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The Story of Notre Dame
Sorin and the Indians
1843



Painting by Luigi Gregori


Towards the end of the extraordinary winter of 1842-1843, on the 15th of March, a remarkable event happened in the mission of St. Mary's of the Lakes, which alone was more than enough to console our new missionaries in the little trials unavoidably imposed upon them by the rigor of the season and its unprecedented duration, (the snow covering the ground for full five months, with the exception of two days) two serious causes of the sufferings of the country at large, but particularly for our new comers, whose arrival at South Bend had been preceded by a heavy fall of snow, ten days before, and who found in their long wished for new quarters no preparation whatever but an old log cabin completely abandoned since three years, without any furniture except a bed and three chairs.

For three days they went to town in the evening and returned early in the morning to fit up the venerable old mission house. They went to their task with a will; and the fourth night they all slept deliciously in their new lodging, more precious in fact to each one of them than any palace in the New World could have been. By degree all their real wants were successively supplied: not a complaint nor a murmur nor even a regret was heard in the little band through that trying memorable winter: they were happy as they never were before. Devotedness knows no fatigue or privations; and where true love finds labor, even that labor if loved, said St. Augustin fifteen hundred years ago.

At times they were indeed richly repaid, as the following little anecdote or real occurrence will prove.

In his frequent visits to his beloved Indians at Pokagan, Michigan, Father Sorin one day heard of another settlement of Pottawatomies, ninety miles east, in Indiana, who had never been visited by any missionary, and who had expressed a certain desire to become Christians. Immediately two of the best men of the Pottawatomies were dispatched to the new village, and in three weeks they reported their new catechumens well instructed, ready for baptism, and very anxious to see the missionary. They could not wait; they were impatient, for fear, they said, that they might die before becoming the happy children of God.

Very early next morning the missionary was journeying in a sleigh, with an interpreter and a driver, towards Nantawassippi, fifty-five miles east of South Bend, to the residence of an excellent Canadian friend, Mr. Marentet, at whose house our neophytes were to meet him to receive holy Baptism.

It was 5 p.m. when Father Sorin, nearly half frozen, reached the spot and found himself surrounded, before he could get out his cutter, by nineteen Indians, everyone the very picture of joy and happiness. After supper an examination of the little band was commenced in serious earnest. Father Sorin was surprised at the thorough knowledge they possessed of the elements of the Christian doctrine. Then came Confession, then Baptism, finally night prayer, closed by singing in their Indian language. It was nearly 12 when all, on their knees, begged the missionary's blessing.

Before separating, the hour for holy mass was fixed at 7. But they would entreat the missionary not to awake until they sang from below the morning canticle; the programme was accepted and punctually carried out. Never perhaps had they all slept so sweetly.

At 7 a.m. instruction on Holy Communion occupied an hour; then mass was commenced. Oh! it was a sight not to be easily forgotten. Commencing by the instructors, the chief and his wife, the queen, as she was called, they all came slowly and reverentially to receive the Bread of angels, then an aged squaw of over eighty years of age, and then all except a little boy only three years old, the grandson of the woman, who had carried him on her back twelve miles, that he too might be regenerated in the waters of Baptism.

Another instruction followed. Who could describe the attention with which it was received!

At 11 Breakfast was served. But not one of the new Christians would do anything else but look at the missionary, until he had finished his meal. As soon as he rose from the table the queen stepped towards him, with her husband. Father, she said, we have neither gold nor silver to offer you; but pray, do me the favor to accept these vain things, which I prided in too much; and while uttering these words she was actually fulling from her fingers seven copper rings, which she placed forcibly in F. Sorin's right hand. He thanked her with a trembling voice and with tears in his eyes. Well may it be questioned if he had ever received in Paris or la belle France any gift that moved his heart as this spontaneous and sudden Indian generous act did.

When he returned to France in 1846, Father Sorin distributed the seven Indian rings among the seven chapels of the Blessed Virgin he knew best, where they are preserved as interesting mementos.

Father Sorin would have been delighted to spend the remainder of the day with his new and beloved spiritual children; but he was due at home that evening. By 1 o'clock he started back with his interpreter and driver. At 11 he reached his quarters, where he found a good Brother looking for him, in his room, and taking care of a log seven feet long which he had been pushing into the chimney as it burned away. The journey had been long and cold, but the heart had enjoyed it beyond expression. Such days lengthen a man's life.

At twelve he was fast asleep in the same bed on which Father Badin, the protopriest, his successor the saintly Deseille, and the famous Benjamin Petit, who died a martyr of his charity for the Indians, had successively rested from their much longer and severer fatigues.

Next morning he could thank heaven for the blessings and the joys of the previous eventful day, at the very altar whereon F. Deseille, an hour before his admirable death, had, with a trembling hand, opened the tabernacle and communicated himself with the holy viaticum, because no priest could be procured to attend his last moments. Haec meminisse juvabit.

Some day probably not far distant, a religious monument will be erected at Notre Dame to perpetuate the memory of the above glorious names, to which a fourth, no long, but rather much more illustrious, that of the Rt. Rev. Bishop Brute, shall be added, to the great joy of hundreds and thousands of honest souls, who knew them to venerate and love them.

