August 12, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Bishop Brute’s heroic efforts nurture Catholicism in Indiana

Bishop Simon Bruté embraced the life of a missionary with the zeal of youth despite serious illness. He was no longer restless about becoming a missionary in India. Under the patronage of the missionary to India, St. Francis Xavier, he rode the missionary trails of Indiana.

“I remount my horse and trot, the rain driving in my face and cold as January. It is the old story for me, when I came to the Mountain [Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md.] in 1811, and the daily bread of missionaries.”

A week after his installation as bishop of Vincennes, Bishop Bruté decided to visit his entire diocese. Clearly, two priests to assist in the ministry of the diocese would not do and so he wrote to the bishop of his native Diocese of Rennes in France to see if he could find help. He also wrote to his younger brother, Augustine, seeking everything from cruets, vestments, altar cards, missals, a ring and a pectoral cross (“in case I lose mine”), a miter, a crosier (“the one I have is gilded wood”), to a very light chasuble for carrying on horseback. He drew a map of the diocese for his brother, a copy of which is still extant.

The majority of the people encountered in the diocese were not Catholic. But for the most part, suspicions were laid aside, and the bishop and his two priests were received kindly. Bishop Bruté wrote: “The Bishop left every place well pleased, fondly believing that the people would easily be reconciled to ‘the man of sin’ of Vincennes, and more easily to the other sinners, his successors.”

The bishop’s lot was like that of any other missionary at the time—he had to inquire where a Catholic family might be found and go in search of them. Most Catholics didn’t even know that Indiana had its own bishop until he arrived.

Their bishop rode hundreds of miles on horseback. He wrote to a friend in May 1835 that he had made his rounds “with an ease that I could express, if to be believed, by saying that I felt no more tired every evening than if I had not left my room—I can’t conceive it—one day it was a full 60 miles, till eleven o’clock at night mostly through the wet prairies.” But there wasn’t much the bishop could do for his scattered people until he found more priests. He knew that he could only find them in France.

In July 1835, he left for Paris. There, the bishop from the wilderness won many hearts. His zeal and sanctity attracted priests and seminarians as recruits. His appeal to heroism touched their natural inclination to nobility of heart and spirit. It is said that people in the seminary were pulling out threads of the bishop’s worn cassock to keep as the relic of a saint. A dozen seminarians and eight priests were to return with him to America. A few others needed first to complete their studies and priestly formation.

Bishop Bruté was not surprised to meet resistance from the parents of the priests and seminarians, much like that of his own mother. He wrote to one mother: “There are in yonder America souls waiting the generosity of a mother whom the Lord will know full well how to console in the loneliness of her last moments.” The bishop also sought German-speaking missionaries because Germans were flocking into his diocese.

Twenty clerics sailed back to America with the saintly bishop. Two of them would become the second and third bishops of Vincennes. This voyage across the Atlantic was particularly perilous. At one point, the whole group was on their knees asking the bishop for absolution because they feared shipwreck. Bishop Bruté said, “Do not fear, my children, Fear is one of the devil’s great deceits. We shall not perish.” On the better days at sea, Bishop Bruté gave the group conferences preparing them to be missionaries in the wilderness.

Once home in Indiana, the bishop was able to convince Mother Rose White in Emmitsburg, Md., to send three sisters to join two Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Ky., to help educate children in the diocese.

In 1837, 13 diocesan priests, five deacons and two subdeacons were organized in missionary fashion as circuit riders and pastors of strategic parishes. The bishop was not without the heartache caused by a couple of less than faithful priests, but these were the exception. By the time of his death in 1839, there would be 25 diocesan priests and 20 seminarians serving an expanding population.

“Fear is one of the devil’s great deceits.” What a great quote! The holiness of our founding bishop, his own heroism, and his appeal to the nobility of his people and clergy laid the foundation for Catholicism in Indiana.

(Bishop Simon Bruté builds a reputation as a man of great intellect, holiness and hope in establishing the Diocese of Vincennes.)


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