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Michael Edgar Shawe – 1793-1853

The following is a transcript from the journal “American Catholic Historical Researches”, April 1897. This journal, which at the time of this publication, was edited by Martin I.J. Griffin. The purpose of the journal was to publish documents not easily found elsewhere.


Volume-14, Number-2 – April 1897

It is, of course, satisfaction, that THE RESEARCHES is, by its patrons, recognized as a storehouse of documentary evidences of the progress of the Church and the repository of facts concerning the careers of so many who have done well in establishing the Faith in our Country. That is the, almost, sole recompense of the Editor. THE RESEARCHES is in no want of material but it is eager to have gathered records within the scope of its endeavor. Our Patrons will aid Historv in sending such records or giving information thereof so they may be procured.


AND PAUL, DETROIT, 1792-1853.

June 29, 1898, the church of Saints Peter and Paul, originally the cathedral of the diocese of Detroit, will have attained the period of the golden jubilee of its dedication ; which ceremony was performed by Arch- bishop Eccleston of Baltimore, on the festival of these Saints, June 29, 1848. At that time, Peter Paul Lefevere, Bishop of Zela, was administrator of the diocese of Detroit, by appointment in 1841; while its first and titular- bishop, de jure, Frederick Rese, D. D., resided in Rome. In the French history of Detroit during all tlie eighteenth century, the venerable church of Ste. Anne, waa the central figure of Catholic life, as it was In the progress of civilization, and of education, in this old Catholic city of the Western States ; and in fact, of the whole Northwest Territory.

Far different from that; of the eighteenth century, was the Catholic element of Detroit, during the last decade of the first half of the nineteenth and of the first and second decades of the last half of the current century. During this decennial succession the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul was to Catholic life, what the venerable mother of churches in the West had been during the previous century. But the times had changed; there was no longer the calm monotonous career of the people of the old faith in an old colonial Catholic city. New races had made their homes in Detroit; the predominating spirit of this new element was antagonistic to the Catholic religion, which would have been crushed out of existence, had not Bishop Lefevere (t fought the good fight,” aided as he was by distinguished priests, and with a following largely composed of that English speaking race of Celtic origin, whose zeal and liberality has done so much to lay the solid foundations of the Catholic Church from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

One of the priests in the bishop’s household during the first decade of, his administration, was Father Shawe, as he was familiarly known in the city. I made his acquaintance under circumstances illustrating his innate gentleness, and the race breeding of the gentleman be was. My mother had embroidered a pair of slippers which she intended should be. a birthday gift for Father Cullen, an outline of whose missionary career I wrote for the October number of THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC HISTORICAL RE-SEARCHES. The missionary had been at the episcopal residence for a few days and was about to return to Ann Arbor, on the eve of his birthday. But the slippers having been sent to the shoe-maker to be soled and completed, were not returned to our house until about 9 o’clock in the evening, while Father Cullen was to leave town early on the following morning. Determined her friend should receive his birthday gift at the time she intended, my mother placed the slippers in a box and charged me to deliver them to Father Cullen in her behalf, on that evening. At this time the episcopal residence stood in the centre of the square of that part of the domain of Ste. Anne, fronting on the west side of Randolph Street between the present lines of Congress and Lamed Streets; our house was two squares above, on Congress Street.

The general entrance to the Bishop’s houae was by a short passage from the sidewalk on Randolph, on the south side of the main building I pulled the bell twice and although the metallic response might be heard a square distant no one came to open the door, I was about to ring a third time, when two persons came into the passage, one of whom was tall and wore glasses, the other was of medium stature. Both wore cloaks, a garment much in vogue by gentlemen at that period.

The tall person was about to introduce a key into the lock, when he noticed me standing near. The night was clear; somewhat astonished he looked at me and said:
What do you want?
The manner in which these words were spoken was to say the least abrupt. I replied as politely as I could:
Father, I want to see Father Cullen.
You can’t see Mr. Cullen at this time of night.
Opening the door with his key the tall person passed in; his companion turned to me and in kindly tones said : Why do you want to see Father Cullen my lad?

The tall person was Very Rev. Peter Kindekens, vicar general and theologian of Bishop Lefevere, and theological mentor of the dozen or more young Belgians domiciled in the house in preparation for ordination ; the one who spoke to me so kindly was Father Shawe, The former had such a poor opinion of American youth, that both he and the bishop firmly believed a vocation for the priesthood would never be developed among them.

