University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
Notre Dame -- One Hundred Years / by Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C.

Chapter III

ON THE 16th of November, 1842, Father Sorin and seven Brothers left St. Peter's. Early that morning they had put together what they would need for the journey, loaded the oxdrawn cart, and the antique stage coach given them by the Bishop, and set out. The weather was so bitterly cold they made only five miles that day.

Just before they left Father Sorin had received a letter from the Bishop:

Behind him at St. Peter's Father Sorin had left the larger part of his community. The Bishop had insisted that the Novitiate must, for the time at least, remain at St. Peter's. Father Chartier,[2] a diocesan priest who had recently joined the community, was to stay with the novices and look after them. Brother Vincent also remained behind.

Of the seven Brothers who accompanied Father Sorin, only two were of the original colony from France, Brothers Marie (formerly known as Brother Francis Xavier), and Gatian. The others were Brothers Patrick, William, Basil, Peter, and Francis. These latter had joined the community since its arrival at St. Peter's. They were all young and robust. Four of them had come from Ireland: Brothers Peter and Patrick, both farmers; Brother Basil, a cooper; and Brother William, a carpenter. The foundation, therefore, was not entirely French. Whoever dubbed Notre Dame the home of the "Fighting Irish," was righter than rain.

They had more than two hundred and fifty miles ahead of them. The weather was bitterly cold every step of the way. They took turns at riding and walking. After a few days of travel, however, Father Sorin decided that he and four of the Brothers should go on ahead, while the other three should follow at a slower pace with the oxen and the laden cart. They finally reached South Bend on November 26th.[3]

* * *

At that point where the St. Joseph River comes down from the northeast and swerves off in a northwesterly direction toward Lake Michigan, the twenty-eight-year-old Alexis Coquillard had come in 1823. He called the site South Bend. After Pierre Navarre, he was the first white man to set up a permanent residence in that locality. The Indians stopped there regularly on their way from the Wabash to the trading post at St. Joseph, Michigan, bearing furs, maple sugar and baskets. The shrewd Alexis asked himself why the Indians should travel all the way to St. Joseph. Surely, here at South Bend he could buy at a splendid profit all the Indians had to sell.

Coquillard was a giant of a man. There were six feet and two inches of him, and he weighed well over two hundred pounds. His physical massiveness was somewhat softened by his blue eyes and the shock of fair hair that crowned his frame. His energy and his ambition were proportionately great. His forbears had been in Canada since 1687. Both by tradition and experience he knew the Indian country into which he had come, its customs and its problems. After a year at South Bend he journeyed back to his birthplace, Detroit, and on August 11, 1824, he married the nineteen-year-old Frances Comparet. He was ten years her senior. He brought his wife to the frontier village of South Bend with its scattering of rude log cabins and the one principal winding trail which has since been straightened into Michigan Street.

Alexis had a brother in Detroit, Benjamin, who was married to Sophia André. The eldest son of Benjamin and Sophia was called Alexis, after his uncle. Alexis the elder persuaded his brother to come to South Bend. He had told him that South Bend was growing and had need of a tavern. To supply this want Benjamin and his family came in 1829. Alexis the younger was but four years old. Partly because his uncle was as yet childless, partly to keep him away from the tavern, the young boy was most often in the house of Alexis the elder.

When Father Sorin and his weary band finally arrived at the frontier village on that freezing November afternoon in 1842, they went at once to the home of Alexis Coquillard. The nephew, then a gangling youth of seventeen, was there to meet them. Mrs. Coquillard, strong and calm of countenance, her black hair parted in the middle and severely drawn to a knot at the back of her neck, made the new arrivals sit at the table. She brought them warm food of which they had tasted little during the past eleven days. Alexis the elder was there, too. He sat down with his guests and conversed happily with them. He described the site at Ste.-Marie-des-Lacs but added that he thought the weather much too severe for them to continue their journey. He advised them to accept his offer of shelter until a more moderate day. "Alexis," he said, pointing to his nephew, "can guide you to the spot when it gets a bit warmer."

To Father Moreau, Sorin wrote of their coming to Notre Dame.

The spot was already, in a sense, a holy place. For over one hundred and fifty years, this northern region had been an outpost of the Catholic religion. In its forests many an Indian tribe had squatted silently, listening to the words of the Black-Robe. The woods had echoed to the "Ave Maria" sung in more than one tribal tongue. Here, at Ste.Marie-des-Lacs, scores of red-skins had been baptized. Here, in the rude cabin shelter, Mass had been offered. Here, on his rare visits, Bishop Bruté had signed with the cross and chrism the Indians and whites. In the savage heart there was already a veneration and love for the men in black, a persuasion that these missionaries were their real friends, a faith and confidence in the Catholic religion that nothing ever shattered.

