The Minor Basilica Of St. Francis Xavier, Vincennes
Sitting in the back corner of the Minor Basilica of St. Francis Xavier on the red balcony steps, my vantage point allowed me to see out over the entire congregation and the expanse of the Vincennes church. Noah, our two-year-old boy and I, had come to this spot minutes earlier. Although his repetitive narrative on the exploits of the Chicago Bears had certainly been entertaining, it hadn’t created the most pious atmosphere for those sitting nearby in the pews. So, we retired to our usual area in church, where he seemed to calm as he reached for the stain-glass window rising above us.
Suddenly, I found myself immersed in the scene unfolding around me. Amidst the undeniable warm beauty and centuries of tradition that covered the interior, I listened to Father John Schipp describe the insidious power that images hold in our lives. Outside, the temperature had not yet reached freezing; and as the wind rolled off the banks of the Wabash River, it reminded me of the trials and tribulations of those early people who attended Mass hundreds of years ago where we sat. A small group of friends and family had made the pilgrimage to Vincennes that morning to begin a historical journey through our diocese. Shortly before Mass, we had walked around the monument dedicated to George Rogers Clark and the critical moments of a fledgling nation. But it was years prior to his arrival, as early as 1734, that Jesuit priests began visiting the site, eventually setting up the first church in 1748. Parish records began a year later, but the Jesuits were expelled from Vincennes in 1763 when the town came under British control.
This began to change six years later. As the people struggled to carry on their faith, they were visited by Father Pierre Gibault. In 1778, he convinced the residents to sign over the Fort to Col. George Rogers Clark and become citizens of the United States. Incredible growth followed, as other churches and Catholic schools found their way into the diocese. The first bishops would also follow, including Father Simon Bruté, who became a spiritual advisor to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. He would be buried below the church with three of his successors, whose crypts are still visible today. In 1970, St. Francis Xavier would be designated a minor basilica (one of two in Indiana), an honor reserved for only the most historic of churches.
In my little corner, I could not help but think of the struggles that those early Catholics had embraced to allow me to sit comfortably while the Mass played out before me. I knew that, although our beloved Church had grown remarkably since those early years, we were faced with our own challenges. Vocations had declined, and church leaders faced unenviable decisions regarding closures. Although our struggles seemed more benign than those faced in the harsh, often-bitter times of those early settlers, it seemed that much was the same. We remained in a world that cried out for Christ, but one in which many perils were obstacles on the pathway to Him.
The offertory hymn began to play, leaving little doubt of what was being asked. Noah reached high again for the saint illuminated on the window. I felt myself choke up again as always when the words reverberated in my heart,
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown?
Will you let my name by known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
I hoped Noah would hear that call. I hoped that by the time he was my age, that the faith of those who sacrificed so dearly hundreds of years before would remain alive.
This reflection is from Jim Schroeder’s book “The Evansville Diocese Historical Tour: Footprints of Our Catholic Brethren.” Jim, his wife, Amy, and their 7 kids live in Evansville. They are parishioners at Holy Redeemer Parish. Jim is a pediatric psychologist and Vice President of the psychology department at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center. The full story, including illustrations, is available on Amazon or with his other books and articles at www.james-schroeder.com.