Won by the manner, I said: Father I want very much to see Father Cullen to give him a birthday present which my mother has prepared for him and which is in this box.
Well my lad! Come with me and we will give him your mother’s present.
I followed; the room of Father Shawe was on the second floor, we entered, he lit the gas. I opened the box and showed him the slippers; he examined them, admired the embroidery, read the card; and said: Your mother’s present is beautiful. Taking the box in his hand he went into the hall, rapped at one of the doors and receiving a response he called me.

Is this Father Cullen?
Yes! Is that you, Richard?
It is Father, here is a birthday present from mother.
There was no light in the hall but I knew the voice well, and handing in the box said good night. Taking my arm Father Shawe led me down stairs to tha entrance, but before I left he enquired where we lived, and said: tell your good mother I will call some of these days. He did call; the most friendly relationship ensued, ending only by his untimely death.

When the saintly Bishop Brute began his apostolic work in Indiana in 1837, he gathered under his Christian standard some remarkably brilliant young men, mostly his own countrymen; among these were Benoit, La Hailandiere, LaLumiere, de St. Palais, and Shawe. Gifted and zealous young heroes they were, some of noble race; they were no ordinary men. But when one reads now, as it has been my privilege, after the lapse of more than 60 years, the letters of Bishop Brute to Father Shawe, during this missionary period, it is difficult to overcome the feeling of love and veneration excited by their perusal for the writer nor to feel more or less of that fervor, hope, and confidence in Almighty God, that veneration for the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, which every word and line seems to evoke from the heart, as the eye takes in the inspired emanations from his pen. If such was the effect of his letters, how powerful must have been his personal influence over his young and zealous co-workers in this missionary field?

It was under such auspices that the sacerdotal career of Father Shawe began in America. He was the only English speaking priest at first engaged in the evangelical work directed by Bishop Brute. He heroically shared the labors of his associates, although he reaped not the recognized honors some of them were subsequently crowned with. He was born in Devonshire, England, in 1792 ; he came of an old Catholic family of noble ancestry and he numbered among his friends and relatives, the Talbots, the Howards, and the Bedingfelds, names of hereditary renown in the peerage of England. His Alma Mater was St. Mary’s, Oscott.

When quite young, and during the eventful wars which closed the career of Napoleon, he entered the British army which the commission of captain in the cavalry service. He shared in the exciting campaigns on the continent, won distinction and promotion, in the campaign which ended at Waterloo, while in command of a squadron of British cavalry, ho experienced some sharp hand to hand fighting ; a French cuirassier officer engaged him in personal combat; the Frenchman’s sabre aimed at the neck of the young Englishman was parried; a second stroke was again parried; the third stroke deviated and made an ugly cut, diagonally across his nose, a rather a prominent feature in his face, but he cleft the helmet and skull of the unfortunate cuirassier with a powerful blow which nearly cut him to the saddle.

He was, however, later in the day cut down, unhorsed, and left upon the field with the dead and wounded piled on him and around him. His subordinate officers reported him killed. While all England and Europe rejoiced at the eclipse of Napoleon, there was mourning in very many families on both sides of the channel, especially was this so in England, Ireland, and Scotland. The victory of Waterloo, achieved to a great extent by British valor, was not won without a great sacrifice of Celtic and English life. In the cottage, in the homes of the well to do, as well as in the manor houses and castles throughout the British realm, there was mourning. In the long list which the War Office published of those killed at Waterloo, appeared the name of:

Shawe; St. Michael, Edgar, Evelyn, Major 13th Regiment light cavalry, body not recognized.

But the young soldier had not been killed. When the searching parties of the British surgeons and their assistants made their melancholy rounds over that deadly field, Major Shawe was found alive; he was carried to one of the improvised field hospitals; he had been literally cut to pieces; his wounds proved to be serious but none of them were fatal.

In time he recovered sufficiently to be taken to Bourdon, a village near Amiens, in the Department of the Somme, France, a locality selected by his mother, who had crossed the channel in the hope of finding the remains of her only child, but who, to her great joy, had found him alive in the military hospital of his brigade.
Under the unremitting care of his fond mother his life was saved, but he lingered for years a helpless invalid; nursed by that mother until he finally recovered a portion of his normal vigor and health.

