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Petit and Deydier

This weekend we celebrate the lives of two early priests of the Diocese of Vincennes. February 10th marks the 179th anniversary of the death of Fr. Benjamin Petit, the apostle to the Potawatomi, in 1839, and February 11 marks the 154th anniversary of the death of Fr. Antoine (Anthony) Deydier in 1864. I’ve written before about the fact that with the current “rules” on canonization, Frs. Petit and Deydier would certainly qualify. But, as I also wrote previously, it does not matter since, in my mind, they are both saints to be emulated, even if they aren’t officially recognized by the Universal Church.

In 1941, the Indiana Historical Society published the journal of Fr. Petit, “The Trail of Death”. In the last entry we find the last correspondence between Fr. Petit and Bishop Simon Brute. Within a month of writing this letter, Petit would be dead. Within 6 months, Bishop Brute would also be dead.

To the Right Revd. Bishop Brute Vincennes
(Knox Cty.) Indiana.

St. Louis, 18 January, 1839

I received your valued letter dated November 6 last only on December 23 following. The good Lord having delivered me from the fever three days previously, the solemnity of a recall addressed by his Bishop to a priest who wishes to live only with obedience all his life, and the circumstances of Messrs. Vabret’s and de la Hailandière’s departure, left no room for doubt in either Father Hoecken or me that I should depart as soon as possible. January 2, after part of the festivities, was the date settled upon, and I tried to prepare myself for it as well as possible by rest and light exercise. . . . After a horseback ride of a hundred and fifty miles I found it impossible to continue thus on the journey : my weakness was growing worse every day. I was accompanied by an Indian, who is returning to Logansport; he sent his horse back, and mine was then tied behind the stage. After coming rather painfully to Jefferson City, we sojourned there a day. Then an open wagon, ostensibly a stage, carried us through rain and over frightful roads to St. Louis. The good Lord permitted me to make this journey with an open sore on the seat, another on the thigh, and a third on the leg””the remainder of the numerous sores which covered my whole body during my illness at the Osage River. I arrived at St. Louis exhausted and suffering a great deal from all these sores, which had not improved much during the journey. I was received like a brother by the Jesuits, of whom Father Hoecken had given me to understand I could not fail to ask hospitality. I was immediately given over to the medical treatment I urgently needed at the hands of their hospital attendant, who is also a doctor. Already, after three days of rest, I feel an improvement which Providence will, I hope, augment so that I may avail myself shortly of a steamboat, when the Wabash is open, to pay my respects to you and, by my return at your first call, to fulfill that condition of obedience under which you permitted me to make a journey so fruitful in blessings, with the provision that I employ well the favors of my Lord. The Indian who is the bearer of this letter is one of my children ; he has showered tender attentions on me in my misery throughout the journey. Welcomed here like a brother and son, he will doubtless receive the same consideration from Your Fatherhood. The horse he rides is mine ; 76 he should leave it at Vincennes, where he will take my old Tom, if he is still there, to complete his journey. In case Tom is no longer there, you will have the goodness to supply what money he needs to buy another ; I shall reimburse you myself later. I have been visited by Mgrs. Rosati and Loras, who, knowing it was impossible for me to do them homage, did not disdain to call upon your poor priest themselves. Tomorrow M. Nicolet is also coming to see me in order to get information I can give him about the Indians. I really feel shamed by all these visits; I am consulted concerning missions, and I shrink from the subject. I should like so much to be silent when I fear that importance is attached to my answers. I received your last, Monseigneur, at Westport, as I was leaving. I recognized all the tenderness and solicitude of your paternal goodness, which was already so well known to my heart. I close, thinking that I shall be restored in a fortnight, and that, when the Wabash opens, I shall have the long-denied happiness of receiving your benediction. While awaiting that moment, accept, Monseigneur, the assurance of the respectful obedience and submission of your priest and son in Jesus and Mary.

