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Overlooked Scholarship on Brute

In May 2020, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism published an interview with a scholar named Mitchell Oxford who had received a Research Travel Grant in 2019 from the Cushwa Center for his dissertation project,”The French Revolution and the Making of an American Catholicism, 1789″“1870.” The article was an interview performed by Peter Cajka, an Assistant Teaching Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies. The article is very interesting, but in particular for someone who is always on the lookout for information and writing about Servant of God, Bishop Simon Brute.

Here are some quotes from the article, which you can read in its entirety by going here

French clerics like Dubourg, (Bishop of New Orleans), whose royalist sympathies were well known, could attract the animosity of American Catholics intent on demonstrating their republican bona fides. However, most French immigrants took pains to reconcile their royalism with their loyalty to the United States. Perhaps none squared this circle as succinctly””or honestly””as did the Reverend Simon Brute, who appealed to a”second French nature” to explain his insoluble political affinities. The arrival of figures like Brute infused existing American Catholic antipathies toward the French Revolution with a vitriol born of personal experience, while their intellectual efforts helped to shape a Catholic politics in America that was distinctive within the Catholic world.

I am always drawn to the letters of Simon Brute, a figure whose importance to American Catholicism extends even beyond his lofty reputation as a seminary professor and frontier bishop. Born in France in 1779, Brute came of age amid the French Revolution, studied for the priesthood after Napoleon reopened the seminaries, and was recruited to America in 1810 by fellow Frenchman Bishop Benedict Flaget of Bardstown, Kentucky (the country’s first episcopal see west of the Alleghenies).

Brute became an esteemed professor of theology, first at Saint Mary’s in Baltimore and then at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, where he remained for most of his career. In 1834, a 55-year-old Brute was appointed bishop of the newly erected diocese of Vincennes, Indiana, where he died five years later. throughout his long tenure at Mount St. Mary’s, Brute was a much-beloved confidant, confessor, teacher, and friend to a wide array of individuals far more familiar than he to students of American Catholicism.

Alongside Mount St. Mary’s founder Father John Dubois””who was made bishop of New York in 1826 “” Brute helped train a generation of leading American churchmen, including future archbishops of New York John Hughes and John McCloskey. He also served as spiritual director for Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton to her death in 1821.

During his years at”The Mount,” Brute developed relationships with leading Catholics across the United States. On the arrival of Bishop John England to Charleston in 1820, Brute quickly became his frequent interlocutor, as well as an occasional contributor to Bishop England’s U.S. Catholic Miscellany””the country’s first Catholic newspaper.

He likewise carried on a lively correspondence with the North Carolina jurist William Gaston. A lawyer, U.S. Representative, and eventually a justice of his state’s supreme court, Gaston was perhaps the country’s most prominent Catholic politician in the early 19th century. Introduced when Gaston sent his daughters to Mother Seton’s school, Brute and Gaston corresponded regularly from the late 1810s to Brute’s death. The Diocese of Charleston Collection at Notre Dame holds over 150 of Brute’s letters to”mon cher Gaston.” Given Brute’s extensive connections to Catholics across America and throughout the Atlantic world, he was a superlative source of information for the leaders of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, when it began its work in the 1820s.

The document I’ve highlighted””an 1828 letter from Brute to the Rev. Joseph Gignoux in Bordeaux “” comes from the Society’s microfilmed records found at Notre Dame, and exhibits some of Brute’s characteristically vivid style.

In densely packed prose and expansive rhetorical flourishes, Brute thanked his”good friend of over twenty years” for a shipment of religious objects that had recently arrived in Maryland. This included books, two porcelain images of the Virgin, and two crucifixes, which were”relics that I have long searched for and nearly despaired of finding.” Brute spent most of his letter giving details on the Church’s progress in America, and how the Society’s contributions were helping to advance the Catholic faith.

What I find especially charming””and what I’ve featured in this excerpt””is that Brute’s letters are brimming with delightful sketches and drawings. These are often mere doodles: hearts, crosses, birds, flowers and the like. But in this case, Brute had a more didactic intention. This map, he told Father Gignoux, was meant to illustrate both the prodigious growth of Catholicism in America, but also its great need:”Oh, if we could fully convince all Europe of the extreme importance of doing all that one might for this America!”

Brute’s drawing neatly marks out the extent of the American Church by the late 1820s. What had been a single, extensive Diocese of Baltimore in 1790 now numbered ten dioceses stretching from Boston to St. Louis, and though this map””as with Brute’s letter””centers on the Church in his adopted country, it is framed within a Catholic world extending from St. Domingue to the Sandwich Isles (that is, from Haiti to Hawaii) and from Mexico to Quebec.”Take out your atlas,” he instructed his friend,”and see the country that your zeal has touched.”

Take a look at the map, drawn by Brute by going here. It is very similar to the one he drew years later showing his own diocese of Vincennes.


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