The Old Cathedral Library

Unsurprisingly, the oldest Catholic parish in Indiana houses the oldest library in Indiana. Early Catholic priests were often the only educated people in an area. What is surprising is that almost half of the 11,000 items in the library come from the personal library of Simon Bruté (1779-1839), the first bishop of the former Diocese of Vincennes. On second thought, maybe it is not so surprising considering that President John Quincy Adams, no intellectual slouch himself, called Bruté “the most learned man of his day in America.”

In 1794, Fr. Benedict Joseph Flaget—a priest at the St. Francis Xavier parish (1792-1795) and an educator in the community—set up the library. In its present form, the library is housed in a separate building behind the Old Cathedral in Vincennes, Indiana. The building is small (clearly not all documents are on display) and only open for limited hours during the summer months, but it is worth a visit.

The library contains an eclectic collection of religious, historical, and political documents. The majority of the documents are in French (60%)—the language of the early Jesuits and community—or Latin (25%)—the language of the church. But Bruté was an incredibly well educated man and had in his possession books in other languages.

The oldest document in the library is a 1319 papal bull (from Pope John XXII urging Christians to help the poor). The oldest book is The Book of Psalms from the 11th or 12th century. The oldest printed book using movable type is Michael de Carcano’s Sermonarium Triplicatum (1476).

The library contains Francis Vigo’s prayer book. Vigo, who hailed from Mondovi, Sardonia, was instrumental in helping George Rogers Clark capture the fort at Vincennes and push the British out of the area during the Revolutionary War—he backed Clark by loaning him the money he needed. (The government never made good on the loans and Vigo died in poverty on March 22, 1836.)

The library includes two complete sets of polygot bibles that were published in Paris in 1645. The bibles are written in 7 different languages: Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Chaldean, Samaritan, and Latin. The library also includes bibles in a variety of other languages: Gaelic, Welsh, Spanish, and Hebrew.

Bruté collected books across the religious spectrum: St. Augustine’s City of God (1620), a Koran (1684), a book on the Episcopal Church (1817), a book on Armenian rites (1642), and a book by John Calvin (1561). He also owned books important to political and philosophical discourse of the time, witness a book by Locke (1695) in the library.

In addition, the library houses documents of historical significance.

  • A letter from Fr. Petit, who traveled with the Potawatomi during their removal from Indiana, to Bruté dated November 16, 1838
  • A document showing that in 1794 Congress approved $200 for a teacher of sciences and Christianity for the Indians. As a result, Fr. John Francis Rivet was sent to Vincennes on May 1, 1795 to teach. (In 1801, Fr. Rivet was asked by the Indiana Territorial Governor Harrison to teach at the new Jefferson Academy.)
  • The oldest document written in Indiana—a marriage record dated April 21, 1749
  • The 1767 British census of Vincennes and the Byelaws of the President and Trustees of the Borough of Vincennes (published by Elihu Stout)
  • Rivet’s will

The Old Cathedral Library is clearly a treasure trove of information about the early church, early Vincennes, and early Indiana—located in an old French trading town on the Wabash River, an important hub in the 1700s.