There is an unconfirmed, though persistent, tradition that Father Marquette passed this way in 1675. It is quite certain that LaSalle and Hennepin stopped close by in 1679. It is said they came from Lake Michigan, up the St. Joseph River to a point directly across from St. Mary's College, and there made the portage to the headwaters of the Kankakee, thence to the Illinois, and down the Mississippi. There is no doubt that Father Claude Allouez of the Society of Jesus spent much time hereabouts. He founded the St. Joseph's Mission, near Niles, about 1680.

Then, for a long period of years, the missionaries were forced to neglect the region. This is explained by two facts, -- the wars between France, England, and Spain, in which this territory changed hands often, and the suppression of the Society of Jesus, which had taken the original missionaries away from this field.

For over a period of seventy-five or a hundred years, however, occasional priests must have visited the Indians. In 1830, Chief Pokagon appealed to Father Gabriel Richard of Detroit to send them a priest.

And falling on his knees, Pokagon recited the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Creed, together with the Ten Commandments in the Pottowatomie tongue. Father Richard was astounded. These Indians, who had not seen a priest for fifty years, had kept alive the Faith implanted by those earlier missionaries. Providentially, Father Richard found it possible to send them a black-robe. That priest was the first to be ordained in the United States, Father Stephen Theodore Badin.[6]

In more ways than one, the preservation of Catholicism in this Northwest territory must be ascribed to the zeal of Father Badin. No one can witness the length of his priestly service, the breadth of his mission field, or the soundness of the foundations he built, without profound admiration for this priest who, often enough, was a cantankerous hurricane of vehemence and energy. He was, perhaps, no saint. But he had one saintly quality that far outshone his defects: he gave himself to his evangelical work without stint or measure. He went on until he had nothing left, either of himself or of his goods. He was full-spent, when, like a patriarch, he came to die in 1853.

He had lived under the Terror in France. He had seen his priestly brethren robbed, pillaged, imprisoned, killed, churches burned and sacked, convents despoiled, seminaries nailed shut. Badin made a quick decision. He was anxious to become an apostle. While yet in minor orders, he sailed to America, was accepted by the Bishop of Baltimore, and ordained priest in 1793.[7]

His verve, his outspokenness, his anxiety to get things done, his impatience at obstacles, his ruthlessness -- all these things, annoying at times, do not detract from the greatness of Father Badin. Indeed they help to explain some of that greatness. When he stepped into the barn where young people were dancing to the scraping fiddle and ordered them to kneel down and say their prayers; when he reminded the ladies of his vast parish to serve more simple food and neglect the menus of more sophisticated folks; when he imposed extraordinary and severe penances for what might be termed lesser infractions of the law; when he heard himself described as a peppery old tyrant and knew that the Catholics were afraid he might be made their Bishop, he could afford to smile. He was really a tyrant. But if today, in the land of the old Northwest, many a Catholic name has been saved to Catholicism, it is due to the inexhaustible tyranny of Stephen Theodore Badin.

His body was as tough as his soul was stubborn. In the twenty-six years spent on the Kentucky mission, he estimates his journeys at 100,000 miles. When he returned to America in 1828, after a ten years' absence in France, he went to Detroit where his youngest brother, Father Vincent Badin, was stationed. He arrived the day after Pokagon had made his impassioned plea to Father Richard. Once more Stephen Badin mounted his horse and then rode west with the Indian Chief.

Badin was then sixty years old. But to this new work he brought all his toughness of soul, as well as his meager resources. He had a definite plan in mind. He would open a school for the Indian children. With him, he persuaded Miss Angelique Campaux, a wealthy woman of sixty-eight, to travel as a teacher and interpreter.[8]

Pokagon's village was the center of their activity. Thence, Father Badin went on his numerous trips to visit Catholics in South Bend, Fort Wayne, Logansport, and Chicago. The care for the Indians produced remarkable results. Within a year he had instructed and baptized hundreds of them.[9] In 1831 we find him ready to start an orphan asylum, having purchased land for that purpose at Ste.-Marie-des-Lacs, the present Notre Dame.[10] Two years later the Indiana State legislature granted him a charter for this institution. Father Badin began to build." First a chapel was erected near the present site of the log chapel, but a little nearer the edge of the lake.

