Homily – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Rev. Eric M. Augenstein
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
St. Agnes Catholic Church– October 27/28, 2018
Jeremiah 31.7-9 Psalm 126 Hebrews 5.1-6 Mark 10.46-52

Something that night changed me. It was the first Friday of September, a little less than two months ago. As the First Friday of the month, the young adult ministry office for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis was holding a night of Eucharistic Adoration, followed by dinner and a social. It was being held that month at Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis, where I live during the week, and I had been asked to preside at the Holy Hour and hear confessions. I remember that the weather that night reflected the mood of many of us in the Church in those days – it was raining, pretty heavily; a wet and dreary late-summer evening. It had only been a few weeks at that point since the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on clergy sexual abuse, alongside all of the other sin and scandal that was weighing down the Church. It was a dreary night in Indianapolis that reflected the dark night of the soul that many of us felt deep inside. But something happened that night that changed me.

We really didn’t know who was going to show up for the Holy Hour. Would the rain keep people away? Would the scandals keep people away? Would the busy lives of young adults direct their attention elsewhere? But they did come. Well over a hundred young adult Catholics, most in their 20s, gathered in the midst of the dreariness to pray, to turn to Jesus present in the Eucharist, to gaze upon him and to let his love and mercy pour into their souls. As I sat in the back of the Cathedral hearing confessions, in the brief moments in between a steady line of penitents, I looked out through the church. I could feel the intensity of the pain that people brought with them. I could hear the united voices singing praise to our “good, good Father;” crying out, “Lord, I need you, every hour I need you.” The prayer of that community, even in the moments of silence, was palpable – you could sense it in the room, with all of our eyes directed toward the altar, where we found Jesus, the bread of life, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And all of a sudden, I knew that we would be ok. I knew that there is no darkness that cannot be broken by the light of Christ. I knew that there is no wound that cannot be healed by the blood of Christ. I knew that our fragile community, broken and tempest-tossed, would find its way if we all keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. And I saw before me that night a core group of faithful, humble, prayerful, fervent and young servants of God who would rise up as a new generation of saints to set the world on fire.

That night changed me. And even in the weeks since that night, as we continue to witness the violence and hatred and divisions that plague our world, even to yesterday’s deadly shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, I remember that night, and so many others since. Jesus continues to remind me that he is in charge and that he does not abandon his people. And he gave me eyes to see.

“Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.”

We have been blind, but with Jesus we can see. We have been afraid, but with Jesus we take courage. We have been lame, immobilized, but with Jesus we can walk. We have been mute, but with Jesus we can speak.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.

The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.”


Homily – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Rev. Eric M. Augenstein
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – September 1/2, 2018
St. Agnes Catholic Church
Deuteronomy 4.1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15; James 1.17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If you do a Google search for “Catholic Church,” the results can be interesting. Insightful, even. On the images tab, searching for “Catholic Church” brings up page after page of variations of two types of pictures: church buildings, or bishops. Apparently, that’s what the Google algorithm thinks best visually represents the Catholic Church – buildings or bishops. Curious. On the news tab of Google, the headlines, of course, are ever-changing. This morning, the top results were headlines like: “The civil war in the Catholic Church,” and “Gut the Catholic Church’s hierarchy,” and “Commentary: How to save the Catholic Church,” and “It’s time the Catholic Church started cleaning its house.” Such is the state of the Church in these days. But on the main Google search page, there’s something interesting that showed up – at least in my search of the “Catholic Church.” After a few links to the headline news articles, Twitter feeds, and YouTube videos, the next result was more local: a link to the website of this parish, St. Agnes Catholic Church in Nashville, Indiana. Of course, Google knew my location based on my computer’s IP address, and so it connected me to the nearest Catholic Church, the local parish. There’s always something local about our faith, about the Church – it’s not just the Vatican and the bishops, although that’s part of it; it’s not just the headlines and scandals across the world, although that is part of it, too. The Church is here – the Church is us. With a building to house our prayer and worship, yes. With a bishop in our region to shepherd us, yes. With our own brokenness and humanity and sins and failings, yes. And with our humble, open hearts, yearning for wholeness and truth and peace and love and compassion and community. Here, at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Nashville, Indiana, and at every local parish.

