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Band of Missionaries – Part-2 – John Corbe

I know, from the start, that my treatment of Fr. John Corbe will leave something to be desired. That is because his ministry was, for many years, chaplain to the Sisters of Providence which means that he is a well documented figure in Indiana Church History.

However, let’s look at some aspects of his life. Here is some information from Fr. Robert Gorman’s history.

John Corbe, who was born in the diocese of Rennes, [November 5, 1805] studied in the college and seminary in Rennes and was ordained June 16, 1832. A stolid Breton, he taught in the College of Rennes and was a private tutor to several children of the nobility. 1

Fr. Gorman goes on to describe how Fr. Corbe ended up coming to Indiana.

Almost immediately on his (Bishop Simon Brute) arrival (in France, 1835-36) he contacted the archbishops of Paris and Rouen to secure permission for his collection. On September 19 he went to St. Sulpice, Paris ‘where he stayed until the middle of December, with the exception of about six weeks in Rennes. It was in these two places that he secured the major part of his clerical recruits. Among these were Celestine de la Hailandiere, John Corbe and the Eudists in Rennes and in Paris, Maurice de Saint Palais, Michael Shawe and Benjamin Petit

At the time of the vicars (de la Hailandiere) appointment, the bishop placed Corbe as resident pastor of the former mission at Cat Rver. On April 3, 1836, Pierre Menard had deeded to Bishop Brute 100 acres of woodland on the Cat River and in the same year Louis Tougaw donated an acre for a church lot. Corbe promoted the project of erecting a church and on January 3, 1837 with appropriate ceremony in the presence of the bishop, the first tree was felled for the building. Corbe was popular with his parishioners who wanted to found a village at the ferry crossing and name it Corbeville. The earlier name of the place was retained, however, until 1838 when it was changed to St. Francisville. 2

As mentioned above, there exists a wealth of information about Fr. Corbe in various publications from the Sisters of Providence, since he was their chaplain from November 1842 until his death in 1872.

Sister Mary Boromeo Brown, in her exhaustive work on the History of the Sisters of Providence, wrote in her prologue:

Not only did the Sisters of Providence draw their principal members from the sainted land of Brittany, but the region also bestowed many of its sons upon the Vincennes mission. Brute, de la Hailandiere, his nephews, the two Audrans, and his cousin, Father Ducoudray, the two Gueguens, Corbe and Martin and Du Pontavice, Julien Delaune, early pastor of Madison, and the Eudists of Saint Gabriel’s College, Vabret and Bellier, the two Berels, and Chasse, were all scions of the melancholy and spiritual race, which, accepting the faith in the fourth century, has clung to it ever since with the fortitude of the martyrs. Hardly a region of this ancient land is without its treasured souvenirs for the daughters of Mother Theodore. …Our early Breton parish priests in Indiana, especially Father John Corbe, resembles Irishmen. 3

She continues…

Shortly before Father Corbe’s arrival at Saint Mary’s, the jubilee had been preached with great benefit to the people of the vicinity, Father Lalumiere speaking once a day. This one great happiness and benefit had been hovering over their heads all during these months of anxiety, and since July it had become a certainty, the appointment of their chaplain, Father Corbe. Since Father Buteux’s removal they had had young Father Anthony Parret for temporary confessor and chaplain. Father Corbe, at that time director of the Vincennes Seminary, had been in the Bishop’s mind as the most capable person for the post for some time. Father Corbe himself was willing even desirous of the change. Thirty-six years of age, devout, discreet, retiring, scholarly, and of studious habits, Father Corbe was suited in an eminent manner to the duties which devolved upon him for thirty years as chaplain of the motherhouse. His kindly, sincere, and loyal character endeared him to the Sisters, and his uprightness and prudence made him a tried and trusted counselor in times of great difficulty.”Notre pére,” as Mother Theodore always called him, accommodated himself gradually to the quiet life at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. He had decidedly artistic tastes, drew and painted with considerable success, and had been professor of drawing and painting at the Seminary at Vincennes. He had a marked predilection for scientific pursuits, and as a botanist he was especially successful. On many a geologizing tour in the environs of Saint Mary’s he was accompanied by his lifelong friend and compatriot, Father Martin, Vicar General at Vincennes and later Bishop of Natchitoches. One of Father Corbe’s later hobbies was photography after the experiments and success of Daguerre became known in America in the late l840’s. He possessed some highly valued pictures which at his death he left to the Community. A faithful, devoted, loyal priest he was much loved by his brothers in the sacred ministry, and Bishop de la Hailandiére at one time considered him his best friend. Born in Brittany in 1806, he made his studies at the diocesan seminary of Rennes and came to America with Bishop Brute in 1836. His rst mission was Saint Francisville, Illinois, on the Embarras River, twelve miles south of Vincennes then called Riviére au Chat or Cat River. Corbeville was a temporary name for the settlement. His church there was built during his incumbency and dedicated to his patron Saint John. Bishop Brute was devotedly attached to the pious kindly young priest and often visited him on his lonely mission. It was Father Corbe who related the well known incident of the Bishop’s despoiling himself of the coverings when they slept before there at night.” He had the privilege of being near the Bishop in his last days, and was one of the four priests who were present at his saintly death. Father Bessonies tells a characteristic story of young Father Corbe.”œ One day when Bishop de la Hailandiére’s newly arrived group of missionaries came to visit him, he pointed out the persimmon tree near his little frame church and invited them to climb aloft and get their dinner. After Father Corbe’s transfer to Vincennes he acted as president of the seminary. On November 23, 1842, he arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and Father Parret was transferred to Washington, Indiana, which he left a year later to enter the Jesuit order to die some years afterward in the South. The terrible climate of Louisiana proved deadly to the Indiana priests who left the Vincennes diocese to go there. Bishop Martin seems a notable exception. 4

Father Corbe was inexorably attached to the Woods. When Mother Theodore passed in 1856, he wrote

“Mother Theodore and Sister Saint Francis both loved God with all the strength of their ardent souls; they served Him with the most perfect devotedness, and both terminated their careers of virtue and good works in the most cruel suffering, but they loved and desired these sufferings, and their happiness as they said themselves, was to be on the cross with their Beloved “¦ If God has sent them almost the same sufferings, He has also bestowed upon them the same favors. He has given them a foretaste of the joys of heaven by visions and extraordinary consolations.

Both have already given indubitable marks of their power with God “¦ I hope that these proofs will multiply and that God will glorify before men those who have sacrificed everything for Him with so much generosity.” 5

Although there were difficult times during the time of Bishop Celestine de la Hailandiere, enough to make Fr. Corbe consider leaving the diocese of Vincennes, he stuck to his commintment to the diocese, to the deceased Bishop Brute, and to the Sisters of Providence. Fr. Ernest Audran (the nephew of Bishop Hailandiere) wrote a letter to Fr. Edmund Schmitt (d:1901) and said that Fr. Corbe, as well as the others present at Brutés death (Lalumiere, Parret and Vabret) never tired of recounting Brutés life.

Corbe learned well from Bishop Brute and imitated his saintliness! +R.I.P+

  1. Gorman, Robert. “œHistory of the Catholic Church in Indiana.” Unpublished Manuscript, Archdiocese of Indianapolis. p.459[]
  2. Ibid. p.463 p. 487[]
  3. Brown, Mary Borromeo. 1949. The history of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. New York: Benziger Bros. p. 1-2, 4[]
  4. Ibid. p.234[]
  5. John Corbe to A Mme. Le Fer de la Motte, 11 June 1856-SMW Archives as quoted on this website –[]

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