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Fr. Julian Benoit

In 1836, Bishop Brute brought with him, from France, 19 men who were destined to be the pillars of the Catholic Church in Indiana. These men included two of his successors as bishop, Celestine de la Hailandiere and Maurice de St. Palais. It included many of the heroes of the early Church; Benjamin Petit, Vincent Bacquelin, John Corbe, Michael Shawe and Julian Benoit who was destined to outlive most of the others and become a hero of what is now the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Herman J. Alerding, a priest of the Vincennes diocese who wrote “History of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Vincennes” and later became the fourth Bishop of Fort Wayne in 1900, described Fr. Benoit:

He was born in Septmoncel, a village in the great Jura mountain range, France, on October 17, 1808. He began his theological studies at the age of seventeen, and having completed these studies, he was ordained subdeacon and deacon, not having attained the required age for priesthood. He was so impressed with Bishop Brutés sanctity and learning, that he emigrated to America, on June 1, 1836. He was ordained priest, by Bishop Brute, at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, on St. Mark’s day, 1837. His first appointment was at Leopold, near Evansville, Indiana. He was next sent to Rome, on the Ohio river, and then went to Chicago; from which place he also attended Lockport, Joliet and several other towns along the canal. After one year he returned to Leopold, spending there three and one-half years in hard missionary labor. During his stay, at Leopold, he received a salary of $63.00.

He was next sent to Fort Wayne, where he arrived on April 16, 1840. During the first six months, in Fort Wayne, he boarded with Francis Comparet. benoit The church, at that time, was a frame structure rudely built, not plastered, 35×65 feet, with a few rough boards for benches. Father Benoit soon secured all the ground, known as Cathedral Square, and paid for it. His missionary field of labor comprised Lagro, Huntington, Columbia City, Warsaw, Goshen, Avilla, New France, New Haven, Besancon, Hesse Cassel and Decatur. With the exception of a few canal towns, these visits had all to be made on horseback. During sickly seasons Father Benoit underwent incredible hardships, on account of sick-calls as far as Muncie, Indiana, and Defiance, Ohio. In 1845, he brought three Sisters of Providence to Fort Wayne, where he gave them a house completely furnished, and, towards enlarging the building, he contributed $5,000, in 1883. He built the present brick structure, on the corner of Jefferson and Clinton streets, for a school for boys. He also erected the first episcopal residence, the present clergy house, on Clinton street, at a cost of $16,000, mostly from his personal resources.

Father Benoit visited New Orleans in 1853 and in 1860, soliciting funds for the building of the Fort Wayne Cathedral. In the autumn of 1861, the Cathedral was dedicated, having cost, including furniture, about $60,000. Father Benoit visited Europe in 1841, in 1865, remaining there about thirteen months; and in 1874, as a member of the first American pilgrimage, remaining from May till September. cathedral-fall-189x253These visits were made principally in the interests of the diocese of Fort Wayne. Many honors were bestowed on Father Benoit. He was made Vicar General of the diocese of Vincennes, in 1852, and of Fort Wayne, in 1858. During Bishop Luers’ visit to Europe, in 1865, Father Benoit was Administrator of the diocese. At the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, in 1866, he was the theologian of Bishop Luers. After the death of Bishop Luers, he was again Administrator of the diocese, from June, 1871, to April, 1872. He attended the four Provincial Councils, at Cincinnati, as theologian to the Bishop. In 1883, he was again Administrator of the diocese, during Bishop Dwenger’s absence in Rome. A Papal Brief of Leo XIII, bearing date of June 12, 1883, conferred upon Father Benoit the honors and title of Domestic Prelate of His Holiness. The investiture took place in the Cathedral, on August 16th, of the same year.

… Father Benoit’s health began to fail, and when Bishop Dwenger returned from the Baltimore Council, in 1884, he found him complaining of a severe pain in his throat. Three leading physicians were called in, and pronounced his ailment to be cancer of the throat. Father Benoit recognized, that his remaining days on earth were few, and, with characteristic resignation, he remarked: “If Providence desires to take me by the throat, then God’s will be done.” An altar was erected in his room, and on Sunday morning, January 11, 1885, he offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, for the last time. He sufi”ered intensely, but he bore all in calm resignation to God’s will. On Monday evening, January 26, 1885, having received all the consolations of religion, the heroic soul of the apostolic Father Benoit passed away. His remains rest in the Crypt of the Cathedral.

