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.
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.
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.