Roman Catholics in 19th Century Indiana

Author: Sheryl D. Vanderstel, 2001

Catholicism reached the boundaries of the land that is present day Indiana long before any other of the European faiths that would eventually be transplanted in America. The early French explorers traveled through the region several times, usually by one of the waterways that crisscross the state. These explorers always traveled with a full complement of soldiers and churchmen, soldiers for protection and priests to Christianize the native population. By the late 1600s French fur traders had established trading relationships with the Native Americans here. Tiny settlements of French families grew around these trading centers. French missionary priests traveled through the area ministering to the French believers and preaching the gospel to the Native American population. These tiny French settlements were located at Ouiatanon near present day Lafayette, at the confluence of the St. Mary and St. Joseph Rivers, in present day Ft. Wayne, and on the lower Wabash at Vincennes. The missionaries that occasionally passed through these settlements heard confessions, conducted mass, administered communion, baptized, married and buried the Catholics in the area. It wasn't until 1749, however, that any church records were kept, and then only at Vincennes. It was there in 1785 that the first permanent church was constructed. St. Francis Xavier Church was, however, only a crude log cabin. (Rudolph: 25)

Until 1810, Indiana was under the jurisdiction of first the bishop of Quebec and then the Bishop of Baltimore. Finally, the area became a part of the Bardstown (Kentucky) Diocese. The bishop of this newly organized diocese was Benedict Joseph Flaget, the former pastor of the church at Vincennes. Although Flaget was very interested in helping the faithful of Vincennes and all the Catholics residing in the Indiana Territory there was little he could do for them. He had no priests to send to them and no funds for building. For the next 24 years Bishop Flaget was able to visit infrequently and send traveling priests to minister to their spiritual needs for a month or two at a time. (Rudolph: 26)

In Vincennes in late 1834, Simon William Gabriel Brute de Remur was consecrated Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Vincennes. The new diocese consisted of the entire state of Indiana and the eastern part of Illinois. Bishop Flaget had personally recruited Brute for the new post, recognizing his determination and enthusiasm for improving the lives of the Catholics in his care. Unfortunately, the new bishop had only one priest permanently assigned to the diocese. Father Simon Lalumiere, a native of Vincennes and the first Hoosier to be ordained by the Bishop of Bardstown, was working at mission sites in Daviess County. There were, however, several priests working within the diocese who were "on loan" from other dioceses. Bishop Flaget had sent a priest from Bardstown to minister to German settlements in Dearborn, Franklin and Ripley counties. Another priest from St Louis was working in the Chicago area. Finally, the Bishop of the Cincinnati Diocese sent two priests to minister to native Americans and Catholic settlers in the north central and northeast part of the state. Bishop Brute, along with these five priests, was determined to care for the Catholic citizens of the Vincennes Diocese and to prepare for the thousands of Catholic settlers they knew would be arriving in the near future. The cathedral for the new diocese was the third church constructed in Vincennes for the parish of St. Francis Xavier. The building was begun in 1826 and took nearly 14 years to complete and served as the cathedral of the diocese until 1898. It is also the burial place for the first four Bishops of Vincennes. (Rudolph: 26; Indiana 255; White: 45)

Ministry to the Native American population was originally the focus of the first Catholics in the area that was to become Indiana. Indiana's bishops maintained the importance of that ministry. With so few priests it was difficult but in 1830 Stephan Badin was sent to minister to the Potawatomis along the northern edge of the state. Badin was 62 years old when he opened his first mission school. Through the use of an interpreter he was able to develop a parish and open two additional schools for the Native Americans in the area. Badin then purchased 300 acres for the establishment of an orphanage and school. Due to his death his plan never materialized. The land was put to good use later, as the site for the University of Notre Dame. At Badin's death in 1832, Father Louis Deseille was sent to take up his ministry. Younger than Badin, Deseille still only survived the privations of life in the wilderness with the Potawatomis for 5 years. Father Deseille's death brought Father Benjamin Petit to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of the Potowatomi's. The following year, the mass removal of the entire native American population of northern Indiana began. Petit requested and received permission to accompany the Potawatomis to their new home in the west. His letters to Bishop Brute described in painful detail the privations suffered by the Indians on the trail. In early 1839, Father Petit started back east but got only as far as St, Louis until he collapsed and died in February, 1839 (Rudolph: 30)

