The History of the Catholic Church in Indiana — Indiana Saints

Benjamin Petit,
Reverend Benjamin Marie Petit, of the City of Rennes, France, arrived as the Catholic missionary to the Potawatomi Indians in northern Indiana in November 1837. By June 1838, he had learned much of their difficult language and their culture, and had instructed and baptized many. "'We were orphans,' they said to me, 'and as if in darkness, but you appeared among us like a great light, and we live'," Father Petit wrote to his mother in France. The Indians begged their "Father Black Robe" to accompany them on their forced removal from Indiana in September 1838. His superior, Bishop Simon Brute` of Vincennes, Indiana, finally consented, in time for him to join them enroute at Danville, Illinois, ministering to their needs, both spiritual and material on their march to Kansas territory.
 [Taken from the Fulton County Historical Society  celebrating the anniversary of the "Trail of Death"]

Benjamin Petit died in St. Louis on February 10, 1839. In his book The Trail of Death, Irving McKee writes in his conclusion: "FATHER PETIT did not live to see his Bishop again. Exhausted by his strenuous journey and weakened by successive attacks of fever, he died at St. Louis on February 10, 1839. He was not quite twenty nine years old, On February 18 Father Elet, sent an account of his death to Bishop Brute “I have absolutely no doubt that Your Reverence has rc ceived our good Father Carroll’s letter revealing the great loss your diocese has just suffered in the person of M, Petit, It remains for me to narrate the consoling and edifying details of his last moments in order to lessen the pain which such a loss must have caused youi; paternal heart, “M. Petit arrived at St. Louis on January 15 (1 believe), not only exhausted but reduced by fever, which he had had three times in four months, to a pitiable state. God in His goodness rnust have given him strength which his body no longer possessed in order that he might have the consolation of coming among his confreres here to end his days and that we might have the happiness of showing charity toward a worthy and lovable man and of being edified by his virtues, “How his name suited him! By his unalterable gentleness, his good humor, he showed himself the Benjamin of all those who could appreciate his good qualities; by his modesty, his humility, he was Petit in his own eyes, although great iii the eyes of God and of all those who understood his true greatness. What patience, what resignation in his suffering! What lively gratitude for those who served him in his illness! But espe cially, what tender piety toward the Savior’s Mother! “The eve of the Purification he asked my permission to celebrate Holy Mass the next day in honor of the Mother of Goodness who had protected him from his earliest youth and whom he had never ceased to love. The desire he showed was so great that, although I felt some danger on account of his extreme weakness, I granted his request. I therefore arranged an altar in the room next to his, a fire was made there early in the morning, and he said his last Mass there, “If your Reverence thinks I did wrong in acceding to his request, impose a penance upon me and I shall promptly accept it. M. Petit, although very weak, suffered less and slept soundly (he had not been able to do this for many weeks) during the nights of the 3d, 4th, and 5th, and he felt much relieved, “But on the 6th the symptoms Of his illness were such as to leave no room for hope. . . “All remedies were useless, because he was destined for Heaven. He grew worse hour,ly, and on the 8th he received the sacraments of the dying with angelic piety. Toward eve ning on the ioth they came to tell me that his end was ap proaching. I hastened to him immediately, and, upon seeing me come in, he raised his head to greet me; with a sweet smile upon his dying lips he nodded. I asked him if he was suffer ing greatly. He replied to me only by casting an expressive look upon the crucifix which hung beside his bed, ‘You mean to say,’ I responded. immediately, grasping his thought, ‘that He suffered more for you?’ ‘Ah, yes!’ was his answer. At the same time I held the crucifix to his lips, and he kissed it tenderly twice. His confessor was busy at this moment; 1 prepared him again to receive absolution, which I gave him, “At ten o’clock in the evenil-Ig I was called again: he was in agony. I went immediately and with several others I re cited the prayers for the agonizing. His eyes were fixed constantly on us, and at the conclusion he asked for water, Retaining consciousness to the end, he quietly expired twenty minutes before midnight, February jo, 1839. “Following the custom of our society, I had him clothed in full sacerdotal vestments, and he was then placed on view in the library. On the i ith, at o’clock in the evening, the whole community assembled in the chapel to recite the office of the dead. On the 12th all the fathers said Mass for the repose of his soul; the other members took part. At 9 o’clock of the same day the service took place. All the students were assembled; the temporal coadjutors, the scholastics, the fathers, th priests of the cathedral, the two bishops, the celebrant in a cope with two assistants in tunics went in procession with the body, which was borne in a casket covered with black velvet which was carried by eight students, each wearing a scarf of mourning. I sang Mass, and Mgr. Loras, at the request of Mgr. Rosati, gave absolution. A great number of Catholics on horseback and in carriages accompanied the body to the cemetery, where I blessed the grave and performed the last rites, . . Father Petit’s body was brought back to St. Mary’s Lake, site of the University of Notre Dame, in i86. The remnants, of Petit’s little flock of Catholic Indians were left in go’od hands, Under Father Hoecken’s supervision a church was erected at Pottawatomie Creek, and temporary shelters of bark and canvas were put up. In March, 1839, the tribe moved about twenty miles southward to the banks of Sugar Creek in Linn County, Kansas, a country remote from white settlers and offering an abundance of timber and sugar. A large log church was erected there, and more permanent homes were built. The arrival of new missionaries made possible the opening of a school, In 1840 more Potawatomi emigrants from Indiana arrived, In 1848 all the Potawatorni in the West were gathered together at St. Marys, about one hundred forty miles northwest of Sugar Creek, on the northern bank of the Kansas River,2 Here they remained until the Civil War, when, threatened by the Confederate forces and by the western Plains Indians, they scattered north and south. At present most of them are living on reserves in Kansas and Oklahoma,3 2See Father Hoecken’s diary in Kinsella, History of Our Cradle Land, pp. 225-36; Father M. Gailland’s diary, printed in Woodstock Letters, VI (1877), 8-i8. ‘In 3937 there were 2,667 Potawatomi on the reserve in Oklahoma, T,013 on the reserve in Kansas, and 142 in Michigan, U. S, Secretary of the Interior, Annual Report, 2937, pp, 254, 255, 258.

   1) Father U A, Elet to Bishop Brute, February i8, 1839, translated from a photostat in the University of Notre Dame Archives from the original in the Chancery Office, Indianapolis. Sec also L M. Pin to Bishop Brute, February 7 and 24, i539, Father Mathias Loras to Bishop Brute, February IT, 1839, Father James Oliver Van de Velde to Bishop Brute, March 24, 1839, photostats in University of Notre Dame Archives from originals in Chancery Office at Indianapolis; Bishop Brute to Father Elet, February 28, 5839, St. Louis University Archives; Bishop Brute’s sermon on Petit, February i8, T830, reprinted from Cafliolic Telegraph in Catholic Advocate, March 23, 1839.