The Old Cathedral

Was it a cathedral or a basilica? Was it the Old Cathedral, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, or the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier? Yes.

I was a bit perplexed about all of these names. They all pointed to the same place: a red brick church next to the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana. In 1836, the parish was given the designation of cathedral. In 1970, Pope Paul VI elevated the church to the status of basilica due to its historical nature. So St. Francis Xavier in Vincennes refers to a parish, a cathedral, and a basilica. (I am still not sure which name to call it.)

The building houses a functioning parish, but it was difficult for me to determine if the hubbub around the church involved mostly parishioners or tourists. The church is open to visitors, but it wasn’t clear to me what the hours were that visitors could stroll through the building.

The church has operated continually since 1732, when Jesuits built a log cabin on this site. (Parish records start in 1749.) Over the centuries, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral has been a part of six dioceses under different governing bodies: Indian, French, Spanish, British, Vincennes under Clark, and US.

The church has been rebuilt three times. In 1770, a second log cabin replaced the first. In 1786, a third building for the church was constructed. In 1826, the present incarnation was built.

Since then alterations have been made to the structure. Between 1840 and 1841, a bell tower was added and the sanctuary was raised to house a crypt. In 1870, Wilhelm Lamprecht of Munich, Germany painted a mural of the crucifixion as the centerpiece in the sanctuary.

The crypt lies behind the sanctuary and down some stairs. The crypt contains the remains of four bishops: Simon Bruté (1834-1839), Celestine de la Hailandière (1839-1847), John Stephen Bazin (1847-1848), and Maurice de St. Palais (1849-1877). This area also houses the remains of the 3rd c. martyr St. Aufidia.

Vincennes was a central hub of French fur trading. In 1763, Vincennes and the environs fell under British control. The area remained French in culture, in inhabitants, and in religion—the St. Francis Xavier parish continued.

In 1769 Fr. Pierre Gibault, who had an important role in the community, visited Vincennes and return periodically. In 1778, he convinced the French inhabitants to sign an oath of allegiance to the US and to turn the fort over to George Rogers Clark. In 1784, he became a resident priest.

In the 1790s, two other priests important to the history of the parish and the Indiana Territory arrived at St. Francis Xavier. In 1792, Fr. Benedict Joseph Flaget—later known as the father of parochial education in Indiana—set up a school. In 1795, Fr. John Francis Rivet—Indiana’s first public school teacher—set up a public school.

Next to the church is a cemetery where tombstones for other priests important to the church and people important to the early life of Vincennes remain. In total 5,000 people lie buried in the cemetery though you would never know from the few tombstones that grace the cemetery.

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