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The Feast of St. Ignatius

Today is the feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. What do the Jesuits have to do with the history of the Catholic Church in Indiana? Well, just about everything!

The Jesuits were the first, according to existing records, to bring the Church to these parts. Monsignor John Doyle, in his book,”The Catholic Church in Indiana 1686-1814″ writes:

“œThe earliest records of the church of St. Francis Xavier that have been preserved were made in 1749. These records continue to the present time, though not without some gaps. The very first record is that of a marriage on April 21, 1749, signed by Sebastian Louis Meurin” (S.J.). 1

After the establishment of the Diocese of Vincennes in 1834, Bishop Simon Brute sought to have an establishment of Jesuits in the new diocese. Brute had worked with Father Nicholas Petit S.J. 2 3 who was assigned to Saint Mary’s College in the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky. Fr. Petit had been active in serving the people of Vincennes and southern Indiana. Fr. Robert Gorman, in his unpublished”History of the Catholic Church In Indiana” wrote

Brute, however, met with no success in establishing: a boys school. He made some attempt with the aid of a Canadian schoolmaster and in writing to his brother, Augustin, February 11, 1835, requested him to send, among various miscellaneous items, a Brother to teach catechism. Possibly because of his strong admiration for Father Petit he greatly desired to have an establishment of the Society in the diocese. Not long after his arrival he wrote to Father Roothan, the Superior General, offering him the 160 acres of church land at Vincennes for the establishment of a college. He was also eager to secure French Jesuits for mission work. Those stationed in Vincennes could care for the French settlements at Cat River and Coffee. Others located at Logansport could develop the Indian missions in that vicinity.

After he became acquainted with (Fr. Stephen) Badin’s property at Ste. Marie des Lacs 4 he offered that as a site for a college. On April 2, 1835 he wrote to Propaganda regarding his need of priests and funds and requesting aid in securing. the Jesuits for the diocese. In his reply on June 27, 1835 Cardinal Franzoni, the Secretary of the Congregation, wrote:

Moreover I have addressed myself to the General of the Society of Jesus to see whether he has any priests of his Society who might be sent to open a college in your diocese, as your Lordship desires. It is indeed displeasing to me that I must inform you that the Father General has replied that at present he has no priests whom he can send to your diocese for that purpose. The same Father General solemnly affirmed that you can even invite to the aid of your missions the priests of the Society of Jesus who sojourn in other American dioceses and that they will certainly comply with the desire of Your Lordship.

The second attempt to found a college must be associated with the prospect of removing the see from Vincennes, for soon after the transfer from Bardstown to Louisville was effected, Bishop de la Hailandiere questioned the advisability of a permanent location in Vincennes. In the first part of 1841 he made a proposition to the French Jesuits at St. Mary’s, Kentucky to establish a foundation in Indianapolis, then a town of about two thousand population. It appears that the bishop’s agent in the transaction was Julian Delaune. The rector of St.Mary’s, Father William Stack Murphy, S.J., favored the proposition, his consultors voted unanimously for it and on June 29, 1841 Murphy wrote to Father John Roothan, S.J., the Jesuit General, stating that it had been accepted and asking for his approval. Apparently, however the endorsement of the French Provincial was more vital and he stood out against the Indianapolis offer, chiefly because he had received charge of the new Mission of Canada. Bishop de la Hailandiere, however, was insistent and in the first part of 1842 sent August Martin, the vicar general, to St. Mary’s to expedite matters. He, however, had no more success than Brute had in his attempt to locate the Jesuits at South Bend. 5

Bishop Brute also tried, obviously without success, to name a Jesuit as his coadjutor. This was the previously mentioned, Fr. Nicholas Petit SJ.

