By Tim Johnson
FORT WAYNE — The feast of the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and to whom the cathedral in Fort Wayne is dedicated, marked a very special celebration on Dec. 8 — the sesquicentennial anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, celebrant of the Mass for the grand occasion, noted the historical significance of the cathedral: “December 8, 1860, 150 years ago today, the first bishop of Fort Wayne, Bishop John Henry Luers, celebrated a Pontifical High Mass on this, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and solemnly consecrated this beautiful cathedral.”
At the dedication, Bishop Rhoades said, “The cathedral was filled to overflowing. It was a glorious celebration for the Catholic community of Fort Wayne, for the diocese that was established just three years earlier, and indeed for the whole city of Fort Wayne.”
That tradition continued at the 150th anniversary Mass. The church was filled by the faithful. Eleven priests with association to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception concelebrated with Bishop-emeritus John M. D’Arcy, Rector Msgr. Robert Schulte, parochial vicars Father Dale Bauman and Father Celso Gomes and Vice Chancellor Father Jason Freiburger.
Parishioner Phil Didier provided a brief history of the cathedral before the celebration of the Mass. And Bishop Rhoades also spoke of the history of the church. A special tribute was given to Father Julian Benoit, “to whom, we are chiefly indebted for the speedy erection of the cathedral.”
Julian Benoit, who as a seminarian had been recruited by Bishop Simon Bruté, the bishop of Vincennes, to come to Indiana as a missionary, had arrived in the United States in 1836. He was ordained the next year at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., where Bishop Bruté had served as a superior, and then set out to come here to Indiana.
Bishop Rhoades had also served as rector of the Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary from 1997-2004 before his appointment as bishop of Harrisburg, Pa.
The whole state at that time was part of the Diocese of Vincennes, until 1857 when the Diocese of Fort Wayne was established to cover the northern half of Indiana. Father Benoit, 31 at the time, arrived in Fort Wayne in 1840. There was just a little frame Catholic church, named St. Augustine, on the very site where the cathedral is located. The 175th anniversary of the founding of the parish will be celebrated in 2011.
Father Benoit was a zealous missionary priest, who cared for churches in Lagro, Huntington, Columbia City, Warsaw, Goshen, Avilla, New France, New Haven, Besancon, Hessen Cassel and Decatur, and he was the one chiefly responsible for the building of the cathedral. He led the campaign to build this new cathedral, the largest church erected in Indiana at that time and he raised money from Catholics and Protestants alike.
Father Benoit traveled to New Orleans to raise money from friends there and contributed his own money as well.
“We can call Father Benoit the builder of this cathedral, not only because he raised the money, but also because he was the co-architect with Thomas Lau and had carefully supervised the construction,” Bishop Rhoades said. “Beneath us, in the cathedral crypt, lie the remains of Father Benoit and Bishop Luers. We remember them in prayer today. Father Benoit served here in Fort Wayne from 1840 until his death in 1885.”
Bishop Rhoades, in preparation for his homily, did some reading about Catholic life in Fort Wayne in 1860. The majority of parishioners at the cathedral, he related, were either French or Irish immigrants. The German Catholic immigrants had already left St. Augustine Church and built St. Mary’s Church just a few blocks away in the year 1849.
“We also remember the original inhabitants of this area, the Miami Indians,” Bishop Rhoades said. “Among the Catholics living in Fort Wayne when Father Benoit arrived were Miami Indians, most of mixed ancestry, like their leader, Chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville.”
When most of the Miamis were expelled and forced to move to the west by the federal government in 1848, the Miami Indians asked that Father Benoit accompany them to the Kansas territory. “They even refused to leave unless Father Benoit was allowed to accompany them,” Bishop Rhoades said. “He left with them, whom he called his ‘beloved children of the forest’ and after arriving in Kansas, stayed with them for two weeks before returning to Fort Wayne.”
Bishop Rhoades added, “Throughout his life, Father Benoit maintained a close relationship with the local members of the Miami tribe. The Miamis considered him their protector and their beloved pastor. Today, as we celebrate this 150th anniversary, we remember not only the immigrant Catholics from Europe, but also the native American Catholics, all pioneers of the Catholic faith here in our diocese.”