St. James gives all of us in the Catholic Church a good foundation in these days. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Talk about getting back to basics. So much else can and does get in our way, but St. James is right – the Gospel message of Jesus Christ can be summed up in these two points: to care for those in need – symbolized in the apostle’s day by widows and orphans – and to keep ourselves unstained by the world. To care for those whose poverty is spiritual as well as material – to walk alongside those who are hurting whether as victims of abuse or because of betrayal by those who have failed in their leadership – to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves – to cry out to heaven and earth for justice and mercy. And to rise above the baseness of worldly attachments – to keep our eyes fixed on heaven – to allow love to conquer fear, humility to root out pride, hope to shine in the darkness of doubt. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” And we strive to do that, here at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Nashville, Indiana, and in many other local churches besides.

In the early fifth century, St. John Chrysostom preached a pointed homily whose words, I think, can echo profoundly for us today. He had observed some people in the Church who were concerned about buying golden ornaments for church buildings and weaving expensive cloths for the altars, but were neglecting the very real, material needs of the poor. “Tell me,” St. John Chrysostom said, “if you were to see [Christ] lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold, would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? … Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the road as a pilgrim, looking for shelter,” St. John Chrysostom continues. “You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate the floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison. … I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. … Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.”

We have work to do, my brothers and sisters – we, the Church, both the universal Catholic Church and our local churches. We have work to do – to refocus ourselves on the central task of the gospel, to care for orphans and widows and to live in the world but not of the world as we long for the world to come. We have work to do in loving one another and remembering that we need each other to teach us how to love as Christ loves us and to keep us accountable to the command of God. We have work to do in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, in welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick and the imprisoned. We have work to do in listening to the Word of God, but then putting it into action. We have work to do in relying on the grace of the sacraments to sustain us in our frailty and to fill us with the strength needed to endure the trials of this present age. And we need each other to do this work.

If people are searching for the Catholic Church here, in Brown County, Indiana, or in any place, I hope this is what they find – a Church that cares for the widow and orphan and keeps itself unstained by the world, a Church that comes together to encounter Christ in Word and Sacrament, and also serves Christ in our afflicted brothers and sisters – a humble Church, a listening Church, an active Church, a living Church. Let’s get to work.

Homily – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Rev. Eric M. Augenstein
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – August 18/19, 2018
St. Agnes Catholic Church
Proverbs 9.1-6; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58

Just under three years ago, I was on a bus with 50 other people from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. We were heading to the World Meeting of Families, which was being held in Philadelphia that year, and would be one of the stops on Pope Francis’ first pastoral visit to the United States. Not long after we got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just south of Pittsburgh, we started seeing signs along the way encouraging us to turn back – literally. Highway information signs were broadcasting the message: “Pope to visit Philadelphia September 26-27. Expect delays. Seek alternate routes.” At a Turnpike rest stop, we encountered travel advisory signs urging us to avoid the Philadelphia area unless we are going to see the Pope. It said to expect congestion worse than a blizzard. Be sure to fuel up your car, bring plenty of food and water with you in case you get stranded, and really, if at all possible, just avoid the area. But that was exactly where we were headed. I remember thinking at the time that it felt like we were driving toward a fire or into the path of an oncoming hurricane against all advice.

That image and memory came to my mind this past week, not only because the next edition of the World Meeting of Families begins in a few days, this time in Dublin, Ireland; bur moreso as I – and many of us both inside and outside the Catholic Church – have struggled to process and understand the latest heart-rending revelations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and cover-ups and criminal mismanagement by bishops and other Church leaders. The latest news comes from a Grand Jury report that covers criminal sexual abuse at the hands of clergy in dioceses that flank the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I’ve started reading the report. It’s painful. I haven’t finished reading the 800+ pages. I don’t want to, but I need to. The Catholic Church is on fire, and some of my brother priests have lit the flames. The winds are battering our fragile faith, and some of our shepherds were fiddling while Rome burned. It would be so easy to turn around and run away; it would be easy, and perhaps justifiable, to abandon the Church that has failed so many. The days are evil, St. Paul reminded the Ephesians. So don’t be foolish. The days are evil, he says; try to understand the will of the Lord. I confess, I’m not sure these days exactly what the will of the Lord is in all of this. And I’m ashamed and so sorry for the evil that has been done.