In the spring of 1835, as soon as the roads were passable, the new bishop, accompanied by Father Lalumiere, visited every mission in the diocese. Brute found that he had about 25,00 Catholics in the diocese. He discovered that many were drifting into spiritual indifference or worse leaving the church due to the lack of priests to provide spiritual leadership and care. Brute was determined to find the funds necessary to support a Catholic ministry in the diocese and so he returned to Europe to accomplish his goal. He went to his home in Rennes, France where he convinced the Bishop of the diocese to supply him with a priest to serve as his vicar general. The new vicar-general, Father Celestine de la Hailandiere, accompanied Bishop Brute throughout Europe where they gained the support of such luminaries as the Empress of Austria and Prince Metternich. With help from such dignitaries they were able to gather much needed funds and recruit priests before they returned to Vincennes in July, 1836. (Rudolph: 26)

In 1839, following Bishop Brute's death, Father Hailandiere was consecrated as the second bishop of Vincennes. Aid from Europe continued to help Bishop Hailandiere to strengthen the ministry in Indiana but more importantly the new bishop worked to establish much needed institutions within the state. He realized that he must create Catholic institutions to train young men and women for work in the church. In 1842, he recruited Father Edward Sorin and a few brothers from the Society of the Holy Cross in France to establish a school for boys in northern Indiana. The first students arrived in 1845 and by the following year Father Sorin had obtained a charter for his school, called Notre Dame du Lac. Bishop Hailandiere recruited the Sister of Providence to establish a school for girls on land that had been acquired by Bishop Brute for that purpose. Led by Mother Theodore Guerin, six sisters arrived in Indiana and opened St. Mary Convent and School, the first Catholic institution of higher learning for women in the United States. By 1845, the Sisters obtained a charter for the school from the state. Here, the sisters also trained novitiates for their order, sometimes as many as 100 young women each year. The earliest graduates taught in Terre Haute schools. Meanwhile Father Sorin recruited sister from the Holy Cross order to come to South Bend to open a girls' school there. In 1843, the sister opened their first school, St. Mary Academy. By 1855 the sister moved the school to its present site near the campus of Notre Dame University. The institution survives today as the second oldest Catholic college for women in the US. (Rudolph: 27; Indiana: 310-311; 534-537)

Three European visits by the next Bishop of Vincennes, James Maurice de Long d' Aussac de St. Palais, continued the goal of building Catholic institutions in the state. One of his trips resulted in the arrival of a group of Swiss priests to Indiana. Bishop St. Palais sent them to minister to the ever-growing German settlements in southwestern Indiana. The bishop and the vicar-general Joseph Kundek had organized a mission center and in 1853 the newly recruited Benedictines were sent there. Called St. Meinrad the mission center was designated an abbey in 1870. Later, the Benedictines petitioned Bishop St. Palais to approve the establishment of a convent to train sisters for teaching in Catholic schools. Father Franz Josef Rudolph, the pastor the of Oldenburg parish, was also busy recruiting for the church. He invited Mother Theresa Hackelmeir of Vienna to come to Oldenburg to found a sisterhood. Arriving in 1851, she co-founded the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis. These Franciscan Sisters were trained to teach in schools and parishes or nurse in hospital and missions. In 1885, the sisters founded an academy for girls in Oldenburg. Vicar-general Kundek found another way to strengthen the Catholic presence in the state. He had been the pastor for DuBois and surrounding counties before his appointment as vicar-general and knew the area well. On his European trips, Kundek encouraged many German and Swiss to immigrate to southwestern Indiana. He went so far as to purchase land and plat the town of Ferdinand in 1840 to be settled by the Germans he recruited. (Rudolph: 27; Indiana: 109, 236-237)

During the first half of the 19th century, camp meetings were bringing thousands into membership in Protestant churches of the west. Seeing the success of this protracted and sometimes emotional ministry, the Catholic Church in Indiana developed its own revival ministry called "parish mission." Manuals outlined the procedure. Usually the parish priest invited a revival team for the duration of about a week. The guest preachers spoke to large gatherings. The emotional sermon themes targeted lax Catholics, warning of evil, resulting sins and the resultant eternity in hell. Exhorters called for repentance and a dedication to a new life. Confession and absolution was followed by a joyous communion service. A "parish mission" lasted about a week and left a parish rejuvenated and focused. One of the most active revivalists of the time was Francis Xavier Weninger, a Jesuit, originally from Austria. Weninger conducted his first revival in 1848, almost immediately after his arrival in America. Between 1850 and 1860 he conducted more than 170 parish missions in the midwest and established this revival method as an important tool for Catholic evangelization. (Rudolph: 28)

