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Establishment of the Diocese of Vincennes-1834 and Simon Brute

May 6, 1834 was the day that the Papal Bulls were officially promulgated establishing the Diocese of Vincennes. It began almost a year earlier when the bishops of the United States discussed the establishment of a new diocese. The approval for this came on April 12, 1834 and the official bulls were issued on May 6, 1834. Things obviously took time and The Papal Bulls were mailed to Fr. Brute on May 17, 1834 and they reached him at Mount St. Mary’s, Emmitsburg, Maryland, on July 22, 1834.

Bishop Brute who resisted any kind of episcopal appointment finally accepted the appointment. Becasue of the poor conditions in the “West”, the Church depended on donations — everything from money to vestments, sacred vessels, etc. Brute apparently wrote a letter to the Leopoldine Society, an organization formed in Vienna to aid the missions of North America. Brute wrote:

“Mere words, will poorly express the gratitude of the Bishop of Vincennes for the offering of love and zeal which your benevolent association has been pleased, in the name of God, to bestow upon his newly-created diocese. The pious benefactors may rest assured of the best blessings of Heaven ; may I have my share in them, by making a faithful use of what has been thus committed to my stewardship! It is perhaps proper that, in return, I should give you some information with regard to the diocese which has been the object of your bounty. When I arrived at Baltimore from France in 1810, to devote myself to the missions in this country, there was but one bishop for the whole United States, the late Most Rev. John Carroll. Since then many other sees have been erected ; the see of Detroit, erected in 1833, was the twelfth; the see of Vincennes, erected in 1834 by the Holy See, at the recommendation of the second provincial Council of Baltimore, may be regarded as the thirteenth. To this see, thus established, I was named as the first bishop. At the time of my appointment I was, and had been for many years, Superior, and professor of theology in the seminary connected with the College of Mount St. Mary’s, near Emmittsburg, in Maryland. Although a large number of priests now on the mission in the United States had been sent out from this seminary at the time of my appointment, they were not able to aid me, either with priests or money. The Sisters of Charity at St. Joseph’s, the mother house, made me a present of two hundred dollars, to assist me in establishing myself at Vincennes.

On my way to Bardstown, where I was to make my Retreat previous to my consecration, I visited my respected friend Dr. Purcell, the Bishop of Cincinnati, whose diocese must always continue to be a most worthy object of your generosity, as having a large population of German Catholics. He kindly accompanied me as far as Louisville, and then returned, whilst I proceeded on my way to Bardstown ; where I once more had the happiness of meeting my father and friend the venerable Bishop Flaget, the patriarch of these western missions, in which he has laboured for above forty-three years”” twenty-five of which as Bishop of Bardstown, and having jurisdiction over the whole western country. I was also permitted once more to embrace my old friend Bishop David, who, having resigned the coadjutorship of Bardstown, has been succeeded by Bishop Chabrat. ‘ At the time of my arrival, Bishop Flaget was about leaving for Cincinnati, to consecrate the large German church which had been lately erected. I spent a few days in visiting the different institutions of the diocese : the College and Seminary at Bardstown, the beautiful institution of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, founded by Bishop David ; and the house of the Sisters of Loretto, founded by the Rev. Mr. Nerincxs, both having several colleges and schools under their care. I visited also the flourishing College of the Jesuits (St. Mary’s), and regretted very much that my time would not allow of my going to the Dominican Convent and Novitiate of St. Rose. By the time I had finished my Retreat (from 4th to 12th October) under Bishop David, Bishop Flaget had returned from Cincinnati, and I set out with him for Louisville, where Bishop Purcell joined us. Crossing the Ohio, we proceeded directly towards St. Louis, across the vast prairies of Illinois, and passed through the town of Vincennes, half incognito. It was a source of great happiness and consolation to me to pass so many days in the company of these holy bishops, and to meet that most excellent prelate, Dr. Rosati, of St. Louis.

On the 26th of October, assisted by Bishops Flaget and Purcell, he consecrated his new and beautiful cathedral, which was an occasion of great joy to the whole city. A large body of the miltia, and even the United States troops, from the barracks near St, Louis, assisted at the ceremony. Two days after, on the 28th of October, the day of the Holy Apostles St. Simon (my patron) and St. Jude, I was consecrated in the same cathedral, by the Right Rev. Bishop Flaget, assisted by Bishop Rosati and Bishop Purcell. The sermon for the occasion was preached by the Rev. Mr. Hitzelberger. On the festival of All Saints, at the request of Bishop Rosati, I officiated pontifically for the first time. During these days, which was a time of general festivity, there were sermons, morning and evening, preached by the bishops or some of the Jesuit fathers, who have a large and flourishing college at this place, at present our farthest western point, 1,000 miles distant from New York, but with another 1,000 miles of territory extending beyond it to the Pacific, the only frontier of these vast United States.”