Last week, I stood in front of our seminarians as they prepared to enter a year of formation for the priesthood. Twenty four men who have courageously put themselves forward in these days to say that they feel called to a priestly ministry that has scars on it and that has caused partially-healed wounds to break open once more. Seven of these men are new seminarians, setting out on the path to priesthood in this summer of shame. As I stood before these seminarians last week, I gave them a challenge – one that I give to myself, and to all of us. When the Church is most hurting, it is then that we need great Saints. When the storms or fires rage and burn, it is then that we need the strength and witness and courage and wisdom that no mortal man or woman can conjure on their own but which comes from the Holy Spirit to raise up a new generation of saintly heroes. We need people to go toward the fire, not run away – to heal wounds – to listen compassionately – to show true mercy – to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty – to forsake foolishness – to advance in the way of understanding – to be the hands and feet and heart and voice of Jesus Christ, who does not abandon his own. There are plenty of sinners who are content at being sinners. These days, especially, we need sinners who long to be Saints, and with God’s grace, it can be.

So where do we go from here? From one perspective, that’s still an open question. The Church is sick. The world is sick. And the treatment plan is still under review. But there’s one simple answer that is fool-proof. Where do we go from here? To the Eucharist. Here at this altar is the bread come down from heaven. Here at this altar is the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Here at this altar, a broken man is called to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Here at this altar, the one who was crushed for our sins and broken for our infirmities raises us up to new life. Here at this altar, Saints are born. “Lord, to whom shall we go; you have the words of eternal life.”

Final Days in France

After a week of exploring the French Catholic roots of Indiana, we three pilgrims have finished this portion of our journeys and have returned home. The final two days of our journey saw us move beyond the main purpose of our trip to see a few other significant sites in the area – the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel; the D-Day beaches of Normandy and the American and German World War II Cemeteries; and the tomb and shrine of St. Therese, the Little Flower, in Lisieux. We also stopped by the birthplace of St. John de Brebeuf, an early Jesuit missionary to the Americas and one of the North American Martyrs. A highlight of these last days was the opportunity to concelebrate Mass on Sunday with the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem in the ancient Abbey Church of Mont Saint-Michel. It was a cold and windy day along the French coast, where the monastery sits on an island, and the unheated church was so cold that we could see our breath whenever we sang or prayed! And there was a lot of singing and praying during this beautiful chanted Mass in a holy and mystical place.

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Mont Saint-Michel

Having returned now from our pilgrim journey, I have begun to reflect on the lessons that we learned about the French roots of the Catholic Church in Indiana – and how knowledge of where we have come from might inform our lives as Christians today. A significant part of this reflection centers on trying to understand what inspired people like Bishop Simon Brute, St. Theodora Guerin, the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and other early missionaries to come to the wilderness of Indiana and live our their faith in this unfamiliar place. My initial thoughts center on two areas: one historical, the other spiritual.

Historically, the French Catholic pioneers of Indiana were all formed by the difficult days of the French Revolution. Bishop Brute witnessed first-hand the trials and executions of priests and those who harbored them; and he also witnessed first-hand the courage and resilience of the priests who hid in the Brute family home and continued to celebrate the sacraments in secret despite the danger this brought. Being a priest in the days of the French Revolution was a dangerous – and courageous – act. And young Simon Brute was called to be a priest. The two religious orders that settled in Indiana from France – the Sisters of Providence and the Congregation of Holy Cross – were both formed in the years after the Revolution. Religious orders had been suppressed during the Revolution, churches had been closed, priests and religious had been killed or sent into exile. When religious expression was once again legal after the Revolution, many new religious communities were formed to educate and serve the needs of the people, especially the poor. And so we have the Sisters of Providence and the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Spiritually, all of our early French Catholic pioneers who came to Indiana were formed by the French School of Spirituality, which focused especially on the writings of St. John Eudes (1601-1680). These writings particularly fostered devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary and were intensely Incarnational. People like Mother Theodore Guerin sought to be the presence of the love of the heart of Jesus Christ in local communities – to help Jesus become incarnate once again among the people he loves so much. I think, too, of Bishop Brute’s tireless pastoral work – visiting the sick and the dying throughout the enormous area of his diocese – in order to bring the Sacraments to those who longed for an encounter with the heart of Christ. Personally, I am not very familiar with St. John Eudes and the French School of Spirituality – but that means that I now have some new items on my reading list!

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Coat of arms of France (left) and Brittany (right).

