Browse Vincennes’ Rare Book Collection: Old Cathedral Library & Museum
By Mary Giorgio
Nestled behind an old cathedral in Vincennes, Indiana, sits a nondescript building containing valuable treasures. Indiana’s oldest library contains rare books and documents dating as far back as 1319. Today, visitors to the Old Cathedral Library & Museum can marvel at the historic artifacts and documents on display.
The idea for a library had its origins in 1794, when Father Benedict Joseph Flagler, pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish in Vincennes, Indiana, established the community’s first library. Priests in frontier towns were often the most educated residents, and many took on the mantle of educators. Father Flagler established a small community library used to help teach local residents to read. The library is thought to be the earliest in the state’s history.
The library expanded greatly under the watchful eye of the first Bishop of Vincennes, Simon Gabriel Brute de Remur. Bishop Brute grew up in France, where his family ran a printing shop. Reverend Brute developed a love for reading and scholarship, graduating first of his class from the School of Medicine in Paris in 1803.
He subsequently joined the priesthood in 1808, embarking on a journey to America. Reverend Brute worked in a number of American universities before being named Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Vincennes in 1834. President John Adams once referred to Bishop Brute as “the most learned a man of his day in America.”
Bishop Brute’s expansive collection of books was said to have been floated down the Ohio River on a flatboat then delivered to the Vincennes rectory by wagon. By the time he died in 1839, Bishop Brute’s collection numbered 8,000 volumes. Subsequent bishops and parish priests maintained the bishop’s library. In 1840, Bishop Celestine de la Hailandicre built a library building on church grounds to house the remarkable collection.
While the original library building still stands, the collection is now housed in a more modern facility. The building includes temperature-controlled vaults for artifact and document storage. The building was funded by a grant from the Eli Lilly Endowment.
The items housed inside the library include books, documents, and artifacts. In all, there are around 12,000 volumes in the collection. The oldest document is a Papal Bull issued by Pope John XXII in 1319. The collection’s oldest book is a 13th century manuscript printing of the Book of Psalms, hand printed on sheepskin by a German Benedictine monk. Other treasures include prehistoric tools, 18th and 19th century Bibles, old maps, a peace pipe belonging to Governor William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh’s war club, and a 1767 British census document for Vincennes. The town’s oldest surviving record, a marriage document dated April 21, 1749, is also housed at the facility.
Located at 205 Church Street, visitors are welcome during summer months and by appointment. The grounds also contain the oldest cathedral in Indiana, dating to 1826, an old rectory built in 1841, and a French and Indian cemetery containing the graves of more than 4,000 of the state’s earliest settlers.