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Simon Brute’s “Other Life”

We have a variety of stories, facts, myths and information about the first Bishop of Vincennes, Servant of God, Simon Gabriel Brute’, but these almost all deal with him “after” or just before he became a bishop.

We know of his time growing up in France, during the French Revolution and how he and a number of our “heroes” came to the United States becasue of that revolution, so in that sense, we were blessed by it all.

But, what about the time between Brute’s arrival in Baltimore, in 1810, and his naming to the bishopric of Vincennes in 1834? We all have the outline — He sepnt time at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, the “first” seminary in the United States. We know that he loved Mount St. Mary’s, in Emmitsburg Maryland, the place where he taught, ministered and where he met his dear friend, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Brute was a Sulpician, a “society” of priests dedicated to teaching future priests, but his ties to the Sulpicians faded when both St. Mary’s in Baltimore and Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg struggled and eventually Brute chose to remain at Emmitsburg despite the fact that the Sulpicians gave up on it. It was, in so many ways, an amicable separation, with Brute and the founder of “The Mount”, Fr. John Dubois, another Frenchman deciding to continue their work in Emmitsburg.

Mount St. Mary’s was not only a seminary, but in those early years, it was a boarding school. One of the students there was a young man names John Hughes, a young Irish immigrant who sought to be ordained. However, Fr. Dubois, like so many of the early French clergy had, for lack of a better word, “natural bias” against anything Irish. Hughes workedd as a gardener and he was eventually allowd to begin studies.

Author John Loughery wrote a book, in 2018, about Hughes, entitled “Dagger John – Archbishop John Hughes and the making of Irish America”. Yes, this young Mount St. Mary’s student became the Archbishop of New York, but what we want to do here is to look, not at John Hughes, although you will see in the quotes, below, items concerning Hughes, but our intention is to highlight all the mentions of Simon Brute as brought forth in the book.

Loughery writes:

“The other priest Hughes met at this time [Simon Brute] was every bit as memorable and intense as Father Cooper, 1 though in all ways deeper and far more stable. Theirs was an authentic and fruitful relationship. Simon Brute would remain a close friend to John Hughes until Brute’s death at sixty in 1839. He had a quietly assured if sometimes scattered manner, and, more important, he was probably the first person who saw any latent talent in John Hughes and offered him the kind of encouragement he needed. Alienated from the start from John Dubois, Hughes needed to be believed in by someone outside his family. He needed a man of learning and culture to think that he might be the same one day.

Brute was that person. They met when Brute succeeded Cooper as pastor at Saint Joseph’s Church and was coming to Emmitsburg for a second time to teach philosophy and theology. Like Hughes and so many priests of that era, Brute was in the United States because of European politics. Eighteen years Hughes’s senior, he had been born to an affluent Catholic family in Brittany and educated by the Jesuits. As an adolescent, he had witnessed firsthand the Revolution’s brutality toward priests and nuns, the roundups and show trials and executions every bit as emotionally scarring in a town like Rennes as in Paris. He recorded in his last years his remembrances of the 1790s in France, when “death was a daily tale,” mournful vignettes illustrated with his own pen-and-ink drawings. (Brute’s pronunciation of English was always imperfect, too heavily accented to be heard clearly from the pulpit; his written English, however, was better.)

Graduating from medical school in 1803, he had decided not to practice medicine but to enter the newly reopened Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris and was ordained in 1808. He had no interest in remaining in France and, after teaching for two years at the seminary, left for the United States to teach at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He craved a new world and a new life.

In 1812 he had been directed to go to Emmitsburg to assist John Dubois, serving as the overtaxed head of both the college and the seminary, pastor of the town, and superior of the Sisters of Charity. Dubois desperately needed another hand, and a fellow Frenchman was just what he wanted. Brute remained there for three years, after which, following a sojourn back to France (to plead the school’s case to the Sulpician hierarchy and to ship to America his sizable library), he was appointed president of Saint Mary’s College in Baltimore, a job not to his liking or suited to his skills. By 1818 he was back in Emmitsburg, his true home, where he remained a beloved teacher for all the time that John Hughes was there. Eventually, in 1834, he reluctantly accepted the position of a newly created bishopric in Vincennes, Indiana. At the time of the appointment, John England wondered if the church was sending the right man. A literary Frenchman to be a frontier bishop, the spiritual leader of the far-flung Catholics of Indiana and the prairies of Illinois, a missionary to the Miami and the Potawatomi? He underestimated his man.

