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More on Benjamin Petit

Although I have written here before about Benjamin Petit, I like to introduce and repeat the writing of others, especially those who were, or came close to being contemporaries of these holy men and women who have gone before us. Since February 10th marks the 169th anniversary of the death of Fr. Petit, here is a short biography written by Henry S. Cauthorn, who wrote History of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral:

Rev. Benjamin Petit, was born in Rennes, France, of wealthy and well connected parents. He received a thorough academical education at the college of Rennes, and then studied law, and began the practice with the most encouraging prospects in his native city. He was thus engaged, when Bishop Brute visited Rennes, in 1836, seeking for priests to accompany him to his extensive diocese in the wilderness, and assist him in establishing the Catholic church. Young Petit was so impressed by the saintly Bishop, and his recital of the destitution and pressing wants of his diocese, that he determined to abandon his chosen profession, all the pleasures and honors of the world, and devote his life to the service of the church. His missionary zeal was aroused, and he longed to be sent as soon as he could be ordained a priest to labor among the Indians in the wilds of Indiana. He accompanied Bishop Brute to Vincennes, and here received his theological training, all the minor orders, and finally was ordained priest by Bishop Brute in the cathedral October 14th, 1837. The next day he made his first entry on the church register. After a short probationary service in the cathedral, his ardent desire to go upon missionary service among the Indians was gratified. He was sent as a missionary to the Pottowatomie Indians, dwelling on the Michigan peninsula, between Lakes Michigan and Huron. These Indians, prior to his coming among them, had been cared for by that celebrated missionary priest, Father Deseilles. Father Deseilles was a Belgian; and was at one time very wealthy, but he expended his entire fortune in supporting and establishing missions among these Indians. When his fortune was expended, and he had no more money to advance, he gave himself, and, in 1833, came over and located among these Indians to look after their spiritual welfare. He died in the fall of 1837, and was succeeded by Father Petit. The principal missionary station among the Pottowatomies was at the residence of the great chief Pokegan, near where the city of South Bend is now situated. Father Petit continued to labor with great success among these Indians, until the government determined to remove them beyond the Mississippi river. The tribe was removed by the Government, and reached their new home on Sugar Creek, a tributary of the Osage river, in the summer of 1838. Father Petit accompanied the Indians to the West. Ho was of a delicate constitution, and the hardships and privations of the journey, and the life he necessarily led in a new and unsettled country, soon prostrated him. He started home to Vincennes, and got as far as the St. Louis University, on his return to Vincennes, where he died in January, 1839. Before his death, he requested the Jesuit Fathers at the University to take care of his poor Indians and of his mission, which they promised to do. Father Petit was filled with that missionary spirit which shines forth so conpicuously in the life work of so many of the priests which France has furnished the church in this country. Of this zealous young priest, Father Audran, of Jeffersonville, in an able and affectionate address delivered by him June 7th, 1882, at St. John’s church, Indianapolis, on the occasion of a solemn funeral service in honor of Bishop Hailandiere, says: ‘A fine young lawyer, who renounced his worldly career, asking as a particular favor to be sent to the Indians so soon as he would have been prepared for the priesthood.” And Father Deydier in his funeral sermon in the Cathedral at Vincennes, May 6th, 1844, says of him:

“The seraphic Benjamin Petit, devoured with so burning a zeal for the Indians; did he feel the labors which have so soon snatched him away from our love, while at the same time they have gained for him a place among the martyrs of charity”

His remains are now deposited, as I am advised by Prof. Edwards of Notre Dame University, under the splendid church connected with that celebrated institution of learning, near the remains of the renowned Dr. Orestes A. Brownson, and thus repose near the field of his early missionary labors.

[Also see: More on the remains of Fr. Petit


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