Skip to content

The Death Father Michael Shawe

If you are from Madison Indiana, you know the name Shawe. You may not know who Shawe was, but you would know the name. If you are not from Madison, you may have never heard the name.

This all refers to one of the early priests in the Diocese of Vincennes and the only English speaking priest of the group of ordinands of Bishop Brute, who arrived in 1836, namely Michael Edgar Evelyn Shawe, a frontier priest with a very “stuffy” English name! And yet, many of Bishop Brutés early recruits were from a noble background. How and why did this missionary end up in Detroit, only to be killed after he was thrown from his buggy? May 10th is the anniversary of his death.

This article, from Illinois Catholic Historical Review tells part of his story:

…Young Shawe, De St. Palais.’ and some other young French nobleman accompanied Bishop Brute to Indiana at the time, the most God-forsaken State in the Western Country. Shawe, with other young volunteers, was ordained, and soon put on his missionary harness. Then he became Father Shawe, the only English-speaking priest on the mission, but French and German were as familiar to his tongue and no less eloquently preached. With his own personal fortune he built a stone church at Madison, which he dedicated to his patron, Saint Michael.

The Bishop’s death was succeeded by intrigue among his French associates, and in disgust Father Shawe, at the invitation of Father Edward Sorin, left the sacerdotal family of Vincennes and became professor of English literature in the University of Notre Dame. He was intensely English, anti-American to some extent: while at that time Notre Dame’s faculty was to a great extent as intensely French, as Father Shawe was English, in their tendencies. Some of these gentlemen were ex-militarists, and quite sensitive about the misfortunes under which the military glory of their country had succumbed. The majority were too strong for Father Shawe in this sentimental battle, and after establishing the English chair in such a manner that the present staff of Notre Dame accord the highest tribute to his wonderful ability and method, he, with the blessing of Father Sorin and the love and esteem of his associates, left the university and came to Detroit, to resume the active functions of his sacerdotal state and to enjoy life in a city so Catholic as was and is Detroit, and in society which his aristocratic attributes so well fitted him to adorn. His advent was a God-send to Bishop Lefevre. His learning, his eloquence, his experience and his personal fortune and sincere piety, soon became effective aids in the pastorate of the Irish congregation of Holy Trinity Church, to which he was assigned upon his arrival in 1845. Father Shawe was thrown from his carriage in April, 1853, and died May 10, following. R. I. P. 1

I don’t quite know what “The Bishop’s death was succeeded by intrigue among his French associates” means. Perhaps they were referring to Bishop Hailandiere, or, this is another way to explain how a lot of “behind the scenes” activities, or “clerical politics” went on. There were a number of priests who left the Diocese during the episcopate of Bishop Hailandiere. This was standard procedure in those days. Father Sorin and his band of brothers went from Saint Peter’s, near what is now Washington Indiana to South Bend, some say, to get as far from the good bishop as possible. Father Shawe went to Notre Dame and spent some time before he went there “officially”

The Notre Dame Archives has a hand written letter from Father Shawe to Father Sorin, taking him up on his offer to come to Notre Dame. In the letter Shawe says that he had permission from the bishop. Many did not, including the Vicar General, August Martin who left the diocese claiming ill health. You can view the letter Father Shawe sent to Father Sorin by going to the Notre Dame Archives to view this PDF file which was written March 4, 1846.

After he joined the faculty at Notre Dame, Shawe taught Latin, Greek and English and continued to preach, which by all accounts was excellent. His sermons were apparently heard by Bishop Peter Paul Lefevere, Coadjutor of the Diocese of Detroit who convinced Shawe to come to Detroit where he became the pastor of the new cathedral when it opened. 2

It has also been suggested that another reason for Shawe’s departure from the diocese was the failure of St. Gabriel College in Vincennes, run by the Eudist Fathers who were recalled to France. Shawe, while serving at the Cathedral in Vincennes, also taught at St. Gabriel’s. I am sure there had to be some “rub” between the Englsih Father Shawe and the French clergy who were obviously very numerous in the Diocese of Vincennes.

Here is an account, published in 1897 which is typical of the way many disagreements were described.

St. Michael, Edgar, Evelyn, Shawe, was ordained by Bishop Brute at Vincennes, March 12, 1837, and soon afterwards commenced missionary work in a district of country which would be difficult to describe. The greater part of Indiana at the time comprising the spiritual fold of Bishop Brute was sparsely settled and by a population to whom the expression ^poor white trash,” would most fitly apply to their condition generally.

Crude as this people are reported to have been, they appear not to have-been adverse to religious instruction; here and there, were to be found Catholic families, or groups of settlers originally Catholics, but who for want of pastoral care had lapsed, in some cases to Methodism, or who in other cases, and frequently, had become disinclined to submit to religious-control ; but there were also to be found many Catholic families of intelligence and respectability.