None of Brute’s students underestimated their teacher. Neither did Elizabeth Seton or the Sisters of Charity, to whose welfare he was devoted. Neither did John Dubois, really, although their relations were not always easy—Dubois eminently practical and often dictatorial, Brute wildly impractical and ruminative, frequently exhibiting a nervousness of temper, ascetic, easily preoccupied, but courteous and generous to a fault. Brute was also, unlike Dubois, free of the common French cleric’s bias of the time, an antipathy toward the Irish. Rather, Brute was everyone’s ideal of a good priest, someone who would literally give a poor man the coat off his back and lived with the spiritual well-being of others foremost in his mind.

Brute had a combative side, too. No matter how busy with his pastoral and teaching work, he found time to write for Bishop England’s Catholic Miscellany, the nation’s first Catholic newspaper, and other religious journals as far away as Hartford and Cincinnati, largely defenses of Rome and attacks on Protestant stereotypes. “That kind of work is continually called for by our position in this country,” he once commented, “and the influence exerted by it too important to allow it to be neglected.” That was a creed his devoted student from Ireland would share.

These two potential models—Brute and, to a much lesser extent, Cooper— would have confirmed in John Hughes at least two impressions concerning his hopes for the future: to accept that God intended one to live a life in service to the church, to embrace a cause greater than oneself, did not mean that one’s path would be smooth or predictable; and it did not mean forcing oneself into a mold, curbing one’s temperamental or intellectual inclinations, or living apart from the world. On the contrary, in a land still unformed in so many ways, in a country in which one was part of a small religious minority, the call for action, persistence, and strength of personality was all the more pressing. Twenty-two-year-old John Hughes was certain that, if he could get the proper training, those were needs he could meet. 2

“…to accept that God intended one to live a life in service to the church, to embrace a cause greater than oneself, did not mean that one’s path would be smooth or predictable”, p.40. That certainly describes our Servant of God.

THE CENTRAL SHAPING EXPERIENCE of Hughes’s time at Emmitsburg was his work with Simon Brute. Seminary education in the United States at this time was not in any way systematic, with courses of study often decided by the individual bishops, who were, after all, the people who ordained the men deemed ready to be priests. Permission from Baltimore to teach theology at Emmitsburg had thus been a long time in coming, but Brute was regarded as sound, and he would not be lured back to Baltimore. To read Augustine or Aquinas with him, to hear him discourse on Francis de Sales (one of the saints he most revered), or the finer points of dogmatic theology or canon law or ecclesiastical history, was all that Hughes hoped it would be.

Brute was a demanding but inspiring presence at the head of any study group, someone who expected his charges to keep up with him whether or not his exposition was quite clear. He could be digressive rather than comprehensive. His intellectual style was one of fits and starts; he had no capacity for the sustained focus and discipline needed to produce a book of his own, and his practice of reading aloud in French meant that his pupils who were not adept in both languages were at a disadvantage. Yet he was the teacher more students remembered fondly than any other. From Brute, Hughes first heard about Felicite Robert de Lamennais, a priest and political theorist who was making a name for himself during the years of the Bourbon restoration and had been a close friend of Brute’s in France. Though he later ran afoul of Pope Gregory XVI for his antimonarchical sympathies, at the time Brute knew him and when his first books were being published, Lamennais was a leading spokesman for an ultramontane view of a church that was reasserting itself after the trauma of the Napoleonic years. His multivolume Essai sur l’indifference en matiere de religion was a much-discussed work in its day. Brute felt a great respect and affection for Lamennais, the anti-Enlightenment intellectual who eventually embraced republicanism, and the two corresponded, though Brute was never a completely convinced adherent to the other’s outlook. As one historian has summarized the matter: to judge from the evidence of his annotations in his copies of Lamennais’s books, “we can conclude that Brute leaned toward ultramontanism but was not entirely won over by its claims. He allowed that the Roman pontiff had the last say in matters of discipline (but not necessarily in doctrine). The opinion of the worldwide episcopacy counted for something.” Some of Brute’s pupils at Emmitsburg, Hughes foremost among them, would have cause to appreciate that thinking about the vital importance of the bishops in the modern world—so many of them became bishops—but John Hughes would ultimately accept with more certainty than his teacher the absolute and rightful authority of the papacy.