At the outset of this pilgrimage, my hope was to better understand the reason there is a fleur de lis on the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. I have always known that this is because the first four bishops of our diocese were French, as were many of the early Catholics in this part of the United States. But now I understand even more what this history means – all the many connections between the early Catholic pioneers of this area – and maybe even the beginning of some lessons for living our Catholic faith today, nearly 200 years after the founding of the Diocese of Vincennes. And I also am beginning to understand the significance of the fact that our early Catholic pioneers came not just from France, but from Brittany, the somewhat isolated and rebellious region in the far northwest of France that is so tied to the sea that its residents more readily sailed across the ocean to be courageous missionaries in a foreign land. We Catholics of Indiana owe them our gratitude. But we also seek their guidance and intercession that we, too, may offer courageous witness to the presence of Jesus Christ, incarnate in our midst.

Bishop Simon Brute in Rennes

We didn’t expect to be eating dinner in the residence of the Eudist religious community last night. But so it was. Sitting around the table were the pastor of St. Germain Church in Rennes, the home parish of Bishop Simon Brute, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, where he was baptized and made his first communion. At this same parish, the second bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, Bishop Celestine de la Hailandiere, served for almost 10 years as a young priest before being sent to the United States as a missionary. Also around the dinner table was the chaplain for the school where St. Theodora Guerin had taught for 8 years in Rennes before she came to the United States as a missionary; he also serves as the pastor of the parish that through the centuries has been both the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rennes and the home to a large Benedictine Monastery. Another French priest from the Eudist religious community in Rennes was at the dinner table, plus an American seminarian from California who is spending a few weeks in Rennes as part of his formation for the Eudists, a congregation founded by St. John Eudes that had its first foundation in the United States when they were invited to staff a seminary in Vincennes, Indiana. And rounding out the dinner table were the three of us priests from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, who had come on pilgrimage to explore the French Catholic roots of Indiana.

For much of the last 250 years, such a gathering of priests and seminarians would be unthinkable. The Church of St. Germain in Rennes had been closed during the French Revolution, like all other churches in France, and had been turned into a munitions warehouse. The Eudists pretty much died out in the French Revolution, being refounded in the 1820s by a priest who hid in Rennes in a building from which he could see the blood that flowed from the guillotine to the river. Bishop Brute himself had witnessed the trials of countless priests during the Revolution as they were led to their deaths. The Brute family lives in apartments in the Brittany Parliament building in Rennes. Directly above their apartment was a chapel that during the Revolution was turned into a courtroom for the trials of priests and other victims of the Reign of Terror. Priests hid in the Brute family apartment during the Reign of Terror. And during her years in Rennes, Mother Theodore Guerin could never have imagined that her religious community would found schools and produce teachers who educated each of the three Indiana priests who had come to Rennes on pilgrimage.

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Brute family apartment in the Brittany Parliament (lower left window), and chapel (upper left window).

This remarkable dinner was the culmination of a day that saw us visit the Brittany Parliament building and see the old chapel where a young Simon Brute sat to watch trials of priests during the Reign of Terror. The room is now a deliberation room for the local court of appeals. We spent time in prayer at the Church of St. Germain early in the day and then later returned to join the parish community for their evening Mass for the Vigil of the Epiphany, which we were invited to concelebrate. And thanks to directions from the chaplain of the school, we were able to see the school building where St. Theodora taught during her years in Rennes – it is still used as a school and student residence today.

Before Mass, Fr. Hubert, the pastor of Bishop Brute’s home parish, opened a drawer in the sacristy to show us the chasuble and miter that belonged to the saintly son of the parish who went on to become the first Bishop of Vincennes. Fr. Hubert wore the chasuble for Christmas Masses this year, and the miter was recently worn by the Bishop of Mosul, Iraq, on a visit to Rennes.

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Bishop Simon Brute’s Miter, from his home parish of St. Germain, Rennes, France.

When we mentioned something about Mother Theodore Guerin being our Saint – our only Hoosier Saint – Fr. Nicolas, who is chaplain at the school she taught at in the 1820s, was insistent that she is their Saint – a French Saint – just as much as a Hoosier one.