To save her son, this devoted woman had sacrificed her own life; she had become an invalid. The nightly vigil, the daily care, the maternal anxiety, had sapped the vigor of her delicate physique to such an extent, that Major Shawe exchanged places and became as devoted a nurse to his mother, as she had been to her son. But while she saved his life, no efforts of his could save the life of his mother, although years passed before she was called to her eternal reward. She was laid to rest in the cemetery of Bourdon, and I have before me the certificate of Louis Denamps cure’ of this ancient parish, who prepared her for the consummation of her maternal sacrifice.

The death of his mother saddened the young life of Major Shawe. He sought distraction in travel, visiting the principal cities of Continental Europe. He still retained his military rank, and he was enabled by the influence of his noble friends to continue abroad on a prolonged leave of absence from his regiment. While visiting some young Austrian officers in Vienna, be was induced to become a postulant for admission to the Noble and Military Order of Teutonic Knights of Germany; whose chapter house was at Vienna, and whose Grand Master, by hereditary creation, was a Grand Duke of the Austrian Empire.

I mention this fact in support or what I have stated as to the nobility of race of Major Shawe. To become a Teutonic Knight, the postulant had to produce official testimony that he was entitled to bear 16 distinct quarterings of nobility ; Major Shawe produced the evidence of the Herald of Arms of London, that he was entitled to claim 32 distinct quarterings and with this document was 1,000 Austrian florins, the entrance fee required. He was created a Teutonic Knight, and I have seen the massive gold Teutonic cross he always wore concealed upon his person, and the knightly ring of this aristocratic Order, which he sometimes wore upon his left hand.

About this time Major Shawe exchanged-many letters with his young friends and kinsmen, students at the time. of St. Mary’s Oscotfc. I have read these letters, which came to me among other personal relics, as an executor. Why I mention them now, is to record the fact that they show a race hatred existing among English Catholics 70 or more years ago, which I firmly believe still prevails in the families of the old Tory hereditary nobility standing near the British throne, who have never changed from the old faith.

At that time higher education was not attainable for Catholic young men in Ireland, unless provided by a private tutor. A Catholic parent having means, and wishing to give his son a collegiate education, had to choose between an Irish anti-Catholic universities, or send his son out of the country either to St. Mary’s 03cotfc, to Paris, or to other continental cities. To some wealthy fathers the choice depended upon personal experience under similar circumstances; but at the time, there were manyj-rish parents of good family, but of moderate means who wanted to give their sons a collegiate education who chose St. Mary’s Oscott, because of its nearness and moderate expense.

The correspondents of Major Shawe were mostly sons of peers of old English Catholic stock. It would be Imagined these young men would ad-mire the sacrifice made by Irish parents to provide the cost of an education in a Catholic college like that of Oscott; this seems not to have been considered; the letters of these young tories constantly refer to the arrivals of young Irish students, in a language which plainly showed that a unity of faith cut no figure, and that a race prejudice was so deeply rooted as to obliterate all other consideration. Alluaiona to the young Irish student’s dress, to his brogue, or to other national peculiarities were made in these Setters in language quite offensive,

The death of his mother under such circumstances as have been related., had so affected the spirits of Major Shawe, that all the distractions sought for by travel and society, failed to restore his mind to a cheerful state.

His position in the army offered but little chance for promotion, while under the then existing prospects of a continuous European peace, his future career seemed to promise only a life of aimless inactivity. His thoughts were turned to a career less worldly, but more heroic; more exciting and perhaps in his case somewhat romantic. He resolved to enter the priesthood and engage in missionary work. He retired from the army and entered the college of St. Sulpice in Paris in pursuance of that determination; he had received minor orders. It was after this event that he attracted the notice of Bishop Brute, while the latter was recruiting his missionary force among the elite of the young ecclesiastics at the time in Paris.

St. Michael, Edgar, Evelyn, Shawe, was ordained by Bishop Brute at Vincennes, March 12, 1837, and soon afterwards commenced missionary work in a district of country which would be difficult to describe. The greater part of Indiana at the time comprising the spiritual fold of Bishop Brute was sparsely settled and by a population to whom the expression ^poor white trash,” would most fitly apply to their condition generally.

Crude as this people are reported to have been, they appear not to have-been adverse to religious instruction; here ,and there, were to be found Catholic families, or groups of settlers originally Catholics, but who for want of pastoral care had lapsed, in some cases to Methodism, or who in other cases, and frequently, had become disinclined to submit to religious-control ; but there were also to be found many Catholic families of intelligence and respectability.