Father Shawe was the only priest to whom the English language was. natural, on this mission during the early years of its history. Whenever he found himself in a place of any considerable size, he made arrangements to preach; it was all the same to him whether his audience was to be Catholic or mixed; he usually drew full houses, for an English sermon from a man as eloquent as he was reputed to be and so gifted in the use of his mother tongue, was a rare treat in those days and in those regions; rough mannered as the people are reported to have been, they seemed to have had a great inclination to hear eloquent preachers. So familiar had he become in the use of the French language, that he could preach a French sermon whenever such became necessary; he could also preach in the German language, and from his ability to use these languages he was well adapted for the apostolic work in which he was engaged.

His voice was clear and strong, his figure robust, while his gentle and pleasing manner toned down the martial air which his army life had indelibly left upon him. His face was florid, his hair black, and his rather prominent nose, on which the cicatrices of the transverse cut of the sabre of the French cuirassier officer at Waterloo was plainly visible, was a leading feature in his countenance.

One decided trait in his character should be mentioned; he was proud of his mother country, whose aristocratic government, whose institutions, and whose laws he admired, and had strong faith in. I do not hesitate to say Father Shawe was the most intensified Englishman I ever met. What he saw in Indiana of our own system of government, taken in connection at that time with the ill treatment and wrongs inflicted in the forced removal of Catholic Indian tribes, did not tend to create in his mind much respect for American institutions. This peculiar pride of race and this marked nationality in the make up of Father Shawe, was probably the cause of estrangements after his beloved bishop’s death, with his brother priests and ecclesiastical superiors. They were all Frenchmen, while but a comparatively short period previously he had crossed swords with their defeated countrymen and friends. Besides, at that time in that diocese, French influence was paramount; it ruled and shaped results, and it so remained until the advent of a new episcopacy.

During his missionary experience it became the lot of Father Shawe to be settled in Madison, Indiana. In that city he founded and built St. Michael’s Church, dedicated to his great patron saint. To do this he used a portion of his private fortune, and to release the church from the debt remaining after completion, he had to beg for means in the eastern cities and in Canada.

Deaths, resignations, and changes in the Episcopacy of Vincennes, joined to climatic effects on his health induced Father Shawe to retire from active missionary labors.

Father Sorin invited him to assume the chair of English Literature in the University of Notre Dame, which invitation he accepted; he organized a faculty for an English course, laid the foundation of its efficiency, and of the prominent place it occupies in this great institution of learning.

Desiring once more to mingle with the world, to enjoy that refined society in which he was so well adapted to shine, and to enjoy moreover, living among a people whose language was akin to his own, he bade adieu to the President and Faculty of Notre Dame and came to Detroit in 1845.

He was received by Bishop Lefevere and assigned to the pastorate of the Irish Catholic congregation of Trinity Church. When the cathedral was dedicated in June 1848, Trinity was closed, while its congregation was transferred to the cathedral of which Father Shawe became first pastor. In Detroit at the time, there was Ste. Anne’s, for the Catholics of the French race; and St. Mary’s, for the German Catholics; Saints Peter and Paul was the only English speaking congregation in all the city.

Consequently the pastor of such a congregation had a large jurisdiction with much responsibility, and no end of parochial work. In this position, the many brilliant qualities of Father Shawe, his great piety, his watchful care of the religious and temporal interests of his parishioners, his charitable work, joined to his great eloquence in the pulpit won for him the love and esteem of the people. No man was better known in Detroit among all creeds and classes than Father Shawe. He was highly esteemed and respected by Bishop Lefevere and his episcopal household. Kind hearted by nature he was liberal in the use of his personal fortune for the alleviation of distress.

The misery entailed by the Irish famine caused the emigration of many families who landed upon our shores in destitute circumstances; tor the relief of such of these unfortunates as found their way to Detroit, he organized the Irish Emigrant Society and placed funds at the disposition of its officers for use when necessary. Solicitous for the welfare of the working classes he founded the Guild of Saints Peter and Paul, after the model of the English Guilds for workingmen and mechanics.

He was a priest who took especial pride in having all the ceremonies in the cathedral conducted on a scale worthy of Mother Church; he had the acolytes finely robed, and he drilled them to march with military precision. It was, however, in the pulpit, that this distinguished man appeared to great advantage. His exuberance of ideas proper to the subject; his great command of words, his pathos, his splendid voice, which he knew how to use to advantage, and his vigor of expression, combined to make him a great pulpit orator.

Since the Jesuits have had control of the old church many brilliant men have occupied its pulpits; I have listened to most of them, and I have been charmed and affected in turn; but I have never been moved, nor my soul stirred as it has been by the eloquence of Father Shawe. Father Shawe was a welcome as well as an honored guest in the highest circles of the Catholic, as well as of the non Catholic society of Detroit. 3

As written above, he was killed when thrown from his carriage on May 10, 1853. He was buried in the Mount Elliott Cemetery in Detroit. You can see his eleaborate gravestone at the Find-A-Grave website. His gravestone mistakenly says he was ordained in France, however, his ordination actually took place at the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier, Vincennes, on March 12, 1837. He was the first priest ordained in the Cathedral.

  1. Illinois Catholic Historical Review Volume II Number 3 (1920) []
  2. cf. Gorman. p.729[]
  3. American Catholic Historical Researches, Volume 14, Number-2, 1897, pp.50 ff.[]

Categories: Postings.

Tags: , , , ,

Comment Feed

No Responses (yet)

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.