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SOURCES and DOCUMENTS: Books & Articles
Perry County : a history
De La Hunt, Thomas James
James De La Hunt
Source: Indiana Authors and Their Books, Volume 1, p. 86
CHAPTER XII : FOUNDING OF LEOPOLD BY FATHER BESSONIES
To that ardent missionary spirit of the French which, two centuries earlier, had sent Jacques Marquette and Jean du Lhut into an untamed continent's boundless wastes of forest verdure - mountains silent in primeval sleep; river, lake and glimmering pool, wilderness oceans mingling with the sky - may be attributed one phase of Perry County's development, distinctively individual from all the rest.
Augustus Bessonies, who was born at Alzac, Departement du Lot, France, on the day of Napoleon's final eclipse at Waterloo, June 17, 1815, was the chosen instrument for this werk, and in him lived again the dauntless courage of his consecrated predecessors. As a lad he attended the preparatory school of Montfaucon, going thence to the Seminary of Isse, near Paris, for the classics and natural philosophy.
In 1836 Simon Guillaume Gabriel Brute, first Roman Catholic Bishop of Vincennes (with jurisdiction then covering all Indiana) paid a visit to Isse during a trip abroad, and although young Bessonies had already been received as a postulant for foreign mission by the Lazarist Order, upon the advice of his director, Father Pinault, he offered his services to the visiting prelate for his far-off American diocese.
Great was the joy of Bishop Bruté. Impulsively embracing Bessonies, he exclaimed: "Je suis heureux à penser d'un autel nouveau dans ma chère Indiana ("I am happy to think of a new altar in my dear Indiana.") "But" he added, "I have no seminary at Vincennes. Remain, therefore at St. Sulpice, and in three years I will send for you."
So he did, in 1839. but it was one of the latest acts in his long episcopal career. When Bessonies reached Havre to embark for America, the same sailing vessel which he had engaged passage had brought to France the sad tidings of the good bishop's death. By the time the sorrowing deacon reached Indiana, October 21.1839, Bishop Bruté had been committed to his last resting-place. In the crypt of a mortuary chapel beneath the high altar of St. Xavier's Cathedral his ashes repose to this day, and it is easy to feel that his spiritual presence was not far distant, to add its intangible benediction when August. Bessonies was elevated to the priesthood, February 22,1840, by the Right Reverend Celestine Rene de la Hailandière, the new Bishop of Vincennes.
Work among the Indians of Cass County, pear Logansport where the Pottawatomies and Miami, under Chief Godfrey long dwelt on their 'Richardville' reservation, was desired by Father Bessonies, hot the decision of his bishop sent him instead to the forests of Perry County as the first recorded minister of the Boman Catholic faith therein. With that farseeing ecclesiastical policy which in countless other instances has secured to the Church of Rome land grants of strategic value, Bishop de Ia Hailandière had entered, or soon entered, a tract near the geographical centre of Perry County, and it is no reflection upon his judgment that its destiny has not been all that he anticipated.
On page 355, of Deed Book C, in the County Recorder's office, we may read:
"State of Indiana, Perry County:
"I, the undersigned, in order to promote both the temporal and spiritual welfare of the French people coming from Europe, resolved to lay off a town of the name of Leopold, in which, with God's assistance, I intend to erect a temple to the glory of the Almighty, for them to worship therein their Maker, according to thedictates of theire conscience; the most glorious privilege a human being can enjoy, and of which we boast in this country of Freedom, become for as an adopted land of Promise.
"Leopold is situated in Perry County, State of Indiana, in Township Five South, Range Two West. Section One, and contains forty acres, more or less, to-wit: the East half of the Southwest quarter of the Southwest quarter of section, township and range as above stated, containing twenty acres, more or less; and the West half of the Southeast quarter of the Southwest quarter of section, township and range above mtioned, containing twenty acres, be the same more or less.
"There is in Leopold one hundred lots. The town is laid off with six North and South streets running the whole length of the town, every one of them numbering (60) feet in width; the first street commencing at the Northeast quarter is Belgium Street; the second, Celestine Street; the third, Lafayette Street; the Fourth, Washington Street; the fifth, Caroline Street, the sixth, German Street.
"There is also six streets East and West, sixty feet width. The first is named Rome Street; the second, Ohio Street; the third, Indiana Street; the fourth, St. Louis Street; the fifth, Troy Street; the sixth, St. Augustine Street.
"Each lot contains ninety-nine feet square, and every one of them is a corner lot. Four lots in the centre of Leopold will be kept for a public square, to-wit: the forty-fifth, forty-sixth, fifty-fifth and fifty-sixth; which lots I keep the right to dispose of and to donate to the county for any public advantage, with other property whenever Leopold will be a county seat
"To the credit thereof, before any court of the United States, or any magistrate whomsoever I give my hand and usual seal. Given at Leopold, Perry County, Indiana, the eleventh day of November, eighteen hundred and forty-two.
".(Signed) Augustus Bessonies, Cath. P."
"State of Indiana, Perry County:
"Be it remembered that on the eleventh day of November, eighteen hundred and forty-two, personally appeared before me, an acting Justice of the Peace for the county aforesaid, Augustus Bessonies, who noknowledged the foregoing deed to be his voluntary act and deed for the purpose therein mentioned. Given under my hand and seal the day and year aforesaid.
(SEAL) Arnold Elder, J. P."