Sketches have been written of each of them: they form a conspicuous part of the history of the Church of God in the west of the United States. But an especial tribute of respectful gratitude is due them where they labored so faithfully and so efficiently. The best proof their honest and happy survivors can offer of their real appreciation of their merits and of the services rendered by them to the cause of religion and civilization, should be a substantial one, viz a lasting monument, for the consolation of the present generation and the instruction of ages to come. "Let the memory of the wicked perish with a noise." The sooner the better. "But let us praise forever the memory of the just;" for hereby the living man honors himself.

It would be a disgrace to Notre Dame and to St. Joseph County to leave much longer such names unrecorded for public gratitude. Not another spot on our vast continent is under such obligations to the modest and yet heroic names above mentioned.

1. Father Badin, the protopriest of the United States, is known all over the New World, where he spent himself for more than 60 years; but where in the almost boundless field of his labors did he leave his mark and immortalize himself as he did here?

Nowhere did he purchase any ground but here. As he himself stated to the writer, one day, after ministering to the wants of his dear Indians, while gazing over the two pretty lakes on the shores of which he stood in admiration, the thought flashed on his mind that such a beautiful spot should be secured for God. What a delightful place for an orphan asylum and a college! Instantly, he resolved to buy it. "How well inspired," said he another day to F. Sorin, when he returned to Notre Dame fifteen years later, "how well inspired I was when I entered these 524 acres!"

Were he living yet he would say the same and would bless God the more.

When the present state of Notre Dame is compared of that of the primeval forest, entered from the Government some fifty years ago by Father Badin, the inspiration of its acquisition ceases to appear a groundless assertion. That is was a providential design he himself never doubted. He rejoiced in it as he never did in any other undertaking. He looked upon it, not as a proof of his personal foresight or sagacity, but as a superior design of which he had been the simple instrument.

So deeply was he convinced of this that when he revisited it he gave it all he possessed, $6000, on which he received a little annuity until he died in 1853.

Here the mustard seed planted by the missioner's hand grew and gradually and providentially developed into a tree in the branches of which the birds of the air have come to rest and dwell. This is, indeed, F. Badin's principal mission, where his labors have been especially blessed. (1832) 2. Rev. Louis Deseille. Next in point of time and importance comes the saintly Mr. Deseille, who fixed here his general quarters as a resident missionary of Indians and while Christians during the five years he lived in the country until his death in the fall of 1837. It was he, properly speaking, who created the mission, and he enriched it, not only by his liberal and continual alms to the poor Indians in Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, but by his incessant apostolic zeal and most edifying life, and above all, possibly, by his memorable and angelic death, which alone would forever place him amongst the holiest missioners of the Church, and surrounded his mortal remains and the blessed spot where they rest, with a halo of sanctity, which has been considered, since forty-five years, as an undoubted pledge of extraordinary blessings upon the labors of those who would come after him, to continue and develop his great work. Who could remember such a death and not say: "Oh! may my last moments be like his!" The possession of such precious remains is, for Notre Dame, a treasure beyond value.

Three times already since our religious of the Holy Cross knelt around those venerated remains have they been religiously removed, each time to occupy a more honorable place. But the outside monument is yet to desideratum. May God enable us soon to show to all, our veneration for the saintly predecessor he himself sent to Notre Dame to lay the foundation of an edifice which he will continue, we trust, to protect and assist unto perfection. He died here in his little log cabin in 1837, but his memory is yet fresh and popular all around. To let it die out when it is so precious to religion would be an inexcusable folly.

3. The Rev. Benjamin Petit, who comes in third on the list, remained here but a very short time, scarcely one year, and yet he seems to be the best known and to have been the most loved. History furnishes such examples of men so richly endowed, so exceptionally drawing every one and everything to themselves, that when a noble end is aimed at, genuine zeal finds in nature a help which hardly anything can resist.

Such was, it appears, even from childhood, the third missionary of this western Indian mission. Richly endowed by nature, as all say, and raised by a mother equally remarkable for her superior abilities and her piety, he had made brilliant studies in his native city, Rennes, where, as a lawyer, he had already secured a flattering prospect of success, when the saintly Bishop Brute changed all his aspirations and won his wind and his loving heart to the poor missions of Indiana.

Two days after his ordination in Vincennes, he was sent here to replace a saint, as he was called by all that knew him. He saw with his own eyes how deeply the loss of Father Deseille was felt all around, little dreaming then that in less than twelve months his own death would plunge so many broken hearts into even a deeper sorrow and more overwhelming affliction, as he was loved already, after such a brief but wonderful exhibition of virtues, abilities, and sacrifices as none of his predecessors, good and excellent as they were, had ever been loved and admired.

Half a dozen of his letters, to his Bishop or to his mother, fully justify the universal regrets caused by his untimely death, which the saintly Bishop Brute himself called the death of a martyr of charity, and by which he was so much affected that no other cause could be generally assigned for his own death, shortly after this sad loss, then the desolation it created in his heart.

The beautiful pages of the "Annales" and of the "Ave Maria" on Father Petit's memorable career dispense us from any further attempt to repeat here what is already familiar to all. What a loss for the mission he loved so well! So much accomplished in one year! And to die at twenty-seven years of age! So much regretted by all that knew him!


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