by Carmen Doyle
While he is best known for building the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fr. Benoit contributed in other ways to the history of Catholicism in Fort Wayne.
(For more on the building of the Cathedral, read the December blog post “A Brief History of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception http://historycenterfw.blogspot.com/2012_12_01_archive.html)
Born in France in 1808, Benoit entered the seminary at age 17. He was an excellent student, and completed his studies to become a priest before he was even old enough to be ordained. Benoit began teaching as a deacon at age 21 and within a few years he became a professor at the Grand Seminary at Lyons, France.
In 1835, Benoit met Bishop Simon Brute from Vincennes, who had come to Lyons in the hopes of attracting young priests to the challenges of the American frontier. Brute stayed for two weeks with Benoit. Benoit was moved by Brute’s descriptions and offered to become a missionary to America.
According to later recollections by Benoit, Brute told him, “You are a spoiled child; you will never do for missions in America; you are accustomed to all comforts; you have such a beautiful position, but in America I can offer you nothing but corn bread and bacon, and not enough of that. There will be many a night when you will have no bed, many a day and night when you will have to be on horseback through the wilderness.”
Benoit replied, “If you can do it, why cannot I… a young man, be able to do it?” Within a year, Benoit came to America.
Benoit spent his first year in America studying English in Baltimore at St. Mary’s Seminary. He was ordained in 1837 and was sent by Brute via the Ohio River to minister to southern Indiana and then to canal towns near Chicago. Benoit came to Fort Wayne in 1840.
The diocese in Fort Wayne initially included much more than just Fort Wayne. Fr. Benoit ministered to several counties including Huntington, Columbia City, Warsaw, Hessen-Cassel and Decatur among others. Fr. Benoit was often the only priest the counties had, meaning that he could be riding 80 miles on horseback for a sick call.
Fr. Benoit was very trusted among the Miami Indians. When the Miami were forced to leave Fort Wayne and go to Kansas, they begged Fr. Benoit to go with them. Bishop Haliandiere at first refused Fr. Benoit’s request. Government troops were sent to enforce the order and the commanding officer told Fr. Benoit, “Unless you go with them, they will not go, and I will be obliged to hunt them down like wild beasts and kill them.”
Another of Fr. Benoit’s goals was to establish a school for both girls and boys.
The Sisters of Providence arrived to teach the girls and the Brothers of the Holy Cross for the boys. Both schools were divided into English and German, reflecting the culture of Fort Wayne.
When Fr. Benoit came to Fort Wayne, there was not much money- even the small St. Augustine church had a debt. (St. Augustine’s later became the Cathedral.) Fr. Benoit invested his money in real estate and made a large amount of money. The money he made he gave away, funding not only the Cathedral, but also schools, including building a place for the Sisters of Providence to live while teaching in the schools.
Another known act of generosity was the loan of 10,000 francs to help set up Notre Dame University. Fr. Benoit gave away the majority of his wealth quietly and did not often make publicly known donations except to the recipients.
When Fr. Benoit found out that he had terminal cancer, he began to give away his remaining wealth. When Bishop Dwenger arrived to give him Last Rites, Fr. Benoit told the Bishop that because he had come “into the world with nothing… I want to go out of it with nothing. I have about disposed of all I had, and you will likely find that you are obliged to pay my funeral expenses.”
Fr. Benoit died in January 1885, after serving Fort Wayne for 44 years, and was buried in the Cathedral in the diocese that he had helped to found and grow.
(Information came from Frontier Faith by George R. Mather and Biographical Sketch of Rt. Rev. Julian Benoit)