Father Gilbert Garraghan, in his three volume work, “œThe Jesuits of the Middle United States” wrote:

Bishop Brute of Vincennes made repeated efforts to obtain a Jesuit for his coadjutor, having proposed to Rome in this connection the name of Father Nicholas Petit of St. Mary’s College, Kentucky. “I give up,” he wrote to Father Roothaan, [May 28, 1839.] “my prolonged and useless efforts to obtain a coadjutor from your Society.” The footnote explains:

Bishop Rosati, in seconding Brute’s petition to have Father Petit for his coadjutor, had written as follows to Propaganda:

“Reverend Father Louis [Nicholas] Petit, who is mentioned first, I consider worthiest to be chosen, in preference to the others for the office of coadjutor-bishop of the Bishop of Vincennes; for he excels in piety, learning, eloquence, knowledge of the English and French languages, as also in administrative ability. To all the faithful of that same diocese, to whom he is by no means unknown, having conducted missions among them, he would beyond doubt be highly acceptable. Besides, that he has professed the religious life in the Society of Jesus, that he is of the utmost utility and even necessity to the Kentucky Mission of the Society of Jesus, in which he is now living, that the rules of the Society do not allow of the promotion of its members to the episcopate, these circumstances, so your Eminence will judge, do not in any manner stand in the way of his election. … Is it such a mighty task to keep intact the Society of Jesus that, lest one or other of its members be raised to the episcopal dignity, the American churches must pine away for lack of pastors and grow old in their very youth? Are not the Religious Orders and Societies members of the Universal Church? Ought they not on occasion make a sacrifice of their private advantage for the common good of the Church? In fine, have they anything to fear from the promotion of their priests to American churches, which have nothing to offer to the cupidity of man? Not wealth, not honors, not leisure. Not even Ignatius himself, who as long as he lived was aflame with the most ardent zeal for the salvation of souls, the glory of God and the expansion of the Church, would in the condition of things that besets us today be opposed to his followers not merely lending but even spontaneously offering themselves to meet the needs of our churches. If there were available other priests of the secular clergy fitted for a burden that is formidable even for angelic shoulders, the worthy sons of Ignatius would indeed be left in peace.” 6

  1. Doyle, John J. 1976. The Catholic Church in Indiana, 1686-1814. Indianapolis: Criterion Press.[]
  2. Petit was born in St. Domingo in 1789. While Nicholas was still a child, his widowed mother, to escape the horrors of the revolution then raging in that island, was obliged to take her children and seek refuge in this country. She came to Baltimore, Md., with her little family, where for severa1 years she taught school, finally returning to her native place in the south of France. In France Father Petit completed his theological studies and was ordained priest, and, upon the restoration of the Society of Jesus, was enrolled among its members in 1816. Soon after he became associated with Father Gayon in those celebrated missions which did so much to revive the spirit of faith among the Catholics of France. In 1835 his superiors sent him to this country, and for eleven years he labored on the missions in the diocese of Louisville. From that field of activity he was transferred to New York, serving in 1847 as assistant to Father Larkin at the church of the Holy Name in Elizabeth Street [the first Jesuit church], later at the church of St. Vincent de Paul, and, finally, at the Jesuit church in Troy, where he died of apoplexy Feb. 1, 1855, in the sixty-sixth year of his age. Father Petit was a man of great piety and zeal, and had a particular genius for organizing processions and other religious celebrations.[]
  3. See Catholic Almanac for 1856, page 298. and”Historical Records and Studies, Vol-4 [Parts 1 & 2], October 1906 (United States Catholic Historical Society) []
  4. “When the Diocese of Vincennes was established, Sainte Marie des Lacs was the major center of Catholic life in northern Indiana ““ thanks to Stephen Badin’s initiative and the Potawatomis. Badin’s purchase of this property, north of the small town of South Bend, began a remarkable chain of events, as profiled here. That included the dramatic conclusion to the mission to Potawatomis under Louis Deseille and Benjamin Petit, and culminated as a site for Father Edward Sorin to establish his Congregation of Holy Cross and the University of Notre Dame.” [Worthy of the Gospel of Christ: A History of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne by By Joseph M. White ““ p.29] []
  5. Fr. Robert Gorman, History of the Catholic Church In Indiana, Unpublished, Archives, Archdiocese of Indianapolis[]
  6. Garraghan, Gilbert Joseph. 1938. The Jesuits of the middle United States. New York: America Press[]

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