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As he looked around the historic room in France, Father Eric Augenstein couldn’t stop thinking about the 14-year-old youth who once witnessed the horror and the courage that unfolded there.
He also couldn’t stop thinking about how people’s choices of faith can have a great impact on the faith of others, sometimes even creating influences that extend for generations and across centuries.
Standing in the room, Father Augenstein learned that it had once been used as a chapel during the French Revolution of the late 18th century—a chapel that later became a courtroom where priests and other people were condemned to death by guillotine during a period known as the Reign of Terror.
Letting all that horror and history soak into him, Father Augenstein thought of the 14-year-old boy who watched as the priests were sentenced to death. The vocations director for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis also marveled at how that defining experience would eventually lead the youth to leave France, travel to Indiana and become the archdiocese’s first bishop.
“Fourteen-year-old Simon Bruté would sit in the back of the chapel-turned-courtroom during the trials of priests, all the while knowing that his mother was hiding priests in their apartment one floor below,” Father Augenstein says. “He would also secretly take the Eucharist to prisoners.
“Over the years, I had heard a lot about Bishop Bruté’s ministry in the United States, but I didn’t know about his firsthand experiences of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. To be in the same room where the young Simon Bruté saw all these events unfold was quite moving.
“Then to think that the courageous witness of these condemned priests inspired Simon to answer God’s call to the priesthood himself—that’s a vocation story worth much reflection and admiration.”
That story of the ripple effects of faith is just one of the memorable moments from the journey that Father Augenstein, Father Anthony Hollowell and Father Kyle Rodden made to France in January.
Indeed, that moment is just one part of the extraordinary story that connects the archdiocese to a certain section of France—a connection that Father Augenstein described in a blog post he wrote about the journey:
“Even more remarkably, the three most prominent Catholic pioneers of Indiana were not only all French, they were from a small region of northwestern France, “ Father Augenstein notes. “And all were formed in the years during and immediately following the French Revolution.
“Bishop Bruté was from Rennes.
St. Theodora, foundress of the Sisters of Providence and St. Mary-of-the-Woods, was born in Etables-sur-Mer, just 70 miles north of Rennes. 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, including Father Edward Sorin—who had been born halfway 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 50-year period after the French Revolution, from 1800-1850.”
Packed with that history, the three priests set off to discover the roots of the Catholic faith in the archdiocese—and the roots of faith in their own lives.
One of the most moving stops on their journey occurred in the village of Ruille, home to the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence—the order that had a hand in the education of all three priests as they grew up in Indiana.
“On this property, we went to a small house, not much bigger than a barn, and it contained two bedrooms, a common room, two closets and a small chapel,” recalls Father Hollowell, who is finishing graduate studies in Rome after being ordained in June of 2016.
“This was the building in which the first Sisters of Providence began their work and ministry. As I looked at that shabby building and its decrepit surroundings, it was a stark reminder that God can build great things from very little, and God’s greatest works are often begun far away from the spotlight of the world.”
Father Rodden described visiting the motherhouse as one of “these moments I will treasure.”
“In particular, I remember stumbling into the chapel where St. Theodora had prayed with her community,” says the associate pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis. “Each moment of prayer for me was a celebration of gratitude and nourishment for my own ministry.”
On that same January day, the three priests were in Le Mans to visit the shrine of Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross—the order that would send Father Sorin from France to Indiana where he would start the University of Notre Dame.
That connection has special meaning to Father Hollowell, who graduated with baccalaureate and master’s degrees from the Catholic university in northern Indiana.
“I had the great joy of celebrating Mass at the tomb of Father Moreau,” Father Hollowell says. “I thanked him for the countless graces I received from the university—from the many Holy Cross priests who served me and helped nurture my vocation, to the great classes I attended and the great people that I met. The time I spent at Notre Dame was indispensable for preparing me to be a priest.”
Their journey also led them to the birthplace of St. Theodora in Etables-sur-Mer, a village overlooking the sea.
“The young Anne-Therese Guérin could easily walk to the cliff overlooking the bay and then climb down the rocky hill to walk along the shell-filled beach,” Father Augenstein notes in his blog post. “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.”
They also visited her birthplace.
“The foundations of the house have been preserved through the last 200 years,” Father Augenstein says. “Significant renovations around the time of her canonization have resulted in the creation of a shrine and place of prayer. Our overall impression of the place was one of peace—with birds singing in the background and the faraway sound of the waves of the seas.”
Celebrating Mass in the same village church where Indiana’s only saint often prayed had a great impact on the three priests.
So did the renewed, meaningful appreciation that she left France in 1840 to travel to the wilderness of Indiana to begin a religious community of women who would help shape the minds and hearts of children throughout the state for generations to come.
So did the fact that a band of men from the Congregation of Holy Cross that Father Moreau founded would leave France in 1841, and a year later establish the University of Notre Dame.
So did the new knowledge about the French Revolution’s influence on the life of Bishop Bruté.
“The testimonies of their devotion and zeal came to life before our eyes as we touched the humble beginnings of our Indiana French Catholic ancestry,” Father Rodden says.
Father Hollowell sees something poetic in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis being “founded on the ashes of the French Revolution.”
“Our diocesan founders lived at a time when being a priest or even participating in the sacraments was immediately punished by death,” he says. “Yet they lived through these times with a deep sense of Christian joy and trust in the providence of God.
“Neither Bruté, nor Guérin, nor Moreau could have possibly foreseen how their small acts of trust would grow into a gushing fountain of grace: how many people have been baptized in our archdiocese over the years, how many first Communions, how many happy Catholic weddings, how many lives enriched and souls saved by the seeds they planted. But they did trust, and they did act. And the result is astonishing.”
It’s also a lesson in faith for our times, he says.
“This trip gave me a deep appreciation for the grandeur of God’s plan and the beauty of his providence as it unfolds over time,” Father Hollowell says. “Pope Francis encourages us to ‘go out to the margins.’ I understand more deeply just how such an effort can bring forth abundant fruit, because 200 years ago the untamed lands of central and southern Indiana were definitely in the margins.” †