B. Petit
Ptre. Mre.

[P.S.] Mgr. Loras will soon reply to your last letter. Mgr. Rosatï would like you to send the plan of the church at Frederick which you have, or which he thinks you can procure for him. [Addressed:] To the Right Revd. Bishop Brute Vincennes (Knox Cty.) Indiana. Care of Abraham Burnett, my Potawatomi companion and son. B. P. 1

Fr. Petit’s funeral Mass was celebrated in Vincennes on February 18, 1839 by Bishop Brute. However, his body had been buried in the Jesuit cemetery in St. Louis. In 1857, Fr. Sorin arranged to have his body brought to Notre Dame and it is now buried under the old Log Chapel on the campus.

At the time of Fr. Petit’s death the Cincinnati “Catholic Telegraph” wrote:

From the Catholic Telegraph

Rev. Mr. Petit
Vincennes, February 18, 1839

This morning, at 9 o’clock, High Mass was celebrated by the Bishop in the Church of St. Francis Xavier, for the repose of the soul of the Rev. B. Petit, late missionary to the Pottowatomies in this Diocese. His death took place on the 10th inst. at the University of St. Louis, on his return from accompanying the Indians to their place of destination. His obsequies were performed by the Fathers of the Society, the Bishops of St. Louis and Dubuque present.

Last night, the Bishop and his clergy recited the office of the dead, and to-day he offered up the divine sacrifice with the usual and affecting ceremonies of a requiem mass, assisted by the priests of the parish and seminary and the Rev. Mr. Shawe of Madison and Berniere of Bertrand (Michigan). At the conclusion the Prelate spoke from St. Paul to Timothy v. “I know whom I have believed and I am certain he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him” (2 Timothy: 1;12) He united in the same tribute of respect and homage for their merits, the three excellent priests, Rev. Messrs Deseilles, Schaeffer, and Petit whom in fifteen months this new Diocess had to surrender to their Lord in the flower of their age. This was particularly so with the last mentioned, who had not completed his twenty-ninth year. The Bishop then gave a short review of the past history of the Church of Vincennes–beginning with its earliest missionaries of the society of Jesus, Father Mermet (1708), Father Meurin, and three others; then he mentioned many other excellent priests, some yet living, M.M. Flaget–Blanc–Rosati–Chabrat, now Bishops; M. Oliver the oldest priest in the United States aged 94; Mr. Badin, etc. etc; and amongst the dead M. Rivet buried, exclaimed the Bishop, under the very altar at which I have officiated, and 40 years ago the friend of Gen. Harrison: he was a most worthy priest, and his name could not be omitted in that affecting review, especially as it was so cherished by the old French Catholics who were present as well as the American, Irish and German.

Applying then the foregoing text more particularly to the young and lamented Mr. Petit, he recounted the sacrifices he sent before him to form his treasure in heaven as Christ recommends. He left in France his excellent family, his friends, his prospects as a lawyer already eminent in his profession–all his worldly hopes, to come to this country and be ready to say with the first Apostles–“Beloved we have left all things and have followed thee” Mark x.28 When sent on his first mission to the poor Indians, all anticipated a long career of usefulness, for that truly devoted and promising missionary–all believed that he would live many years to be an honor and blessing to the church; “but–says the Lord–my thoughts are not your thoughts–as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above yur ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.” The Prelate then reminded the clergy and laity, but especially the young seminarians present, the first homes of Vincennes, how necessary it is to watch and place their treasures and with it their hearts in heaven, as a fait fully as it was so resolutely and fervently done by the Rev. Mr. Petit.


Father Robert Gorman, former Archivist of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis wrote the following in his unpublished history of the Catholic Church in Indiana:

