Great Jesuits 7: Vicar General of Illinois
Part 7 of my continuing series on great Jesuits in American history. Born in Montreal on April 7, 1737, Pierre Gibault early in life decided that he wished to be a Jesuit missionary priest. Ordained on March 18, 1768, he was appointed by the Archbishop of Quebec to be the Vicar General of the Illinois country. Father Gibault arrived in Kaskaskia in Illinois on September 8, 1768. His flock consisted of French settlers, Indian converts, and members of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment who were temporarily stationed there.
As Vicar General of Illinois, Father Gibault had responsibility for a huge expanse of territory making up modern day Illinois and Indiana, very sparsely populated and with vast distances between the main settlements of Kaskaskia, Vincennes, Cahokia, Peoria, Saint Genevieve, Quiatenon and Saint Joseph. When he first arrived in Vincennes, the local inhabitants, desperate for a priest, greeted him with the cry, “Save us Father; we are nearly in Hell!” The territory was quite dangerous, and as Father Gibault rode the circuit, he always carried with him a musket and two pistols.
Father Gibault toiled away at his frontier outposts until history intervened in the form of George Rogers Clark who led a force of Virginians in 1778 to conquer the Illinois from the British during the American Revolution. After Clark and his men arrived in Kaskaskia, Father Gibault had a meeting with Clark in which he said that he supported the American cause, but that he wanted assurances that the Catholic faith would be respected by Clark and his men. Clark told the priest that freedom of religion was enshrined in Virginia law, and he also advised Father Gibault of the treaty between France and America.
Father Gibault threw his support to the Americans. He helped rally the French settlers to the cause of the Americans, encouraged the men to enlist with the Americans, and out of his private resources helped pay for the cost of the American campaign in the Illinois country. When Clark set out to reconquer Vincennes from the British, Father Gibault blessed the mixed French and American force. A post tomorrow will detail the campaign of George Rogers Clark, which resulted in the conquest of what became the Northwest territory for the US.
Father Gibault, after the American Revolution, continued to serve the Illinois Country. In 1790, he asked the American government to compensate him for the funds he had expended in the Revolution for America by awarding him land in Kaskaskia, traditionally used by priests, to him and his successors. President Washington approved the request, but the land was not granted due to the opposition of Bishop John Carroll, who apparently never got along with Father Gibault.
Father Gibault eventually moved to New Madrid, where he served as pastor in that Spanish ruled town from 1793 until his death in 1802. During World War II, a liberty ship bore his name. The Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo, Illinois is named in his memory.