Catholicism grew substantially through the years of Bishops Brute, Hailandiere and St. Palais. Brute estimated 25,000 Catholics resided in the Dioceses of Vincennes in 1835. By 1850, the Catholic population was about 50,000. The increase was due in part to the immigration of Catholic Irish and Germans looking for land or work on the Wabash and Erie and Whitewater canals. Fertile land in southern Indiana drew progressive and industrious German farmers. By 1860, southeastern Indiana had 27 Catholic parishes. Catholics became so numerous that editorials appeared in the Rushville and Brookville papers citing the alarming "rise of Romanism" in the area. The 1860 Census showed four-fifths of Evansville's population to be German born or of German descent. Vanderburgh County and the contiguous counties were also predominantly German where Catholic parishes abounded. Irish Catholics found work on the canal and settled along the path of the Whitewater Canal in the southeastern corner of the state and the Wabash and Erie in the southwestern corner. (Rudolph: 29)

The first Catholics in Indianapolis were German and Irish immigrants, who arrived in the 1830's to work on the canal. Occasionally traveling priests or the parish priests from Logansport or Shelbyville would come to the little town. Then the Catholics in the area would gather in a private home or rented hall to celebrate mass. Finally, in November of 1837, Holy Cross, the first parish in Indianapolis, was organized. It was two years before the congregation was able to erect its own church building. Located on the north side of Washington Street at West Street, it served the nearly 200 Catholics residing in the capital. By 1850, the city began to experience a significant increase in Catholic residents, a result of the growing German migration into the state. The congregation eventually constructed a larger church at the corner of Tennessee (today's Capitol) and Georgia Streets where the congregation survives today as St. John's. Preferring to worship in their native language, the large German Catholic population formed a German parish, St. Mary's, in 1858. After the Civil War two more parishes were organized, St. Patrick and St. Joseph, and a second German parish, Sacred Heart, was formed in 1875. Before the war, several parochial schools were opened--one by the sisters from Oldenburg, another by the sisters from St. Mary's of the Woods, and another by the Holy Cross brothers from South Bend. After the war, more schools opened as well as an orphanage and home for the aged. In response to the large Catholic population concentrated in the center of the state, Bishop Chatard moved his residence to the city in 1878. The diocese name was changed officially to the Diocese of Indianapolis in 1898. As the century drew to a close, a second wave of Catholic immigrants arrived in the city. These newest residents originated from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. A variety of ethnic parishes formed in the early 20th century, such as Holy Trinity, a Slovene congregation (1906) and Holy Rosary, an Italian parish (1909). (Indianapolis: 389-390)

Because it was the last area taken from the Native Americans in Indiana, northern Indiana was settled more slowly than the southern portion. Yet by 1860, congregations of both English speaking and German speaking Catholics could be found in Lafayette and Fort Wayne, as Catholic Irish and Germans arrived to work on the canal. Irish canal workers settled in Lagro, Huntington, Wabash, Peru and Logansport. Between 1850 and 1857, the Catholic population of northern Indiana doubled. But yet again, the establishment of permanent parishes was hindered by the lack of funds and priests to serve in them. Most Catholic settlers were served by traveling missionaries; by 1860 only 27 congregations had been established in northern Indiana. This situation changed in the last quarter of the 19th century. With the rise of industrialism and improved transportation, thousands of European Catholics in search of a better life, poured into the northwest corner of Indiana. By 1900, the majority of the state's Catholics were concentrated in northern Indiana. So many Catholics in the area necessitated the division of the diocese of Ft. Wayne into three dioceses - Ft. Wayne, Lafayette and Gary. (Rudolph: 30)

Catholics in 19th century America had a tradition of convening clergy in synod to discuss problems and formulate regulations for the diocese. Held occasionally in the early years of the Vincennes Diocese, synods were convened more frequently later in the century. These gatherings were usually convened in response to the growing diverse Catholic population and the resulting complexities. Topics included theological responses to inter-faith marriages, clergy discipline, parish governance and ethnic diversity. Catholic education, parish schools, and organized labor issues were also addressed. Parochial education was a special concern as the German Catholics championed the concept as a means of retaining their language and customs in America. The movement, which began in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, was adopted nationally in 1884 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. (Rudolph: 31-32)

By the early years of the 20th century, the first Christian faith to arrive in Indiana was also among the most established and vibrant. In some areas of the state, Catholics constituted as much as 60 percent of the church-going population. In Indianapolis, Catholics comprised about 15 percent of the population but 35 percent of the church-going population. Twentieth century Catholic leaders, such as Indianapolis Diocese's Bishops Francis Silas Chatard and Joseph Chatrand, were able to strengthen the church throughout the state by promoting Catholic education, supporting Catholic charities, and serving the interests and well-being of the parishioners. (Indianapolis: 390, 406)


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