The winter of 1838-1839 was the most difficult experienced by Brute. Sustained by sheer will power, he had, besides the cares of episcopal administration, the assistance of only Anthony Parrett and Maurice Berel, two rather recently ordained priests, to provide the necessary ministrations for the cathedral parish and to maintain the seminary and the college. It was because of this condition that he wrote to Benjamin Petit on the Osage River, recalling him to Vincennes. Petit, who had overtaken the Indians at Danville on September 16, 1838, arrived with them at their reservation on the Osage on November 4, 1838. In the course of the march along the trail of death about 150 Indians had deserted or perished. 0n his arrival, Petit himself was suffering from a serious illness caused by fever and exhaustion, which lasted during the two months he stayed at the Osage. Brutés letter arrived on December 23, 1838 and, having completed arrangements to tranfer his charge to the Jesuit missionary, Christian Hoecken, who hitherto had worked on the Kickapoo mission. Petit, accompanied by an Indian, started on his return on horseback, January 2, 1839. After 150 miles of this mode of travel he found it impossible to go on and got on the stage which carried him to Jefferson City. The route from this point to St. Louis was traversed in an open wagon in the rain and over bad roads. On January 15, 1839 he arrived at the Jesuit College in St. Louis in the last stages of debility, with many running sores on his body, which was completely jaundiced by the fever. Three days later he wrote to Brute informing him of his location and condition. He hoped for recovery but died in less than a month, on February, 10, 1839. On the receipt of the news in Vincennes Brute celebrated a solemn requiem in the cathedral on Monday, February 18, l839 and delivered a touching, eulogy on his favorite missionery who was known as the Seraphic Benjamin Petit. The immense charity and tragic story of Petit were long remembered and left their mark on the diocese. 2

Then we have the other remembrance, the Rev. Antoine (Anthony) Deydier. Father Deydier’s history in America coincides with some of the oldest missionaries in the 19th century. He arrived in Baltimore in 1810. The article in Wikipedia states:

Deydier was born in France on April 30, 1788. He left his native country on June 10, 1810 on the same boat as Simon Brute, accompanying Benedict Flaget. After his ordination to the diaconate he refused ordination to the priesthood and he taught for four years at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, (which was where Father Brute spent most of his early years in America), eventually ending up in Albany New York as a private tutor. According to one source, he had received minor orders in France and when he arrived in the United States, he taught music in New York City. 3 Apparently his association with Brute at Mount St. Mary’s is what led him eventually to his priestly ordination. Brute reportedly asked him to come to Indiana. That call obviously struck a chord in Deydier because it was in the missions that he spent the remainder of his life. Bishop Brute ordained him on March 25, 1837 in the Cathedral of Saint Francis Xavier in Vincennes, Indiana.

Missionary work in Indiana
After his ordination as a priest he was sent to Evansville, Indiana. He apparently did not find many Catholics. The day after his arrival, on May 4, 1837 he celebrated Mass in a tavern, at the corner of First and Locust. 4 He then returned to Vincennes, but was then sent back to Evansville in November 1838, after conducting a collection tour in September of that year. From then on he is reported to have remained in Evansville. However, it was reported that in 1841, while on a similar mission trip, Deydier was appointed temporary administrator of the new French Parish in New York City, St. Vincent DePaul, a French speaking parish, by Archbishop Hughes. 5 His pastorate there lasted less than six months and perhaps this was in return for collecting funds for his beloved Assumption parish n Evansville. Much of his time was taken up ministering to the workers on the Wabash and Erie Canal. Deydier’s life in Evansville was not one of leisure. Saint Theodora Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence, St. Mary of the Woods wrote in her journal”So extreme was his poverty and so complete his destitution, that I shall run the risk of being accused of exaggeration in describing it.” 6 He founded the parish of the Assumption in Evansville, Vanderburgh County, Indiana. In the “History of Vanderburgh County” it was written:

It was a noticeable feature of the Catholic priesthood in the pioneer days that wherever they found a community, no matter how small or how widely scattered, wherein they could establish a mission, there the cross was erected and the protecting care of the church spread over the inhabitants. No hardship was accounted too severe and no sacrifice too great to stand in the way of the propagation of a religion which they believed to declare the voice and will of God. The first information of any Catholics residing in the vicinity of Evansville, was communicated in the fall of 1836, to the Right Rev. Gabriel Brute, first bishop of Vincennes, by Rev. Father Buteux, and the companions of his journey, who lodged on their arrival here, at the Mansion House, then kept by Francis Linck, a citizen well remembered to this day and esteemed by all the older inhabitants of the city. Mr. Linck, born in 1774, was a native of Stockheim, in Wurtemburg, and in 1836 was the only Catholic in Evansville, except perhaps the late John Walsh. In March, 1837, Very Rev. Father De la Hailandiere, vicar-general of the Rev. Bishop, accompanied by Rev. Father Shawe, visited Evansville with a view of establishing a mission, and on the 3rd day of May, following, Rev. Father Anthony Deydier was dispatched to take charge of the mission. Father Deydier was born in France, April 30, 1788, and was ordained a priest at the cathedral of Vincennes, March 25, 1837. Very few knew that he had reached the full strength of his manhood when he took upon himself holy orders, and was placed in charge of the mission in this city. While here he lived a blameless and well spent life, unobtrusive in his deportment, but with a kind word for all. After almost a year’s residence at the house of Mr. Linck, in January, 1838, he built a lodge room, 10×15 feet size, at the corner of Fifth and Chestnut streets. Here he made his abode, using his little room as a dwelling and for chapel purposes for about three years. For Sabbath day services larger rooms at the homes of Catholics were occasionally used. He labored heroically among his people, did much missionary work in the country adjacent to Evansville, and in 1838 made a successful trip to the east to raise funds for the erection of a church building. The history of Catholicism in Evansville since that time is the history of a wonderful growth. The worthy priest who stood by the church in its infancy, lived to see it become rich and powerful with a numerous priesthood within the territory where he once labored alone – lived to see a sturdy oak grown from the acorn planted by his hands. When old age and increasing infirmities had impaired his usefulness, he retired from the active ministry and, returning to Vincennes, passed the evening of his life in comparative rest, greatly beloved by all who knew him. His death occurred February 11, 1864. 7

Deydier was obviously a very humble and simple man. Saint Mother Theodore described him thus:

Sister St. Theodore wrote. “So extreme was his poverty and so complete his destitution, that I shall run the risk of being accused of exaggeration in describing it. … The priest is about twenty-eight years of age. His exterior bespoke mildness and he seemed refined; but he was so poorly clothed that one would easily have offered him alms. He had on an old torn coat, shoes in the same condition, trousers all patched up by himself.” Delicately, Sister St. Theodore asked about his housekeeper. The priest replied that he did not have a housekeeper. He told Sister St. Theodore, “My companion and I eat only combread, which is brought to us every day by a baker. We have only a log hut for our church, house and school. At night we spread a mattress on a bench and there, wrapped in our coverings, we take a little rest. When we are away on missionary duties, and one or the other always is, we sleep on hay or straw or sometimes under a tree.” 8

Deydier remained in Evansville until 1859, when he retired to the”Highlands” at Vincennes. He died on February 11, 1864 and was buried in the orphanage cemetery,[6] which is now part of the St. Vincent de Paul Parish. 9

Pray for them, and ask for their prayers…

  1. Petit, Benjamin Marie, and Irving McKee. 1941. The trail of death: letters of Benjamin Marie Petit. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society.[]
  2. Gorman, Fr. Robert (unpublished manuscript) pp.519-520[]
  3. Cauthorn, Henry, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Vincennes Indiana, 1892[]
  4. Cauthorn, Henry, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Vincennes Indiana, 1892 – p. 166[]
  5. The New York Evening World: Monday, January 23, 1888, p.2[]
  6. Mother Theodore Guerin – Journals and Letters, Sister Mary Theodosia Mug (ed.), St. Mary of the Woods, 1942; pp. 53-54 – cf. Mitchell, Penny Blaker. 1998. Mother Theodore Guerin: a woman for our time : foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the Woods, Indiana. []
  7. History of Vanderburgh County, Indiana: From the Earliest Times to the Present[]
  8. Mitchell, Penny Blaker. 1998. Mother Theodore Guerin: a woman for our time : foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the Woods, Indiana. Saint Mary-of-the Woods, Ind: Sisters of Providence. pp.38[]
  9. History of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Vincennes, by Herman Alerding (Indianapolis: Carlon & Hollenbeck, 1883) []

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