Father Bessonies' own words, therefore, tell us the story of Leopold's founding, with a simplicity of purpose whose equivalent is only to be found in that wonderful Compact signed by the Pilgrim Fathers
-on the waves of the bay
Difficult, indeed, must have been the beginning of Father Bessomes' pastoral labours in that almost unbroken forest which yet covered practically all of Southern Indiana, where clearings were few, established highways unknown, and the only travel possible by means of the blazed trees marking a course through the tall timber from one place to another. Furthermore, although a graduated seminarian, the brave young priest's acquaintance with the English tongue was still rudimentary, while the point toward his steps were turned was as yet unnamed, even in Perry County, and the way thither from Vincennes might have puzzled a seasoned backwoodsman.
A few years earlier, however, the Rev. Maurice de St Palais (of noble French lineage, and later third Bishop of Vincennes), had established a mission upon the banks of Patoka River in Dubois County, for the German families living near, so Father Bessonies at length found himself safely in charge of the Rev. Joseph Kundek, of Jasper, to whom he was recommended for instructions as W the final stages of his somewhat vague journey.
Father Kundek had had the advantage of ten years' forest experience and it is told that he had himself blazed an original trail from Jasper to the site which he chose in 1840 for a new town, naming it Ferdinand, for the Emperor then reigning in Austria-Hungary. He drew, therefore, with his own hand a map, indicting by unmistakable natural landmarks such as rocks, creeks and hills, the route which Father Bessonies followed to his destination.
Nor was this the only instance wherein the revered Jasper priest marked out a path for his younger clerical brother, there being a distinct parallel in the extensive work carried on by the two men, with a strenuous activity unsparing of personal strength. Ill health, developed through exposure, brought Father Kundek's earthly fife to its end, December 4, 1857, and the magnitude of his labours lying altogether outside Perry County may not be herein dwelt upon.
Father Bessonies, however, was one of those "men - so strong that they come to four-score years;" living until February 22, 1901, being at that time Vicar General to the Right Reverend Francis Silas Chatard in Indianapolis, and an honourary Monsignor of the Vatican household, a title conferred upon him January 22, 1884, by Pope Leo XIII.
Held in affectionate esteem by people of every religion, or of none, for his many virtues, and for that winning disposition of bonhomie, which can not be portrayed by an English equivalent, the fondest love of Monsignor Bessonies himself was always cherished toward the flock and field of his first twelve years' work, and Perry County was dear to his heart until the end: especially those parishes of Leopold, Cannelton, Derby, Oil Creek and Trey, where he was the first Roman Catholic who ever officiated.
He was, also, a veritable "circuit rider;" with a weekly schedule which long read thus: Sunday, masses in Leopold and Derby; Monday, Leavenworth; Tuesday, Corydon; Wednesday, Newton Stewart; Thursday, Jasper: Friday, Taylorville; Saturday, Rockport; and a volume could be filled with incidents thrilling and pathetic of his career in the wilderness.
An acquaintance with William H. English, formed during the presidential campaign of 1844, became a warm personal friendship, and it was through the influence of English at Washington, whither he had gone to accept an important position in the Treasury Department. that President Polk established in 1847 a postofice at Leopold, Father Bessonies receiving the appointment as postmaster.
A kinsman of the English family had already located in the tiny hamlet, Doctor William P. Drumb, its fast resident physician, if resident be the correct term describing a rural practitioner whose range of patients was scarcely narrower than the circle of Father Bessonies' parishioners. Doctor Drumb and William H. English were fast cousins on the maternal line, grandsons of Philip Eastin, "a Lieutenant in the Fourth Virginia Regiment in the War of the American Revolution;" to quote the inscription on the tombstone marking the spot of his burial, 1817, in the Riker's Ridge (or Hillis) Cemetery, a romantic spot overlooking the Ohio River, in Jefferson County, some few miles northeast of Madison.
William P. Drumb and his wife, Sarah A Stevens, were the parents of seven children, the eldest son, Elisha English Drumb, born May 20, 1841, in Leopold, and educated for three years at West Point, becoming a successful lawyer and conspicuous politician in Cannelton, the father being the first County Clerk who lived there after it became the county seat in 1859. Through deaths and removals the children became widely scattered, none of the third generation now residing in Perry County.
The Drumbs were almost the only family of purely American stock coming into Leopold Township after the very earliest entries of Cunningham, Frakes, Mayo and a few others, but the French and Belgian immigrants of the 'forties have left a numerous progeny on the lands then taken up. Among the many names, only few of whom can be here enumerated, are noted Andrew Peter, who felled the first tree in the heavy timber and thick underbrush on the site where Leopold stands today; Jerome and Custave Goffinet; Jean Baptiste Marcilliat; Jean and Victor Goffinet; Andre Joseph Marcilliat; Gérard Joseph Collignon; Jean François Allard; François Genet; Catherine Naviaux; Jean Baptiste and Josephine Nicolay; Dominic Demonet and Joseph James, both early merchants; Joseph François Claudel; Auguste Reynaud; John A. Courcier, a veteran of the Second War with England; Francois Devillez; James Hanonville and Jean Joseph Maire. All these were pioneer landholders.
Almost equaIly early came Peter and Angelina (Emery) Casper, with their twelve children, from Wurtemburg, the father having been a soldier under Napoleon. They were among the few German settlers of the locality. Somewhat later Peter and Margaret (Devillez) George, who were natives, respectively, of Hachy and Nobresart, Luxembourg, arrived with a family of ten children, so both these names are now extensively represented.
To his own patron saint, St.
Augustine, was dedicated Father Bessomies' first church, a small log
building at the southern edge of Leopold, eventually superseded by the
present massive stone edifice on the same site, in the midst of "God's
St. Mary's on the hill overlooking Derby, was his next mission established, followed by St Croix, on Oil Creek, near what is now Branchville, and St Pius, in Troy, at about the same period relatively from now.