Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.
Roman Cathol-ics claim bragging rights to Indiana’s oldest church. Jesuit mission-aries visited the French fort at Vincennes within months of its establishment in 1732. A resident priest, Sebastian Meurin, arrived in 1748. People have been worshipping at St. Francis Xavier Church ever since.
“If the French built a fort, there was a chapel,” says the Rev. John Schipp, parish priest at the Old Cathedral for the past 19 years. “They not only wanted to trade, they wanted to invite the natives to become Christians.”
Scholars agree the Jesuits were first to bring Christ to what is now Indiana. Founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, the Society of Jesus is an order of priests whose primary mission field back then was pagan lands.
Whenever the French built a military or trading post in the New World, a church followed. Unlike the Protestant churches built by later pioneers, who focused on moral and social needs of their immediate communities, the Jesuits’ concern was outward.
“The records of St. Francis Xavier’s church ... show from April 1749, and for a half century after, the greater part of the entries of baptisms, marriages and funerals were of Indian converts,” notes the “History of Old Vincennes and Knox County, Indiana” by George E. Greene.
Although the church today has stable membership of 350 households, its beginnings were rocky, reflecting the political turbulence of the times. When the area came under British control in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War, the Jesuits were expelled and the congregation relied on lay leadership for two decades, says Richard Day, congregation historian.
During that time, the Illinois-based Rev. Pierre Gibault would travel to Vincennes to check on the parish. Day tells of a visit in 1769 when Gibault was “greeted by a desperate crowd crying, ‘Save us, Father; we are nearly in hell!’”
During the American Revolution, Gibault sided with the rebels. On July 20, 1778, he persuaded the people of Vincennes to pledge loyalty to the United States and to turn over their fort to George Rogers Clark. Gibault assumed leadership of the parish after the war.
A bronze statue of Gibault, “Patriot Priest of the Old Northwest,” stands in front of the church to mark his role in the capture of the Northwest Territory from the British. In 1970, Pope Paul VI elevated the church to the rank of basilica due to its religious and historic significance.
The parish’s earliest written record is from April 21, 1749. Its first building was a log shelter with bark roof, replaced twice before the current red brick structure went up in 1826.
Located steps away from the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, the church is open daily for self-guided tours and for group tours by appointment with the Vincennes/Knox County Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-886-6443). Next to the church is the French and Indian Cemetery, which contains mostly unmarked graves of 4,000 residents of early Vincennes.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.