And the more we hear about St. John Eudes and his spirituality – centered on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Incarnation – we realize that each of the people and communities who are part of the origins of the Catholic Church in Indiana were formed by this spirituality – whether Bishop Brute himself or the Sisters of Providence or the Congregation of Holy Cross or even the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Our Hoosier Catholic heritage is rich here in northwestern France. And the memory of the holy men and women who came of age in the French Revolution, persevered in the expression of their faith, and were sent as missionaries to the United States remains strong in their homeland. We have been blessed on this pilgrimage to not only walk in the footsteps of our forebears in faith but to meet their spiritual children who continue their legacy in their native land.

Small Town France

Today has been a slower day on our pilgrim journey – a chance to recharge and rest up a bit a little more than half-way through our trip. Being the traditional day of the Epiphany, it is also a bit of a day of rest for us. Which meant that we got a later start, ended earlier than normal, and only visited three small towns in the area. It really was a slower pace for us. The three small towns we visited were all quaint and picturesque French towns – and each with it’s own significance. Here’s a brief overview:

  • Combourg – for our purposes in exploring the French Catholic roots of Indiana, this is the hometown of the second Bishop of Vincennes, Bishop Celestine de la Hailandiere. There’s also a large and fairly well-known chateau in Combourg where the French writer Chateaubriand lived.
  • Saint-Pern – the Motherhouse of the Little Sisters of the Poor is right outside this village. St. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the order, is buried in the crypt. We are blessed to have a community of Little Sisters of the Poor in Indianapolis, where they operate St. Augustine Home for the Aged.
  • Montfort-sur-Meu – the hometown of St. Louis de Montfort, author of True Devotion to Mary and other spiritual and theological works, who is best known for his approach to consecration to Jesus through Mary.
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Tomb of St. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Tonight, we will celebrate Mass for the Memorial of St. Andre Bessette, a brother of the Congregation of the Holy Cross whose simple faith and devotion to St. Joseph changes countless lives in Montreal. We also remember in prayer Cardinal Joseph Tobin, CSsR, who is being installed today as the Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey. Tomorrow, we will visit the home of Bishop Simon Brute, the visit Bishop of Vincennes, who was born and raised in Rennes, France. I am starting to piece together the story of the French Catholic pioneers of Indiana, what led them to our country, and what we can learn from their origins and spirituality. But we have more to explore before putting those thoughts together – so stay tuned!


Anne-Therese Guerin was born in a small village on the sea, the northern coast of Brittany, France, named Etable-sur-Mer. The village’s life revolved around the sea, and from her house, the young Anne-Therese could easily walk to the cliff overlooking the bay and then climb down the rocky hill to walk along the shell-filled beach. From there, she could have walked back up the cliff, past the family home, and just a few blocks to the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption at the very center of the village. It was in that church that she had been baptized, made her first communion, and prayed countless times. It is an old church, with foundations in the 12th century. Today, it is one of six church buildings that are part of a linked parish community, with Mass rotating among the six local villages.

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Birthplace of St. Theodora Guerin

Our pilgrim journey today took us to the birthplace of Anne-Therese Guerin – later Sister St. Theodore – later Mother Theodore – and now St. Theodora Guerin. The foundations of the house have been preserved through the last two-hundred years, and significant renovations around the time of Mother Theodore’s canonization have resulted in the creation of a shrine and place of prayer tucked in between neighboring homes in the still- vibrant vilage. Sr. Annick, SP, a Sister of Providence ministering in a nearby town, met us there to show us the shrine and accompany us in prayer. Our overall impression of the place was one of peace – a quiet shrine in a sleepy village, with birds singing in the background and the faraway sound of the waves of the sea. There are signs guiding people to the shrine from the middle of town – clearly the people of Etables are proud of their native Saint.

We then visited the village church and celebrated Mass in the place that had so often seen young Anne-Therese Guerin and her family at prayer. A walk along the seaside cliffs and a rocky beach gave us further impressions of the character of the home-town of a French Saint who came to call Indiana home.

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Baptismal Font at parish church in Etables-sur-Mer where Anne-Therese Guerin was baptized.

