Fr. Benjamin Petit: Notre Dame’s hidden spiritual cornerstone
Letter to the Editor | Friday, February 10, 2023
On the evening of this Feb. 10, at 7:00 p.m., a special Mass will be celebrated at the Log Chapel by Father Paul Doyle, C.S.C. to honor Fr. Benjamin Petit, the great missionary to the Potawatomi, who died on this date in 1839. He died of illness and exhaustion after accompanying his Indian parishioners on their forced removal march to Kansas. For the last two years on Feb. 10, a small group of friends have gathered at the Log Chapel, where he is buried, to remember his remarkable life and his early death. This year, we are welcoming anyone from the Notre Dame community who wishes to join us.
Father Benjamin Marie Petit was a young man, a former lawyer, a Frenchman, a missionary to America, a Catholic priest and martyr of charity who gave his life in service to the Potawatomi Indians of northern Indiana. I write this short article to make his remarkable story more known among the Notre Dame family.
Three good sources for the life of Fr. Petit that I have consulted are: “Potawatomi Trail of Death: 1838 Removal from Indiana to Kansas,” by Shirley Willard and Susan Campbell (2003), “Walking the Trail of Death,” by Keith Drury (2007) and a historical novel, “The Last Blackrobe of Indiana and The Potawatomi Trail of Death,” by John William McMullen (2010).
In 1835, while studying at the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris, Benjamin Petit was recruited by Bishop Brute of Vincennes, Indiana to come to America, finish his priestly training and then serve as a missionary priest in the diocese of Vincennes, which comprised all of Indiana and part of northern Illinois at the time.
In 1837, the Catholic Potawatomi people of northern Indiana, facing the threat of imminent forced removal to Kansas, desperately needed a new priest. Bishop Brute cut short Petit’s studies and ordained him to the priesthood early, assigning him to the Potawatomi mission. He ministered at Twin Lakes near Plymouth, Indiana, and at St. Mary of the Lake, outside of South Bend (the future site of the University of Notre Dame). When the removal order came in September of 1838 for the forced march to Kansas, Father Petit obtained the Bishop’s permission to accompany the Potawatomi on their long, sad march. After accompanying the survivors to their new home in Kansas, he started his journey back to Indiana in January of 1839. Being very ill by that time, he stopped in St. Louis, where he stayed at the Jesuit college. He said his last Mass there on Feb. 2, and died on Feb. 10; he was not quite 28 years old. In 1856, Father Sorin brought his body back to Notre Dame. First buried in Sacred Heart Basilica, his remains were later transferred in the 1970s to a grave in the Log Chapel, alongside fellow missionaries Father Stephen Badin and Father Louis DeSeille.
Fr. Petit was a man with wisdom, who made an incredible journey of faith which ended on Feb. 10 in 1839. He is fittingly buried under the Log Chapel at Notre Dame because this saint, this martyr of charity, is truly Notre Dame’s spiritual cornerstone!
He demonstrated his willingness to lay down his life by traveling the Trail of Death simply because he loved his Potawatomi parishioners. His sacrifice provides us with a rich example of a Christian life well lived.
Fr. Petit endured the depredations of the government of the State of Indiana and the federal government as well. He also endured the disease-ridden conditions caused by the forced journey of 660 miles cross country in drought and extreme heat and exposure to extreme cold on his way home to Indiana. He eventually succumbed to an early death caused by this trauma.
Fr. Petit was trained as a lawyer in France before he became a priest, and from his correspondence, one can see both his legal abilities as well as his practical wisdom. For example, he was very adept at managing money. At the beginning of his work with the Potawatomi, he made very serious efforts to appeal to the Federal authorities on their behalf, so they could stay on their ancestral lands in Indiana. But all legal efforts were useless, and he had to accept that his parishioners would be removed.
He clearly gave himself very wholeheartedly to his mission to the Potawatomi. He was able to master all three languages he needed to use — his native tongue, French, the English spoken by the Americans and the language of the Potawatomi. With his characteristic mercy, zeal and compassion — he was able to “pass over” (as Notre Dame’s late theologian Father John Dunne put it) from the different cultural standpoints represented by these three languages and return to his own standpoint of faith enriched by the encounter.
Fr. Petit worked tirelessly throughout his time on the trail to help the Potawatomi. Years later, in loving remembrance of the sufferings endured by the Potawatomi and Fr. Petit, a group of people made up of historians, Potawatomi, boy scouts, girl scouts and Catholics came together from 1976 till 2003, and placed 80 markers on the “Trail of Death.” It was now possible to travel this whole trail and to remember this tragic journey. In 2006, a theologian from Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana, Keith Drury, walked the entire 660 miles and wrote the compelling book mentioned above.
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
The Trail of Death is a trail of grief and loss, however marked by hope. The hope of the emergence of a gathering of the people of God, a “young Christendom” as Fr. Petit called it.
May I make a suggestion here about the vocation of the University of Notre Dame as it relates to this journey of Fr. Petit and his companions? It seems to me we are caught in a crisis of wisdom, where we might well cry out with the title of one of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s books, “Whose Justice, Which Rationality?”
In the midst of the sharp divisions and political, social and ideological polarization of our society today, Fr. Petit provides a strong example of how to actually embody the love and service of the Gospel. In these present conditions, I see fear playing a greater role in our lives than I could have ever imagined, driven by narratives that are often only half true. In the face of this, Fr. Petit stands out to us for the manner in which he poured out his life for those in his care. And that love — the love of God, issued in the desire to serve God’s glory and the salvation of all people. His desire then bore fruit in practical deeds done for others.
Fr. Petit was willing to take the injustice done to others without going into either rash violence or paralyzing despair. He was willing to patiently wait out the weaknesses of others to whose policies he was radically opposed, not simply to conduct, or to win, a debate. Rather, he acted as he did so he could more effectively serve the common good — beginning with his Potawatomi parishioners.
We are grateful for his example as he faced his trials and endured to become truly Notre Dame’s hidden spiritual cornerstone. Fr. Benjamin Petit pray for us.
Gus Zuehlke ’80
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.