So, now, Indiana had it’s own diocese and it’s own bishop, the learned and scholastic Simon Brute! Msgr. Robert Trisco, of Catholic University, spoke of Brutés previous encounters with the episcopal office and it is surprising. He speaks of Brute being considered for the new Diocese of Detroit, (1833) but Archbishop Marechal of Baltimore, (the ‘Primal’ See) rejected it because Brute was never able to master the pronunciation of English. Trisco says

“…the French priest was so carried away by the uncontrolled impulses of his fervid imagination that he could not or would not make the necessary mechanical efforts” 2

Many of the bishops felt that Brute was a bit too “flighty” to handle the administration of any diocese, let alone one in the wilds of 19th century Indiana. Nonetheless we celebrate this day and the official establishment of the Diocese of Vincennes and we celebrate our first pastor, the sometimes eccentric who struggled with English, who was spiritual director for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and a man who was holy enough to be emulated.

So, the question then has to be asked — Will Simon Brute ever Be Canonized? First let me say that Bishop Simon Brute is certainly worthy, in my humble opinion, to be canonized. He was a holy man who dedicated his short life to the People of God and in particular to the People of God in Indiana and the Diocese of Vincennes.

Yet, there are a number of other people who would certainly be considered “saints”. Benjamin Petit, Anthony Deydier, John Plunket and even someone like Ettienne Philibert, the Royal Notary who continued to baptize residents of Vincennes until a priest could come and “validate” those baptisms. None of the women and men who could be considered ‘heroes of the faith” will ever be canonized.

Let’s consider, first of all, what “Canonization” is. The encyclopedia of Brittanca says:

Canonization, official act of a Christian communion””mainly the Roman Catholic Church but also the Eastern Orthodox Church””declaring one of its deceased members worthy of public cult and entering his or her name in the canon, or authorized list, of that communion’s recognized saints. 3

So, what is being said is that Canonized Saints are those individuals who are officially recognized by the Church and that they can be publicly venerated. One could, for example, request the intercession of a canonized saint at a public event, such as the celebration of the Eucharist. Here in Indiana, one could invoke the intercession of Mother Theodore Guerin at the celebration of her “official” Feast Day (October 3), but not Bishop Simon Brute because at this point he is considered a “Servant of God”, meaning that his life, his writings and his ideas are being investigated by those appointed to do so. This is the diocesan stage. Church law says:

“it is prohibited for a Servant of God to be an object of public ecclesiastical cult without the previous authorization of the Holy See.” 4

A local diocese will usually issue a prayer that can be used by individuals seeking the intercession of a Servant of God, but those prayers must be private.

Let’s leave Canon Law etc. Out of this for a moment and focus on a reality, namely costs. In a story on NPR back in 2014 it was written:

When a candidate is considered for sainthood, the Catholic Church’s process requires research into the candidate’s life, legal documentation and consultations with theologians. Expenses can range from $50,000 to $250,000. 5

That is a great deal of money, to say the least. One has to ask if that money could be better spent somewhere else. My opinion is no, and I say that not because of the status that sainthood brings, but the fact that a Canonized Saint is capable of leading people to God. Ask just about anyone who has visited Mother Theodore’s burial place at St. Mary of the Woods.

In 2003, the late Archbishop, Daniel Beuchlein visited the grave of Bishop Brute. He wrote:

My admiration for Bishop Brute can be traced to my early years as a seminarian. One time with some seminarian friends, I visited the Old Cathedral in Vincennes. I was intrigued by our early roots and the courage and zeal of our first bishop. He was able to do so much with so few human and financial resources, and he did so much in such a brief time. He was bishop of Vincennes only five years before he died. Later, I became more aware of his personal holiness. I had also done some study of the first pastors of St. Joseph Parish in my home town of Jasper, Ind. They led me back to our first bishop. Never did I dream I would be in a position to promote the cause for his canonization.