Father Shawe was the only priest to whom the English language was. natural, on this mission during the early years of its history. Whenever he found himself in a place of any considerable size, he made arrangements to preach; it was all the same to him whether his audience was to be Catholic or mixed; he usually drew full houses, for an English sermon from a man as eloquent as he was reputed to be and so gifted in the use of his mother tongue, was a rare treat in those days and in those regions; rough mannered as the people are reported to have been, they seemed to have had a great inclination to hear eloquent preachers. So familiar had he become in the use of the French language, that he could preach a French sermon whenever such became necessary; he could also preach in the German language, and from his ability to use these languages he was well adapted for the apostolic work in which he was engaged.

His voice was clear and strong, his figure robust, while his gentle and pleasing manner toned down the martial air which his army life had indelibly left upon him. His face was florid, his hair black, and his rather prominent nose, on which the cicatrices of the transverse cut of the sabre of the French cuirassier officer at Waterloo was plainly visible, was a leading feature in his countenance.

One decided trait in his character should be mentioned; he was proud of his mother country, whose aristocratic government, whose institutions, and whose laws he admired, and had strong faith in. I do not hesitate to say Father Shawe was the most intensified Englishman I ever met. What he saw in Indiana of our own system of government, taken in connection at that time with the ill treatment and wrongs inflicted in the forced removal of Catholic Indian tribes, did not tend to create in his mind much respect for American institutions. This peculiar pride of race and this marked nationality in the make up of Father Shawe, was probably the cause of estrangements after his beloved bishop’s death, with his brother priests and ecclesiastical superiors. They were all Frenchmen, while but a comparatively short period previously he had crossed swords with their defeated countrymen and friends. Besides, at that time in that diocese, French influence was paramount; it ruled and shaped results, and it so remained until the advent of a new episcopacy.

During his missionary experience it became the lot of Father Shawe to be settled in Madison, Indiana. In that city he founded and built St. Michael’s Church, dedicated to his great patron saint. To do this he used a portion of his private fortune, and to release the church from the debt remaining after completion, he had to beg for means in the eastern cities and in Canada.

Deaths, resignations, and changes in the Episcopacy of Vincennes, joined to climatic effects on his health induced Father Shawe to retire from active missionary labors.
Father Sorin invited him to assume the chair of English Literature in the University of Notre Dame, which invitation he accepted; he organized a faculty for an English course, laid the foundation of its efficiency, and of the prominent place it occupies in this great institution of learning.

Desiring once more to mingle with the world, to enjoy that refined society in which he was so well adapted to shine, and to enjoy moreover, living among a people whose language was akin to his own, he bade adieu to the President and Faculty of Notre Dame and came to Detroit in 1845.

He was received by Bishop Lefevere and assigned to the pastorate of the Irish Catholic congregation of Trinity Church. When the cathedral was dedicated in June 1848—Trinity was closed, while its congregation was transferred to the cathedral of which Father Shawe became first pastor. In Detroit at the time, there was Ste. Anne’s, for the Catholics of the French race; and St. Mary’s, for the German Catholics; Saints Peter and Paul was the only English speaking congregation in all the city.

Consequently the pastor of such a congregation had a large jurisdiction with much responsibility, and no end of parochial work. In this position, the many brilliant qualities of Father Shawe, his great piety, his watchful care of the religious and temporal interests of his parishioners, his charitable work, joined to his great eloquence in the pulpit won for him the love and esteem of the people. No man was better known in Detroit among all creeds and classes than Father Shawe. He was highly esteemed and respected by Bishop Lefevere and his episcopal household. Kind hearted by nature he was liberal in the use of his personal fortune for the alleviation of distress.

The misery entailed by the Irish famine caused the emigration of many families who landed upon our shores in destitute circumstances; tor the relief of such of these unfortunates as found their way to Detroit, he organized the Irish Emigrant Society and placed funds at the disposition of its officers for use when necessary. Solicitous for the welfare of the working classes he founded the Guild of Saints Peter and Paul, after the model of the English Guilds for workingmen and mechanics.

He was a priest who took especial pride in having all the ceremonies in the cathedral conducted on a scale worthy of Mother Church; he had the acolytes finely robed, and he drilled them to march with military precision. It was, however, in the pulpit, that this distinguished man appeared to great advantage. His exuberance of ideas proper to the subject; his great command of words, his pathos, his splendid voice, which he knew how to use to advantage, and his vigor of expression, combined to make him a great pulpit orator.

