A pilgrimage to Vincennes

The Minor Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in Vincennes looks much the same as it did 150 years ago. The Message file photo

By Maria Sermersheim

Special to The Message

As we celebrate 75 years as the Diocese of Evansville, it is only right to reflect on our history and the roots of our Church in southern Indiana. We are blessed to be home to the oldest church in Indiana and possess a rich history in Vincennes; to learn more, I made a small pilgrimage to the Minor Basilica of St. Francis Xavier – known by many as Old Cathedral – earlier this year.

Many thanks to St. Francis Xavier Parish Administrator Rev. Tony Ernst and secretaries Kathy Lane and Mary Ernst, who coordinated my visit; and especially to parishioner Pamela Nolan, who graciously served as the most kind-hearted and enthusiastic guide through the Basilica, its Library and Museum.

Here I will share some highlights of our history and heritage, and offer points of interest in the hopes that it may inspire you to make your own pilgrimage to Vincennes.

When Abraham Lincoln was a child and relocating with his family, he took the Buffalo Trace Ferry across the Wabash in Vincennes; if he looked left, he saw the unfinished cathedral, our current Minor Basilica of St. Francis Xavier. Surrounding the Old Cathedral, you’ll find other historic structures, such as the rectory (1841), remains of St. Gabriel’s College (founded 1837), the Old Cathedral Grade School (1884), and the significant George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. These sites memorialize the rich tradition of our faith, education and American history rooted in Vincennes.

A Catholic presence has been situated along the Wabash since 1732 when the first fort (of five in Vincennes!) was established because the French king decreed that every fort must have a chapel. For a long time, though, the area was only ministered to by Jesuit missionary priests. The foundations for the current St. Francis Xavier were finally laid in 1826, and it became the cathedral for the newly declared Diocese of Vincennes in 1834.

Walking into the basilica today is nothing like Servant of God Bishop Simon Guillaume Gabriel Bruté’s experience in 1834, when he was installed as the first bishop of the 13th diocese of the United States — the Diocese of Vincennes. This area included the entire state of Indiana and the eastern third of Illinois, including the “village of Chicago.”

The cathedral was barren and unfinished, a far cry from its current magnificence. Today, the basilica appears much as it did in 1870, except for some structural reinforcements incorporated during remodeling in 2007. The beautiful Stations of the Cross paintings were imported from France, while the wooden frames were constructed locally. Just in front of the right altar, you will find the entrance to the crypt.

The first four bishops of the Diocese of Vincennes, all native Frenchmen, are buried in the back alcove of the crypt. They include Bishops Bruté, Célestine Guynemer de la Hailandière, John Stephen Bazin, and Jacques Maurice de St. Palais. Their episcopal coats of arms are painted on the crypt chapel walls, but Bishop Bruté didn’t have one; his was posthumously designed.

Painted on the ceiling is Vincennes’ own “Six Flags,” which can also be seen flying outside along Vigo Street. These six flags represent the intersection of national influences in this historic place; some of the flags are slightly inaccurate, possibly because they were still being developed or due to poor communication during the time period when they were flown or painted. The flags include “the Indian banner” to represent the local Native Americans, the French Colonial Colors for the first European settlers, the Royal Spanish Standard because of their trade influence, the King’s Colors for the time of British control, the regimental flag of one of George Rogers Clark’s units, and an early United States flag. The incredible convergence of these influences is uniquely displayed in the Library and Museum behind the Old Cathedral.

Identified by President John Adams as “The most learned man of his day in America,” Bishop Bruté contributed significantly to the strengthening of Catholicism and education in Indiana, particularly our southwestern corner. The Old Cathedral Library was built in 1840 for Bruté’s 5,000+ books in a variety of languages. Lilly Endowment, Inc., provided a grant to build the new library and museum building in 1968.

Here you can follow our fascinating local history, viewing Native American artifacts; the traveling chalice and paten of Father Stephen Theodore Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States, who also donated the land on which the University of Notre Dame was founded; the Bible St. Elizabeth Ann Seton held as she died, which was a gift to her from our very own Bishop Bruté, her close friend, confessor and advisor; and so much more.

The museum also has the chalice and paten of Father Benjamin Marie Petit, who served the Potawatomi tribe and even accompanied them on the lesser-known Trail of Death in 1838. I highly recommend you read his story, keeping in mind that a descendant of Nan-Wesh-Mah (Abram Burnett), today a priest, returned to Vincennes about 15 years ago and celebrated Mass with Father Petit’s chalice and paten in his honor. The religious, educational and historic ties to Vincennes extend far through both space and time.

In the museum, you will also see that both Father Edward Sorin (founder of the University of Notre Dame) and St. Mother Theodore Guerin (foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods) turned to the Diocese of Vincennes and came to the basilica for support, advice and direction. St. Mother Theodore stayed in the rectory for a time, too. It was stunning to consider: a saint slept here. A saint walked these paths.

Toward the Wabash, you will find a cemetery where Father Jean Francois Rivet, known as “Indiana’s First Public School Teacher” is buried. The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park and monument stands nearby, just 18 feet short of the height of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Also honored is the “Patriot Priest” Father Pierre Gibault, whose statue stands in front of the basilica; and Francis Vigo, a parishioner whose financing and insider information was instrumental in aiding George Rogers Clark and the Revolutionary War efforts, so much so that the street in front of the Old Cathedral and a county farther north are named after him.

I have not scratched the surface of these two men’s influences, much less that of Bishop Bruté and the Diocese of Vincennes as a community of these dedicated and hearty pioneers. As the plaque on the Cathedral reads, this place truly was the “center of growth ... and scene of the great events.” I hope you take the time to familiarize yourselves and your families with this scene and journey again to the center. This pilgrimage illuminates the tenacity of humble beginnings, the riches and strength in relationships and interconnectedness, and more than anything, of course, the prevailing grace of God.

The basilica is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time every day, but no one is on duty for tours. The Library is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time Monday through Friday during the summer (from Memorial Day until the start of school in early August). You can call the Vincennes/Knox County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 812-886-0400 to set up any tours for the Cathedral and Library at any point during the year. They will schedule tour guides at that time for groups of any size.