In 1860, the diocese was only three years old. Fort Wayne was a small city of 9,000 people. The diocese, which encompassed 42 northern Indiana counties, only had 11 diocesan priests when it was established and between 18,000 and 25,000 Catholics. President Abraham Lincoln was elected president just one month before this cathedral was consecrated and the nation was on the brink of the Civil War.
“Catholics here were mostly immigrants and poor,” Bishop Rhoades said. “Life was not easy for the Catholic immigrants, many of whom had arrived in the 1850s and faced many hardships and challenges.” These included devastating cholera epidemics that struck Fort Wayne and, on a national level, a lot of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.
“There was some anti-Catholicism in Fort Wayne,” Bishop Rhoades said, “but not open hostility like in other areas of the country. I think some of this was because of Father Benoit’s good relationship with many Protestant pastors and congregations — they had great respect for Father Benoit.”
In this diocese in 1860, Notre Dame was already 19 years old. The Congregation of Holy Cross was growing in strength and numbers in the South Bend area. The Holy Cross Brothers had sent a brother here to Fort Wayne in 1843 so that Father Benoit could open St. Augustine’s Institute, the first Catholic School in Fort Wayne. It was a co-ed school until the Sisters of Providence arrived in 1846 to staff a girl’s school, St. Augustine Academy. The Holy Cross Brothers then staffed the boys’ school.
Indiana’s saint came here in 1846. Mother Theodore Guérin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence, came to Fort Wayne with the first sisters who would teach at St. Augustine Academy. “Thanks to the Brothers of Holy Cross and the Sisters of Providence, Catholic education was already established here in Fort Wayne even before this cathedral was built,” Bishop Rhoades remarked.
“At this Mass, we remember our rich history,” he said. “We are inspired by our ancestors in the faith, by the pioneers who sacrificed so much, not only to build our beautiful cathedral, but to build the Catholic community here. We are heirs to a rich legacy of faith, a faith that we are called to embrace with renewed vigor and devotion.”
Bishop Rhoades spoke of the pioneer Catholics’ deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “They surely rejoiced back in 1854 when Blessed Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. That devotion is manifest by the fact that this cathedral was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Bishop Rhoades said, “In view of the merits of His Son, God kept Mary free from every stain of original sin from the moment of her conception. Thus, God prepared to give us the gift of His Son as our Redeemer.”
Bishop Rhoades said, “Pope Benedict XVI has said that Mary’s most beautiful name is the name God gave to her through the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation: ‘full of grace.’ Mary was fashioned by grace and formed as a new creature in her mother’s womb. She was ‘full of grace,’ entirely holy and free from all stain of sin. She remained so throughout her life.”
The bishop noted, “On this, Mary’s feast, we look to her as the perfect model of holiness, just like the faithful who built this cathedral did. Like Mary, we are deeply loved by God, who, as St. Paul says, ‘has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as He chose us in Him, … to be holy and without blemish before him.’ Mary teaches us the path of holiness, to say ‘yes’ to God’s grace and to God’s will, to say ‘no’ to selfishness and sin. In contemplating her Immaculate Conception, we discover our vocation to become, with Christ’s grace, ‘holy and without blemish before Him.’”
“We rejoice today at Mary’s feast,” Bishop Rhoades said. “We rejoice in the 150th anniversary of our beautiful cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. May Mary, our patroness, our mother, help us to grow in holiness, to live our faith each day with her spirit, the spirit that animated those first Catholics of Fort Wayne. It is the faith-filled spirit expressed in Mary’s response to the angel: “‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ I entrust you and all the people of our diocese to the motherly protection of the Immaculate Virgin Mary!”
After Mass, a reception followed in the parish center. A historical display and timelines were featured.
Nancy O’Brien, parish nurse and parishioner at the cathedral, said of the evening, “The beauty and full participation of those gathered for Mass tonight as we celebrated the 150th anniversary of our Cathedral’s consecration to Mary, our Mother, under the title the Immaculate Conception was an awesome and humbling experience for me and my husband. We were reminded that we all continue to build on the legacy for those who founded our mother church and are continuously blessed to be under her protection as our patroness.”
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