Local History: A Look at the Old Cathedral


Ben Edwards

Old Cathedral

The Old Cathedral and its history 

History is such a big part of Vincennes, Indiana. Some examples of historic sites are William Henry Harrison’s home, the George Rogers Clark Memorial, Indiana Military Museum, Red Skelton Museum and Vincennes University being the first college in Indiana. Vincennes is home to many churches ranging from many different religions. The oldest church and probably one of the most historic of them all is the Old Cathedral.

The history of The Old Cathedral dates back as far as 1826. On March 30, 1826, the foundation was laid by Fr. John Leo Champomier. This was based on the plans from the cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky. In 1834 Pope Gregory XVI named the church the cathedral of the Diocese of Vincennes. 

The St. Francis Xavier Parish is the oldest parish in Indiana. It has been part of six different dioceses. The diocese is Quebec, Baltimore, Bardstown Kentucky, Vincennes Indiana, Indianapolis Indiana, and Evansville Indiana. 

According to the church website the first resident pastor visited the parish in 1748, following that a year later the church recorded its first marriage in 1749. (You can see more on this record in the Museum Library). 

In a pamphlet written by Richard Day for the tours of the Old Cathedral he said that the pillars are made of giant yellow poplar that are native to the area. 

He also said that in the succeeding years a bell tower was set to accommodate a crypt for the remains of Bishop Brute in 1839.  

Built inside the Old Cathedral is the oldest library in Indiana which has ten thousand rare volumes and documents dating all the way back to 1319. Richard Day wrote that the Old Cathedral library was built to house these books and early records. Bishop Brute had a personal library that had over 5,000 books in it. 

Some of the artifacts on display at the Old Cathedral include prehistoric stone tools, 18th century maps and paintings, Governor William Henry Harrision’s peace pipe and Abraham Lincoln’s campaign banner along with many other items. 

The bishop’s chair still resides in the church and is only used when the diocesan bishop presides. One of the church’s original stained glass windows can be seen in the Old Cathedral museum and library. All of the original stained glass windows in the church date back to 1903 and depict biblical scenes except the last two which feature St. Patrick  and the conversion of Ireland and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The stations of the cross were painted in Paris in 1883. The carvings were done locally. 

Below the church is the crypt. The four bishops are buried in the crypt. The bishops buried in the crypt are Simon Brute, Celestine de la Hailandiere, John Stephen Bazin, and Maurice de St. Palails. 

The Old Cathedral’s complex includes a French and Indian cemetery. In this cemetery more than four thousand of the state’s earliest settlers are buried in it. Along with soldiers and patriots of the American Revolution. 

You can take a tour and get plenty of more history about the Old Cathedral. Unfortunately you are not able to at this time because of Covid. Hopefully it will open back up soon. 

Vincennes is full of history all around town, so it’s not hard to miss when you visit. Always make sure you stop and enjoy it. You are bound to learn something new eventually.