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Father John Villars – Stories of faith and miracles – Fact or Fantasy???

Usually my focus is on the history of the Catholic Church in Indiana in a mostly academic and (hopefully) scholarly way. There are, however, stories, fables and legends that accompany the history of the Church in Indiana. I’ve written about these in the past. For example, there is the story about how Simon Brutés Ghost haunts Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Gravestone of Fr. John Villars in Holy Cross Cemetery, Indianapolis. (Courtesy of John Dunlevy –

Here’s another one. This is the story of Father John Baptist Villars. On the morning of March 6th, 1868, school children of Saint Mary parish, in Richmond arrived for morning Mass as was their custom. They waited and for their pastor, Father John Villars, to arrive. When he did not, some of them went to the rectory. After knocking on the door and having no one answer, a few of the children decided to lift one of their number through the transom and into the rectory. What they found was the body of Father Villars lying next to his bed with one end of his suspenders wrapped around his neck and the other end tied to the bed post. The coroner concluded that his death was a suicide, however, his physician, Dr. Joseph Perry wrote that Father Villars was under medication which may have caused him to become unstable,explaining possible suicide. Others concluded that Villars had not committed suicide at all, but that he was murdered by some local enemies who robbed him of some money.

Regardless of the cause he was granted a Christian burial which took place in Holy Cross Cemetery in Indianapolis. What happened after his death is also a mystery. It seems that after his burial reports began to come to light that people had “benefited materially and spiritually by prayers and good works offered to God through his intercession.” 1. In the years following his death, more and more people began to visit the grave of Fr. Villars. A metal container was placed near the gravesite that those who wanted to leave notes could do so. From the 1930’s on, this practice began to wane. In the 1940’s and again in the 1970’s some interested people did some research on the subject, but no conclusions were ever reached.

Father Robert Gorman in his unpublished History of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis wrote:

Both of the parishes in this city [Richmond] at the head of the Whitewater were in difficulty at this time. There were heavy debts and popular dissatisfaction in both. The new parish of St. Mary had made only stumbling progress and Villars was having difficulty in making ends meet. Late in the morning of March 5, 1868 he was found dead in his bedroom and his body in such a position as to suggest suicide. The decision in the case, based somewhat on the statement that, in Keokuk, before coming to the diocese of Vincennes, he had shown signs of being slightly demented, was that he had taken his life in a fit of despondency. On this consideration, the body was taken to Indianapolis and given a Catholic burial.

There has been a persistent local tradition to the effect that Villars was not a suicide but the victim of some nameless individuals whom he had antagonized by his temper, impetuosity and imprudence. According to this story, the men broke into the house at night, murdered the priest and, to suggest suicide, hung the body by a pair of suspenders from the bedpost. They then locked the door on the inside and escaped through the window. This version appeared plausible because, it was said, the greater part of the body was resting on the floor when it was found. It seems that the school children made the discovery of the death when a
group of them came to waken Villars when he did not appear for Mass as usual. The same tradition concedes to Villars not only innocence but also a degree of sanctity and a small unofficial cult has centered about his grave in Holy Cross cemetery throughout the years.

  1. Fr Charles Walsh in St.Elizabeth,Cambridge City, A Pioneer Parish of Eastern Indiana 1842-1930″[]

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