After visiting his tomb in Vincennes in August 2003, I asked Msgr. Fred Easton, our vicar judicial, to serve as my liaison in moving forward the possible cause for canonization of Bishop Brute. Msgr. Easton is an expert in canon law and is familiar with the canonical process involved. He has been actively involved in the cause of Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin. He sent a copy of Benedictine Sister Salesia Godecker’s extensive biography of our first bishop to Dr. Andrea Ambrosi, who served as the postulator for Mother Theodore’s cause in Rome. Having read the biography, Dr. Ambrosi is of the opinion that Bishop Brute’s life is a possible case for canonization.

After a subsequent meeting with Dr. Ambrosi, I decided to consult the bishops of Indiana, some lay advisers and priests about the wisdom of pursuing the cause. Having received an affirmative response from all parties, I have named Dr. Ambrosi as postulator to guide us through the initial procedures of pursuing Bishop Brute’s possible canonization. I chose him because of his involvement in the cause of Blessed Mother Theodore and his familiarity with the Church in its early years in Indiana. Father Paul Etienne, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, who has a deep appreciation for our first bishop, has been named vice postulator.

At my request, Msgr. Easton has put together the required historical commission, which will pursue the collection and investigation of papers and relevant materials pertaining to the life and ministry of Bishop Brute.

The formal canonical opening session of the investigation will take place on Sept. 12 in the presence of the postulator and vice postulator. It is the first required step in the investigation.
The fact that Bishop Brute was esteemed as a holy person was strikingly affirmed by the renowned James Cardinal Gibbons during a visit to Vincennes on Dec. 4, 1891. He said,”Worthy citizens of Vincennes, you need not go on pilgrimage to visit the tombs of the saints. There is one reposing here in your midst, namely, the saintly Founder of this diocese, Right Reverend Simon Brute.”

The apostolic zeal, humility, simplicity, determination, courage and confidence in God’s will make Bishop Brute a splendid model for all Catholics of our day. He is a relevant model for all who are involved in furthering the ministry of the Church. He was arguably the most influential theologian of the Church in the United States in his day. His commitment to faithful prayer and his deep love for the Holy Eucharist highlighted his generous ministry to his people. His way of life provides an outstanding model not only for our priests and seminarians, but also for those preparing to become deacons and lay ministers. Indeed, the holiness of Bishop Brute is a wonderful example and inspiration for all lay people and religious women and men.

I am pleased that the official cause of Bishop Brute will be inaugurated this month. From now on, we will count on his intercession and God’s will for further developments. When I prayed at the tomb of Bishop Brute two years ago, I put the outcome of all this in his hands. I suspect as well that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton will be interceding for her former spiritual director and confessor. I do not expect that his process will be fulfilled during my tenure as archbishop of Indianapolis, but I feel I am doing my duty by launching the investigative process.

I placed our college seminary house of formation at Marian College in Indianapolis under the patronage of Bishop Brute because of his holiness and his love for priestly formation. I encourage all of us to promote public knowledge about our holy first bishop and to spread the word about his cause for canonization.

Bishop Brute is a worthy intercessor for healing and our own holiness. Learning about his life also tells us and our children much about the founding of the Church in Indiana. 6

There are other voices as well. In 1939, Cardinal Joseph Ritter, who was then Bishop of Indianapolis, spoke of Brute:

Bishop Ritter said that long before Bishop Brute came to Vincennes he exercised great influence on the minds of the early leaders of the church in this country. Bishop Brute, he said, was not only the founder of our diocese and its first Bishop, but he brought to us and to the whole Northwest Territory, the most eminent learning, theological, literary and cultural as well as great holiness of life, qualifications that not only made him with the Church, respected and esteemed, but also influenced tremendously the formation of the character of the Church in the Middle West.”

Finally, one more voice — that of Cardinal Gibbons:

On Dec. 4, 1891, while visiting Vincennes, Cardinal Gibbons said:”Worthy citizens of Vincennes, you need not go on pilgrimages to visit the tombs of saints. There is one reposing here in your midst, namely, the saintly founder of this diocese, Right Reverend Simon Brute.” 8

Where from here?

  1. Bruté de Rémur, Simon William Gabriel, James Roosevelt Bayley, and Mary Elizabeth Herbert. 1871. The life of the Rt. Rev. Gabriel Bruté, D.D., first bishop of Vincennes: With a preface by Lady Herbert. Baltimore: Kelly, Piet.[]
  2. Trisco, Robert Frederick. 1962. The Holy See and the nascent church in the Middle Western United States, 1826-1850. Roma: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, p.81-82[]
  7. Catholic News Service – Newsfeeds, 27 June 1939[]
  8. Cummings, Kathleen Sprows. 2020. A saint of our own: how the quest for a holy hero helped Catholics become American.[]

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