This chapel, which was still standing when Father Sorin came to Notre Dame, was a "double-log cabin, with a porch through the middle, a story and a half high, and twenty-by-forty feet on the ground." [12] Some accounts would seem to indicate that the altar was in the loft and that mass was celebrated there. Other records give one the idea that the Sacred Mysteries were celebrated on the ground floor. Probably the simplicity of the furnishings enabled the resident priest to switch from one floor to another without too much difficulty.

But the arduous labors of Father Badin were beginning to tell on him. He still retained his desire to wade in and cut a wide swath for the Lord, but the daily excursions to his mission outposts, and the constant attention necessary to his varied works -- instructing converts and poorly educated Catholics, visiting the sick and dying, watching over the schools he had tried to establish -- these things wore out the aged priest. It was with great relief that he saw an opportunity to turn over the work to another priest, Father Louis Deseille. The attempt to found an orphan asylum at Notre Dame was a failure for the time being.[13] And although Father Badin turned over to the Bishop of the diocese the land acquired for the orphanage, he continued to hope that some day his dream would be realized. Father Badin returned to Cincinnati.

It was presumed that his life work was finished. But he was not so easily to be shelved. In 1845 he returned to Notre Dame and stayed the greater part of the year. One old student recalls that in the college church, which was none other than the old log chapel built by Father Sorin, Father Badin never read from the gospel book. Instead, he would take the missal from the altar, place it on the head of some small boy standing before him, and, good Frenchman that he was, gesticulate his way through a sermon, though his right arm was partially paralyzed, as was his human book-stand too, very likely, before the sermon was over.[14]

At this period, he was neither pithy nor brief in his sermons. When the congregation saw him turn to speak, they made a movement for the door. On one hot summer's day the people grew tired and marched out of the church. He roared out: "Shut the church door and keep them out; out they have gone, now let them stay out!" Brother James actually did close the door. But the people outside were listening. When they perceived that Father Badin was going on with the Mass, they pressed against the door. It gave way, and slid up the aisle, and the people after it.[15]

On pleasant days the students saw Father Badin mount an old horse that Father Sorin had given him. His office book in hand, the reverend gentleman would go for a ride. It was said that his horse would invariably stop when Badin came to the "Gloria Patri" it the psalms, and after the strophe would proceed at Badin's prodding.[16]

For eight years longer, until he died in 1853, this small, dark, wiry man, fond of smoking and talking, was a frequent visitor at the scenes of his former labors. He lived to see the ground at Ste.-Marie-Lacs, firmly in the possession of the Congregation of Holy Cross, lived to witness its solid dedication to the Mother of God and the Christian education of youth, lived long enough to know that his work had not been in vain. And it would have pleased him, too, if he could have foreseen that in 1906 his bones were to be brought from Cincinnati and placed beneath the log chapel, in ground over which his wiry feet had trod from epistle to gospel, and back again.

Father Badin's successor, Father Deseille, had nothing of Badin's torrential personality. He was the mildest of men. In his dealings with the Indians and with the Catholics of the Northwest, his devotion and kindness won him the name of saint. By February, 1832, he had joined Father Badin in Pokagon's village. His arrival enabled Father Badin to free himself from some of his more physically difficult tasks. And when Father Badin departed in 1835 the whole weight fell upon the shoulders of this meek Belgian missionary.

His life, until he died in 1837, was the daily round of works of mercy, spiritual and temporal, that seemed so monotonous in the doing, and yet are crowned with the rarest sort of glory. There is one incident in his life -- the last -- for which he will always be remembered at Notre Dame.

Father Deseille had just visited the Catholics of South Bend and of Bertrand, and had returned to his Indians at Pokagon. The manner in which he spoke to the Indians gave them the impression that he was leaving them for good. Panic seized their hearts. They pressed him for some explanation. He answered: "I have a great journey to make. Pray for me and do not forget to say your beads for me!" Strong and in good health, only thirty-seven years old, the young missionary could hardly be supposed to be speaking of death.

Immediately after this warning, Father Deseille walked the seven miles from Pokagon's village to the chapel at Notre Dame, no simple exploit had he been sick. The following day he began to feel very ill, and said Mass with great difficulty. By noon he remarked that he felt sure his end was coming. He asked some of his friends to bring a priest, but they failed to do so, thinking that Father Deseille's illness would pass away shortly.