In our time in France, we have repeatedly been struck by the wonders of the Providential hand of God. To think that a woman born in a small village in northern France in the years following the French Revolution would make her way to Indiana in the United States where she would begin a religious community whose members educated each of the three of us priests who today visited her birthplace –  we can only be grateful for God’s providence and guiding hand. As we bid farewell earlier this week to Sr. Martine, SP, the Superior General of the Sisters of Providence of Ruille, France, we thanked her for her generous time in showing us the community’s motherhouse. She said that when you are so full of something you love, you have to share it with others. Such is the witness of holy people like Mother Theodore. Such is the witness of people like Sr. Martine. Such is the life that we all strive for as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Le Mans, Day 2

Le Mans, France, is a must-visit town. Not only is there rich history for Catholics – especially those from the state of Indiana or who are associated with the Congregation of Holy Cross or the Sisters of Providence – but for anyone interested in history, faith, culture, art, or who just enjoys wandering old, narrow lanes. I had never really heard much about Le Mans before preparing for this pilgrimage, but now I can’t wait to come back – perhaps in warmer weather! – to spend more time in this beautiful city. Here are a few highlights from today …

We began the day by celebrating Mass at the tomb of Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross. From there, we visited the local market to get some fresh croissants and pastries to accompany our coffee and tea in a local cafe. We then visited the Le Mans’ Cathedral of St. Julien, which houses the oldest stained glass window in Europe in its original location (see below) and – among other things – the tomb of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Bouvier who was a spiritual father to both Blessed Moreau and St. Theodora Guerin.

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Following our visit to the Cathedral, we wandered through the quaint, picturesque narrow lanes of Old Town Le Mans, past 1000 year old buildings, including the house where King Henry II of England was born. Some might see a vision of Hogsmeade from Harry Potter in the look of this Old Town. Or just what we imagine medieval French towns to look like. It’s really all there. Two other churches were on our path – the Visitation Church where Blessed Moreau was ordained a priest and the Church of Notre Dame de la Couture, an 11th-century Romanesque church built over the tomb of St. Bertrand and featuring the oldest statue of Jesus in France. So. Much. History. And art. And faith. And culture. And life.

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After bidding farewell to our host, Fr. John, CSC, we made the journey to our next stop – Rennes – where we will be for the next few days. After settling into our residence on the outskirts of Rennes, we journeyed out for a wonderful French dinner – appetizers included foie gras, an egg parfait, and fresh oysters. Tomorrow, our plan is to drive up to the coast of Brittany to visit the birthplace of St. Theodora Guerin in Etables-sur-Mer. Please continue to pray for us on our pilgrim journey, and know that we are praying for you!

Le Mans and Environs

Le Mans is an ancient town. After the local Celtic tribe was conquered by Julius Caesar, it became a Roman stronghold. Later invasions by Normans and Vikings continually caused the city to change hands. King Henry II of England – the founder of the royal House of Plantagenet – was born here. It was one of the last cities to be liberated by American troops during World War II. Today, about 150,000 people call it home, including a significant college population. And the city and its immediate environs are the home of two religious congregations which have formed a significant part of the Catholic history and faith in far-away Indiana – the Congregation of Holy Cross and the Sisters of Providence. Today, we explored the roots of these two communities.

Fr. John De Riso, CSC, is the Rector of the Shrine of Blessed Basil Moreau and Pastor of the mother-church of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Fr. John has been hosting us during our stay in Le Mans, and today he gave us a detailed tour of the shrine and church and explained the history of the foundation of the community. Blessed Moreau was a priest of the Diocese of Le Mans who brought together a community of priests to serve in the Holy Cross neighborhood of Le Mans. They were formed in 1835 and later joined with a group of religious brothers who had been founded by another local priest, Fr. Jacques Dujarie, to become the Congregation of Holy Cross. Leter, a community of religious sisters was also formed as part of the Holy Cross family. In Indiana, we best know this community because of the work of an early collaborator of Blessed Moreau, Fr. Edward Sorin, who was sent to the United States in 1841 and went on to found the University of Notre Dame. In addition to the University, the three branches of the Holy Cross family – the priests, brothers, and sisters – have all had a significant presence in Indiana. My high school alma mater, Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, was staffed for many years by the Holy Cross Brothers and in recent years has reaffiliated with Holy Cross.

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Tomb of Blessed Basil Moreau.

As part of our tour, we were able to pray at the tomb of Blessed Moreau and also visit the original Holy Cross novitiate, which now houses a community of Holy Cross Marianist Sisters and a small museum about the founder.