Then there was the aura of Simon Brute himself that captivated so many young men—a missionary and a mystic at heart who said Mass more zealously than any priest these seminarians had witnessed but who nonetheless had a broader experience and a wider culture than most of them had encountered. He could quote pages of Homer and Moliere from memory. With the passion of an amateur cartographer, he filled his rooms with maps and added a geography class to the curriculum. The college’s library, at its peak now, housed five thousand volumes, the vast majority on loan from him. It included a complete set of Diderot’s Encyclopedias, polyglot seventeenth-century Bibles, a raft of religious histories and biographies, the Latin classics, and some antiquarian gems, including autograph letters from Saint Vincent de Paul and Pope John XXII. (That library and its acquirer must have had a reputation far beyond Pennsylvania. When Brute left to become the bishop of Vincennes in 1834, John Quincy Adams remarked that “the most learned man in the United States is leaving the East to bury himself and his boatload of knowledge in the West.”)

Brute was a fount of personal lore as well, all peculiarly Brute-esque, hard to believe but true—about the private audience he had had with Pius VII, arranged for by the superior-general of the Sulpicians, when His Holiness was in Paris as Napoleon’s “guest” for the ill-fated coronation; about his thwarted effort to throw a petition at the feet of the emperor, seeking a pardon for an alleged conspirator, a friend from his medical school days; about his refusal of the emperor’s offer to an appointment in the imperial chapel and his early plans to travel on foot to Syria to be a missionary. Brute’s could have been a life lived among the important, powerful men of his time, but he left none of his students in doubt that Emmitsburg is where he felt God had called him and where he was spending his happiest, most productive days. About duty, Father Brute could be a martinet, and he showed his sterner side when he felt his coreligionists were remiss in large or small matters. As a boy, he had known priests and those who sheltered them during the Terror who had gone to the scaffold. His standards of commitment were accordingly high. He impressed upon his students his belief that, if they chose a religious life, they had to accept that conventional guidelines would not apply to them. Devotion demanded more. When John Hughes was sent on an errand for the school to a town not far from Chambersburg and, of his own accord, stopped by for a visit with his parents before returning, he was the recipient of a blistering rebuke from his teacher for doing so without permission. He accepted a reprimand from Brute in a way that he never could from Dubois. 3

There are numerous other mentions of Brute in Loughery’s book, they contain more detail on Hughes, than on Brute. So, we’ll leave it here, except to close with a mention of the struggle that Hughes had with Bishop Dubois, in many ways his nemesis at Mount St. Mary’s. Hughes was, of course, the coadjutor of Dubois and until Dubois departed there was always friction between the two. It was in that same year (1839) that Simon Brute died in Vincennes. “It was a hard loss to bear (for Hughes), and for several years Hughes contemplated writing a biography of Brute” 4

All of this points to a lifelong holiness of Simon Brute, but it is no surprise to we who pray for his eventual canonization.

  1. Samuel Sutherland Cooper – a convert who was born into wealth and ended up giving Elizabeth Seton a considerable amount of money to continue her work.[]
  2. Loughery, John. 2018. Dagger John : Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish America. Ithaca: Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press. pp.38-40[]
  3. Ibid. pp.49-52[]
  4. Ibid. pp.106-107[]
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