The following day, however, his condition was greatly aggravated. Only then did his friends send for a priest. In fact they sent for two priests -- one from Chicago, the other from Logansport. It was possible that one or other might be away on some mission, so to make sure both were summoned. As it turned out, neither could come, because, like himself, both were sick. The intelligence filled the dying priest with sadness. Deprived of one last confession and the healing unction of the Holy Oils, he summoned all his strength to make one final act of loving adoration to his God.[17]

Nodding to Charron, the interpreter who lived at the lake, and to another whose identity is concealed in the name of the "good Irishman," he indicated that he wished them to join him in prayer. Painfully he sat up and stretched his hands toward the altar in the adjoining room. Supporting him, his two attendants carried him to the altar where he knelt for a time in prayer. He asked for his surplice and stole. When he had put them on, he rose up and opened the door of the tabernacle. The ciborium shook in his hand, and the painful whisper of "Corpus Domini nostri" fell from his trembling lips. He was doing the rare and bold thing -- administering the Holy Viaticum to himself. When he had finished, he knelt at the foot of the altar, the interpreter at one side, the "good Irishman" at the other. For half an hour he remained in this posture. After that they laid him on the bed. He gazed at them thankfully. They heard him, for over an hour, whisper "Jesus" and "Mary." At the end of that time, without gasp or struggle, he was quiet. The "good Irishman" remarked that his face was full of peace.[18]

When the Indians at Pokagon were informed that the priest was dying, they came immediately. But it was too late. They did not see him again alive. They entered the hut and with folded arms, stood about the rude bed. They neither spoke nor wept. They stared at the quiet figure and remembering his parting words to them: "I have a great journey to make."

For three days they stood in this manner, waiting for a priest to come. They felt that only a priest should bury a priest. This silent vigil was finally halted when the authorities in South Bend insisted that the Indians dispose of the body. They dug a grave in the chapel floor, and left the corpse close to the altar. When Father Sorin built the University church, he took the body of Father Deseille to the crypt of the new edifice. It is an admirable reflection that daily over his grave, hundreds of Notre Dame men receive the same Food wherein Deseille found strength for his last journey.

Bishop Bruté was crushed by the news from the north. The death of a missionary is always a blow to a bishop. But this death -- Father Deseille was so young, seemingly so robust, so devoted and beloved -- this death was hard to accept. Who could take his place? The Bishop had not a single priest to spare. And in the north, where the Catholic Indians were rapidly becoming the victims of the white settlers to whom they eventually lost everything, there was urgent need of a priest who could be their champion and consoler.

In these circumstances the Bishop turned to a seminarian, ordained him priest, sent him to the Indians in the north. The new missionary was Benjamin-Marie Petit. It is difficult to write of him without enthusiasm. He was so young, so fragile, so unaccustomed to the hardships of the frontier, and yet, there burned within him a fiery zeal so fierce as to make of him a perfect holocaust. When he was a young boy, wishing to become a barrister, he started to study the law. Then, one day the Bishop of Vincennes, the amiable Bruté, talked to him. It was at Rennes, the capital of Brittany. What the two men said we do not know. Whatever it was, Petit put his law-books on the shelf and betook himself to the seminary of St. Sulpice. He was there for a year. In June, 1836, he sailed for New York and made his way to Vincennes. There, he continued his studies under the Bishop. The death of Father Deseille forced the issue of his ordination. On October 14, 1837, he became a priest.[19] He was twenty-six years old. The following day, he wrote to his mother:

It is no exaggeration to say that Benjamin-Marie Petit was the most beloved of these missionaries. He attracted people to him everywhere by his mere appearance. His innocence of manner was, if anything, enhanced by his physical frailty. His genuine desire to help the Indians made itself felt long before he was able to speak to them except through an interpreter. They all but worshipped him. When the Bishop saw him working with such consuming zeal, he warned him not to overdo. But the sad plight of Indian affairs demanded the missionary's attention. He worked for them night and day, seeking to defend them against the fate that was driving them from their lands.

It was always true that the poverty and ignorance of the Indians, their lack of union, their simplicity, and their taste for liquor made them the easy victims of white supremacy. To be sure, there were always many who deplored the tricks by which the original Americans were robbed. But their voices carried little weight. The majority of citizens thought the kindest thing to do for the Indian was to set him up in some distant reservation, at government expense, and keep him in perpetual dependence on the government. This sort of action would solve the problem of the Easterners who wished to migrate to the West. "Manifest Destiny" was already at work.

The United States government pointed out that the Indians, by joining the British in the war of 1812, had made themselves the enemies of this government. Therefore, they could hardly be surprised at the confiscation of their property. Between 1820 and 1830, the government held a series of conferences and treaties with the various Indian tribes, in which the Indians ceded more and more of their land to the government. The government was willing, however, to acknowledge the right of established reservations at various points in the old Northwest. These, if the Indians behaved themselves, were to be their very own. It is quite probable that the government officials who drew up these treaties had the honest intention of keeping the Indians in this part of the country. But it was always easy to invent incidents in which the Indian would look guilty. When this happened, the white settlers would appeal to the government to get rid of the Indians altogether. Whatever injustice the Indians may have suffered, it cannot be laid entirely at the door of the government. Certainly a vast majority of the whites, who feared and hated the Indians, goaded the government into taking action.