This afternoon, we met up with Sister Martine Meuwissen, SP, the Superior General of the Sisters of Providence of Ruille-sur-Loire. In an interesting confluence of history, the Sisters of Providence were founded by Fr. Jacques Dujarie – the same priest who had founded the community of brothers that later joined Blessed Moreau’s priests to become the Congregation of Holy Cross. Fr. Dujarie was the parish priest in Ruille-sur-Loire, a small village about an hour’s drive from Le Mans. He saw a need to engage in ministry to the many poor and elderly people in this rural area in the years following the French Revolution, so he brought together a group of women to do this work in 1806. This group became the Sisters of Providence. Thirty-four years later, in 1840 (just a year before Fr. Sorin made his journey), a group of Sisters of Providence was sent to Indiana to open an academy. The group was led by Sister St. Theodore Guerin, who established the community at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana.

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Little Providence, Ruille-sur-Loire (note the chapel in the background where St. Theodora Guerin prayed).

Sister Martine took us to the original home of the congregation – called Little Providence – with a small chapel where Mother Theodore prayed. We then visited the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence, from which Mother Theodore was sent to Indiana, and the parish church in the village where she made her solemn vows. The chapel of the Motherhouse also holds the tomb of Fr. Dujarie and some extraordinary stained glass windows – some of the most beautiful and vibrant that any of us have ever seen, rivaling (in our minds) even the famed windows of Chartres Cathedral! The Sisters of Providence were gracious hosts, and we truly feel that we understand Mother Theodore – our Hoosier Saint – better now by visiting her French spiritual home.

This evening, we joined Fr. John for Mass with some local college students – he assists with the university’s campus ministry program – followed by a lovely dinner and games with the college community. Among the students I spoke with is a young man who is a Melkite Christian from Aleppo, Syria, who has been forced to move to France because of the great violence in his home country. Perhaps more on his story another time.

It has truly been a remarkable day for the three of us – each of whom have personal connections to both the Congregation of Holy Cross and the Sisters of Providence. Later, I hope to reflect more on what we can learn from these visits about our understanding of the Church in Indiana beyond the mere historical connections. But, for now, it’s time for rest before an early morning Mass at the tomb of Blessed Basil Moreau.


French Catholic Roots of Indiana

A fleur-de-lis – symbol of France – appears prominently on the crest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The first four bishops of the Diocese of Vincennes (now the Archdiocese of Indaianpolis) were born in France. Two of the major religious and educational institutions in Indiana – the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College – were founded by religious orders that were founded in France. The only canonized Saint who lived and ministered in Indiana – St. Theodora Guerin – was born and raised in France. The first Catholics in the state of Indiana were French. Only later came Germans and Irish and Italians and so many others. The heritage of the Catholic Church in Indiana is primarily French.


And even more remarkably, the three most prominent Catholic pioneers of Indiana were not only all French – but they were all from a small region of northwestern France, and all were formed in the years during and immediately following the French Revolution. Bishop Simon Brute, first Bishop of Vincennes, was from Rennes in Brittany. St. Theodora Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, was born in Etables-sur-Mer, just 70 miles north of Rennes in Brittany, and she spent several years teaching and the superior of a school in Rennes, Bishop Brute’s hometown. About a hundred miles east of Rennes is Le Mans, where Blessed Basil Moreau founded the Congregation of Holy Cross and sent a group of priests and brothers, included Fr. Edward Sorin, who had been born half-way between Rennes and Le Mans, to Indiana, where they founded the University of Notre Dame. And all of this happened in more-or-less a fifty year period after the French Revolution, from 1800-1850.

Map of the Diocese of Vincennes drawn by Bishop Simon Brute.

Map of the Diocese of Vincennes drawn by Bishop Simon Brute.

This Sunday, I depart with two other priests from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to explore our French Catholic roots. We plan to visit Rennes, Le Mans, Etables-sur-Mer, and other places in between where these faithful and courageous men and women were formed in the faith and were sent forth to evangelize in the wilds of Indiana, laying the foundation for the Catholic Church in this state, which we are now called to serve. We are particularly interested in seeing what we can discover about this particular small corner of France in that particular generation after the French Revolution that raised up such a strong missionary spirit and ardent faith. And we hope that what we learn about our roots can inform our own ministry in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis today, so that the seeds planted by Bishop Brute, Mother Theodore Guerin, the Congregation of Holy Cross, and so many others, will continue to bear fruit.

I ask your prayers for safe journeys and insightful explorations. And watch this blog for updates along the way.