Since the Jesuits have had control of the old church many brilliant men have occupied its pulpits; I have listened to most of them, and I have been charmed and affected in turn; but I have never been moved, nor my soul stirred as it has been by the eloquence of Father Shawe. Father Shawe was a welcome as well as an honored guest in the highest circles of the Catholic, as well as of the non Catholic society of Detroit.

Such was the alumnus of St. Mary’s Oscott; ci devant British major of cavalry at Waterloo; priest of the missions of Indiana under Bishop Brute ; Professor of English Literature in the University of Notre Dame; and last of all pastor over all the English speaking Catholics of Detroit attending the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. I have said that the most friendly relations existed between my family and Father Shawe. Our old homestead was about half way between the episcopal residence and the cathedral; It was for our dear friend a “half way house”, and he was happy when he came there.

As an Englishman, as a man who had seen life in European capitals and as a man who could enjoy a well spread repast, Father Shawe was all that an accomplished gentleman was required to be; but there the worldly attributes of his personality ended. As a priest, he was a rigid adherer to all the proprieties which the sacerdotal state required from its members; and to all that was strict in the observance of priestly life. But the Belgian regime in the episcopal residence was, to say the least, a peculiar one. The cuisine of the house may been good enough for the ecclesiastical students, but it was not satisfactory to all its inmates; take for instance the coffee at breakfast. The custom was to have a large kettle of coffee boiled, this was then diluted with milk, sweetened with sugar, boiled again, and served in its diluted state. Many priests who fast mornings, are invigorated by a cup of coffee al naturel. Father Shawe was one of these; and it was his custom after he offered his mass on weekday and on Sunday mornings, to stop in at my mother’s, to get his cup of good coffee and other dishes he was fond of for breakfast. The side door led to the hall next the dining room ; he never pulled the bell or knocked, but put his smiling genial face inside the door, a face which would care melancholia, came in and took his seat where his plate was always placed to await his coming. For the 5 years preceding his death Father Sbawe had been a welcome guest early or late and always sans ceremonie. To cite an example of what a chef Bishop Lefevere had, it may be mentioned, that during a hunting season, one of Father Shawe’s friends sent him a haunch of fat venison, to the episcopal residence.

The recipient mentioned the gift to the bishop and asked if if might not be served for dinner on Sunday. Certainly said the prelate, and I will tell the cook accordingly. The fine haunch was served for dinner Sunday but it was boiled and over boiled. In all my intercourse with Father Shawe, I found underlying his pleasing and at times jovial manner, a decided, ever succeeding, tinge of melancholy. Some hidden sorrow beyond a question saddened his heart. What if was did not concern me; I was satisfied with the man as he was.

On April 30, 1853, the bishop was to dedicate the Church of the Assumption at Connors Creek 9 miles from the cathedral. Father Shawe was to assist, but while on the way on that fine Sunday morning an accident occurred to his carriage, and by the Providence of Almighty God he was thrown to the ground, and his person, which had been hacked by the sabre and riddled by bullets in war, bruised and battered in missionary adventure in the sparse settlements of Indiana, received such grievous wounds, that heroic to endure though he was, were too much for him.

His death being imminent, he made his final testamentary arrangements, included in which was $2,000 for St. Michael’s Church which he had founded in Madison, Indiana. Having provided liberally for all his priestly obligations he bade farewell to friends and to the world and prepared to meet his God as calmly as if he was about to commence the Holy Sacrifice. It happened that Very Rev. Father Bernard, Provincial of the Redemptorists, was visiting his order in Detroit. He it was who prepared the dying soldier—priest for eternity. His death occurred May 10, 1853. His requiem was chanted by Bishop Lefevere assisted by the clergy of the diocese. His panegyric was eloquently and feelingly delivered by the great Redemptorist Chief who had prepared him for death.

His remains were laid to rest by loving hands in Mount Elliott Cemetery, and since, over his ashes, has been placed a monumental stone, on which has been cut his family crest, his Teutonic cross, his name, his titles, and the mention of his works. For his soul long since we have prayed: Requiscat in peace.

A half length portrait of Father Shawe. was painted in 1851, by Cohen, for Mr. James E. Eagle, a protégé of the priest. This picture was cut from its frame during the great Chicago fire of 1873 and saved. It now hangs in Mr. Eagle’s’ parlor 470 Elm Street, Chicago. A copy of the original was painted by the same artist during the same .year. This portrait now hangs in our old homestead 134 Congress Street East, at present occupied by my younger brother, James R. Elliott; both pictures are vivid reminders of one we dearly loved.



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