Accordingly, the government tried to buy up all possible land from the Indians, even the reservations previously recognized as their own. Some of the officers showed little scruple. The Indian chiefs were made drunk; they were threatened; they were told they were being sent to a marvelous country. "If you go willingly, we will pay you a good price for your land. You will be rich for life. But if you resist, then the army will come and drive you off by force!"

Between 1834 and 1837, Colonel Abel Pepper had bought up all the reservations except one.[21] He paid a dollar an acre. He promised that although the United States owned the reservations, the Indians would not be forced to vacate for two years. Nevertheless, under army supervision, the great migration began almost immediately. There was only one hitch.

At Twin Lakes, Chief Menominee and three other chiefs had received by treaty, twenty-two sections of land. This pact was sealed in 1832. It was their reservation, to keep and hold against all comers. When Colonel Pepper wanted to buy the reservations from the Indians, Menominee refused to sell. But the other chiefs did sell. And the government claimed that since a majority of the interested parties had accepted, the offer, Menominee actually had no reservation at all. Menominee pointed out that the sale was invalid, since the other chiefs had sold only when they were under the influence of liquor. The Indians were exceedingly angry at such procedure. They talked it over with Father Petit. By this time it was evident that, justice or no justice, the Indians were going to be ejected. The missionary did his best to comfort the victims and, together with the fur traders, he defended the plain rights of Menominee.

When trouble began to brew, Colonel Pepper summoned a Council at Twin Lakes for August 29, 1838. The Indians refused to yield. But that same day the militia arrived, under the command of John Tipton. For days the Indians were kept prisoners. It became increasingly evident that force would be used. In the meantime Father Petit had returned to Notre Dame. On September 4th, the inevitable happened. About eight hundred Indians, some afoot, some on horseback, began the two months' journey to the Indian Territory. General Tipton, anxious to avoid needless cruelty, and knowing the calming influence of Father Petit, sent to beg him to make the trip with the Indians. But Father Petit sent back word that his Bishop would not permit it. Bruté didn't care to have his priests mixed up in this disgraceful act on the part of the civil government.

The day after the departure of the Indians, September 5, 1838, the Bishop of Vincennes came to Notre Dame to see Father Petit. Bishop Bruté desired Father Petit to accompany him to Logansport, where he was to bless a church on the 9th. On the way, they followed the route taken by the Indians, and they learned, to their great consternation, that the military had been treating the Indians in a most cruel manner, that many had fallen ill, some had died, and all were wretched and desolate because of the miserable conditions under which they were forced to march. This intelligence moved the Bishop to grant Father Petit's desire, that he go with them as far as the Osage country.[22]

Father Petit made all haste back to Notre Dame to gather up his baggage for the long trip. He overtook the Indians at Danville, Illinois, on the 16th of September.

Finally, on November 4th, just two months after the march had started, their destination was reached. Father Petit was worn out. Every day had brought death to some of the Indians. The priest had passed night and day ministering to their needs. He himself had become sick and feverish, but he stayed on his feet for the sake of his poor charges. His soul, however, was much relieved, when, on the banks of the Osage river in Missouri, he found a Jesuit, Father Hoeken, waiting to take charge. Father Petit was so weakened that it was necessary for him to stay in camp six weeks, gaining strength enough to return to Indiana. On December 23rd he received a letter from the Bishop of Vincennes, urging him to return. By January 2nd he felt strong enough to begin the journey. He started back with an Indian companion. Between Jefferson City and St. Louis they traveled in an uncovered wagon. It rained continually and the roads were abominable.

In St. Louis Father Petit knocked at the door of the Jesuits. They received him with the utmost compassion, this poor dying priest, whose fragile body was worn by fever and exposure. They put him to bed, and gave him every care. On February 11th, the superior of the Jesuits wrote to Bishop Bruté in the following terms:

Three years later, when Father Sorin came to the little chapel by the lake, everything spoke to him of the gentle Petit. This boy-priest, whose devotion to his Indians wore away his very life, filled Father Sorin with the greatest admiration. Petit's books, Petit's chair, Petit's prie-dieu were, to Father Sorin, so many relics constantly reminding him of the man of whom he wrote: "I must make him my model." In 1857 Father Sorin journeyed to St. Louis and brought back the body of Father Petit. It lies in the crypt of the college church beside the bones of Father Deseille.

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