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Benjamin Petit – Indiana Saint

Many times I feel the need to repeat information from previous posts. This one is no different since I can never say enough about this hero of the faith. This would be Father Benjamin Petit, (1811-1839).

This site attempts to “Remember those who have gone before us”. To remember those who have faded from our collective memory. February 10th is the anniversary of the death of Fr. Petit who died in St. Louis in 1839. The cause of his death was typhoid fever which he contracted along with many, many Pottawatomi Indians who had been forced from their lands in Indiana and forced to march across the middle west to Kansas. But that is the end of the story of a holy and heroic life, albeit a short one!

Benjamin Marie Petit, was born in the city of Rennes, France in 1811. He attended university and law school and after three years as a lawyer, he entered the Seminary of St. Sulpice in 1835. In June of 1836 the young Breton came to the United States with Bishop Brute and many others to serve the Church in the missionary territory of Indiana. He wrote to his mother in April of 1836 and told her that he was going to join Bishop Brute in Indiana. His family protested, apparently because of his fragile health. However, Petit insisted, and he left France in June aboard the “Francis Depau”, sailing from LeHavre. [Note: click on the image to see the entire list of those who accompanied Brute to Indiana-it reads like a “litany of saints”] They arrived in New York on July 21, 1836. He was then sent on to Vincennes.

By the end of the year he had received Minor Orders and then in September of 1837 he was ordained a Deacon and on October 14, 1837 he was ordained a priest at Vincennes by Bishop Brute.

His wish had always been to serve the Indians and with the death of Father Louis DeSeille, his wish had been granted. Father Petit accompanied the Potawatomi Indians on the Trail of Death. On their website, they write:

After placing the Potawatomi in the spiritual hands of Jesuit Father Christian Hoecken. S. J., at the Sugar Creek Mission in Kansas on November 4, 1838, Father Petit again fell sick with fever and painful open sores. On January 2, 1839, he started by horseback back to Indiana, accompanied by Abram”Nan-wesh-mah” Burnett, a full-blood Potawatomi friend who was the same age. Petit again took ill on the journey. With three open sores draining his strength, he rode east from Jefferson City, Missouri, in an open wagon, the roads rough and the rain frequent. He reached the Jesuit seminary at St. Louis University on Jan. 15. The fathers gave him all the medical attention and care they could, but he grew weaker and weaker. Father John A. Elet, then rector – president of St. Louis University, later wrote that he placed a crucifix to Father Petit’s dying lips and twice he kissed it tenderly. He lay in agony and finally expired 20 minutes before midnight, February 10, 1839, a martyr to his duty and his extraordinary devotion and love for his Potawatomi family. He had lived but 27 years and 10 months.

Father Petit died in the Jesuit seminary building at 9th and Washington streets, and was buried in the old cemetery at 7th Street and St. Charles Avenue. In 1856 the cemetery was moved to make way for downtown St. Louis. At that time, Father Edward Sorin, founder of Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana, came and took Father Petit’s body back to Indiana. Father Petit’s remains rest under the Log Chapel at the University of Notre Dame.

“œIn the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. If it should please God to send me death, I accept it in all love and submission to his amiable Providence and I hope that his mercy will have pity on me at the last moment. I commend myself to Mary now and at the hour of my death.” From Father Petit’s will, written August 17, 1837, at Vincennes, Indiana.

Today some of the Potawatomi pray to Father Petit and feel that he is a saint. It is certain that he is regarded by all as a very good man who gave his all for his flock.

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, despite the fact that his body had been buried in the Jesuit cemetery in St. Louis. In 1857, Fr. Edward 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

Finally, here is a touching excerpt from a letter that Petit wrote to his mother, dated October 15, 1837, just one day after his ordination:

“I am now a priest, and the hand that is writing to you bore Jesus Christ this morning! How can I express to you all that I should like to say, and yet, how can I not wish to say something of what no tongue can express? “¦When I think that in two days I shall start from here all alone, going nearly three hundred miles to bestow sacraments “” graces ratified in heaven “” among people whom I do not know at all, but to whom God sends me ““ I tremble at the thought of my nothingness. “¦How deeply do I feel myself penetrated by St. Paul’s thought, that God loves to accomplish great things by using that which is nothing”¦”

You can read more on Fr. Petit as well as other”Indiana Saints” by going to Indiana Saints located on this site.

Read more about Petit and the Potawatomi tragedy by visiting:

Certainly, this man is a Saint”¦

  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[]

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