Louis, but he died there on Feb. 10, 1839. He had been a priest for only 16 months. Father Edward Sorin, who founded the University of Notre Dame in 1842, later brought Father Petit’s remains back to Notre Dame, where he is buried under the log chapel. †

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