The Cathedral that he built, of course, still stands today, over 150 years old. The Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society publishes a blog entitled History Center Notes & Queries” – Our Stories from Fort Wayne & Allen County, Indiana”. They published an entry in 2013 honoring Msgr. Benoit.

by Carmen Doyle

While he is best known for building the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fr. Benoit contributed in other ways to the history of Catholicism in Fort Wayne.

(For more on the building of the Cathedral, read the December blog post”A Brief History of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Born in France in 1808, Benoit entered the seminary at age 17. He was an excellent student, and completed his studies to become a priest before he was even old enough to be ordained. Benoit began teaching as a deacon at age 21 and within a few years he became a professor at the Grand Seminary at Lyons, France.

In 1835, Benoit met Bishop Simon Brute from Vincennes, who had come to Lyons in the hopes of attracting young priests to the challenges of the American frontier. Brute stayed for two weeks with Benoit. Benoit was moved by Brute’s descriptions and offered to become a missionary to America.

According to later recollections by Benoit, Brute told him,”You are a spoiled child; you will never do for missions in America; you are accustomed to all comforts; you have such a beautiful position, but in America I can offer you nothing but corn bread and bacon, and not enough of that. There will be many a night when you will have no bed, many a day and night when you will have to be on horseback through the wilderness.”

Benoit replied,”If you can do it, why cannot I”¦ a young man, be able to do it?” Within a year, Benoit came to America.

Benoit spent his first year in America studying English in Baltimore at St. Mary’s Seminary. He was ordained in 1837 and was sent by Brute via the Ohio River to minister to southern Indiana and then to canal towns near Chicago. Benoit came to Fort Wayne in 1840.

The diocese in Fort Wayne initially included much more than just Fort Wayne. Fr. Benoit ministered to several counties including Huntington, Columbia City, Warsaw, Hessen-Cassel and Decatur among others. Fr. Benoit was often the only priest the counties had, meaning that he could be riding 80 miles on horseback for a sick call.

Fr. Benoit was very trusted among the Miami Indians. When the Miami were forced to leave Fort Wayne and go to Kansas, they begged Fr. Benoit to go with them. Bishop Haliandiere at first refused Fr. Benoit’s request. Government troops were sent to enforce the order and the commanding officer told Fr. Benoit,”Unless you go with them, they will not go, and I will be obliged to hunt them down like wild beasts and kill them.”

Another of Fr. Benoit’s goals was to establish a school for both girls and boys.

The Sisters of Providence arrived to teach the girls and the Brothers of the Holy Cross for the boys. Both schools were divided into English and German, reflecting the culture of Fort Wayne.

When Fr. Benoit came to Fort Wayne, there was not much money- even the small St. Augustine church had a debt. (St. Augustine’s later became the Cathedral.) Fr. Benoit invested his money in real estate and made a large amount of money. The money he made he gave away, funding not only the Cathedral, but also schools, including building a place for the Sisters of Providence to live while teaching in the schools.

Another known act of generosity was the loan of 10,000 francs to help set up Notre Dame University. Fr. Benoit gave away the majority of his wealth quietly and did not often make publicly known donations except to the recipients.

When Fr. Benoit found out that he had terminal cancer, he began to give away his remaining wealth. When Bishop Dwenger arrived to give him Last Rites, Fr. Benoit told the Bishop that because he had come”into the world with nothing”¦ I want to go out of it with nothing. I have about disposed of all I had, and you will likely find that you are obliged to pay my funeral expenses.”

Fr. Benoit died in January 1885, after serving Fort Wayne for 44 years, and was buried in the Cathedral in the diocese that he had helped to found and grow.

(Information came from Frontier Faith by George R. Mather and Biographical Sketch of Rt. Rev. Julian Benoit)


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