History of the Old Cathedral, Basilica of St. Francis Xavier

by Richard Day

The parish of St. Francis Xavier is the oldest congregation in Indiana. About 1732 a French officer, the Sieur de Vincennes, established a fort on the banks of the Wabash River. Around the fort grew up a settlement of French Canadian fur traders and Piankeshaw Indians. As early as 1734 the settlement was visited by Jesuit missionary priests. The first resident pastor, Fr. Sebastian Meurin, S.J., came in May, 1748. The first church was small, of upright posts fixed in the ground, with mud daubing and a bark roof. Parish records begin April 21, 1749

In 1763 the area came under British control. The Jesuits were expelled and for many years the parish depended upon a lay clerk, Etienne Phillibert, for baptisms, burials, and prayer services. During this time the parish grew from 400 to 700 persons. Fr. Pierre Gibault visited Vincennes in 1769 and was greeted by a desperate crowd crying, Save us, Father; we are nearly in hell! Thereafter Fr. Gibault made periodic visits. On July 20, 1778 Fr. Gibault persuaded the citizens of Vincenns to sign an oath of allegiance to the United States and turn over the fort to Col. George Rogers Clark. In recognition, a statue of the Patriot Priest of the Old Northwest now stands in front of the church. In 1784 Fr. Gibault became the first resident priest in over twenty years. A new chuch was built of upright hewn timbers in 1786. It was 22 feet wide, 66 feet long and had a small bell tower. 

Fr. Gibault was succeeded in 1792 by Fr. Benedict Joseph Flaget, who set up a school in the old church. Fr. Flaget is called the Father of Parochial Education in Indiana. The Catholic elementary school is named after him. He was followed in 1795 by Fr. John Francis Rivet. In 1801 Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison asked Fr. Rivet to set up a public school, Jefferson Academy, the predecessor of Vincennes University. Classes were taught in a large room in the rectory. Fr. Rivet is called Indiana's First Public School Teacher. His grave is marked by a large cross in the cemetery. The nearby Catholic middle and high school is named for him

The foundation of the present St. Francis Xavier Church was laid on March 30, 1826, by Fr. John Leo Champomier. The plans were copied from the cathedral at Bardstown, Kentucky. In 1834 our chuch became the cathedral of the new Diocese of Vincennes. The church is 60 feet wide by 115 feet long. Inside, the pillars are made of giant yellow poplar trees. The striking mural of the Crucifixion was painted in 1870 by Wilhelm Lamprecht. He also painted the murals of St. Francis Xavier on the right side, and on the left, the Madonna and Child with the patron saints of the four bishops of Vincennes: Saints Simon, Celestine, Stephen, and Maurice. The stations of the cross were painted in Paris by Bouasse Lebel in 1883, but the frames were carved locally by Frederick Rentz. The old high alter dates to 1904. The stained glass windows were made by the Von Gerichten Art Glass Company of Columbus, Ohio, in 1908. Finally, in 1910 the three statues were placed in the niches of the front church: Saints Joan of Arc, Francis Xavier and Patrick.

In the crypt are buried the four bishops of Vincennes: Simon Bruté (1834-1839), Celestine de la Hailandière (1839-1847), John Stephen Bazin (1847-1848), and Maurice de St. Palais (1849-1877). Above Bishop Bruté's grave is a carved statue of the Virgin Mary, brought from France in 1838. Bishop Bruté, a learned man, had a personal library of over 5,000 books. In 1840 the Old Cathedral Library was built to house these books and early records. Msgr. Leo Conti received a grant from the Lilly Foundation in 1968 to build a new library. In 1970 Pope Paul VI elevated the Old Cathedral to the status of Minor Basilica, an honor reserved for only the most historic churches.

Near the church are other buildings associated with its early history. The rectory is a splendid Greek Revival structure, built in 1841. Behind the rectory is a remnant of St. Gabriel's College, founded in 1837 by Bishop Bruté. A French teaching order of priests, the Eudists, taught there. On its porch can be seen the big bell that once hung in the belfry of the church. It is named the Maria Anna and was purchased by Bishop Bruté in France. Across the street, the Old Catholic grade school was erected in 1884. And cater-corner to it is the new Parish Center, built in 1993.