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Benedict Joseph Flaget

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Flaget, BENEDICT JOSEPH, first Bishop of Bardstown (subsequently of Louisville), Kentucky, U.S.A., b. at Contournat, near Billom, Auvergne, France, November 7, 1763; d. February 11, 1850, at Louisville, Kentucky. He was a posthumous child and was only two years old when his mother died, leaving him and two brothers to the care of an aunt; they were welcomed at the home of Canon Benoit Flaget, their uncle, at Billom. In his seventeenth year, he went to the Sulpician seminary of Clermont to study philosophy and theology, and joining the Society of St. Sulpice, November 1, 1783, he was ordained priest in 1787, at Issy, where Father Gabriel Richard, the future apostle of Michigan, was then superior. Flaget taught dogmatic theology at Nantes for two years, and filled the same chair at the seminary of Angers when that house was closed by the Revolution. He returned to Billom in 1791 and on the advice of the Sulpician superior, Father Emery, determined to devote himself to the American mission. He sailed in January, 1792, with Father J. B. M. David, his future coadjutor, and the subdeacon Stephen Badin (q.v.), landing in Baltimore, March 29, 1792. He was studying English with his Sulpician brethren, when Bishop Carroll tested his self-sacrifice by sending him to Fort Vincennes, as missionary to the Indians and pastor of the Fort. Crossing the mountains he reached Pitts-burg, where he had to tarry for six months owing to low water in the Ohio, doing such good work that he gained the lasting esteem of General Anthony Wayne. The latter recommended him to the military commander Colonel Clark at the Falls of the Ohio, who deemed it an honor to escort him to Fort Vincennes, where he arrived December 21, 1792. Father Flaget stayed here two years and then, recalled by his superiors, he became professor at the Georgetown College under the presidency of Father Dubourg. In November, 1798, he was sent to Havana, whence he returned in 1801 with twenty-three students to Baltimore.

On April 8, 1808, Bardstown, Kentucky, was created a see and Flaget was named its first bishop. He refused the honor and his colleagues of St. Sulpice approved his action, but when in 1809 he went to Paris, his superior, Father Emery, received him with the greeting: “My Lord, you should be in your diocese! The pope commands you to accept.” Leaving France with Father Simon William Brute, the future Bishop of Vincennes, and the subdeacon, Guy Ignatius Chabrat, his future coadjutor in Kentucky, Flaget landed in Baltimore and was consecrated November 4, 1810, by Archbishop Carroll. The Diocese of Bardstown comprised the whole North-West, bounded East and West by Louisiana and the Mississippi. Bishop Flaget, handicapped by poverty, did not leave Baltimore until May 11, 1811, and reached Louisville, June 4, whence the Rev. C. Nerinckx escorted him to Bardstown. He arrived there June 9. On Christmas of that year he ordained priest the Rev. Guy Ignatius Chabrat, the first priest ordained in the West. Before Easter, 1813, he had established priestly conferences, a seminary at St. Stephen’s (re-moved to St. Thomas’, November, 1811), and made two pastoral visits in Kentucky. That summer he visited the outlying districts of Indiana, Illinois, and Eastern Missouri, confirming 1275 people during the trip.

Bishop Flaget’s great experience, absolute self-denial, and holy life gave him great influence in the councils of the Church and at Rome. Most of the bishops appointed within the next twenty years were selected with his advice. In October, 1817, he went to St. Louis to prepare the way for Bishop Dubourg. He recommended Bishop Fenwick for Ohio, then left on a trip through that State, Indiana, and Michigan in 1818. In the latter State he did great missionary work at Detroit and Monroe, attending also a rally of 10,000 Indians at St. Mary’s. Upon his return to Kentucky in 1819 he consecrated his new cathedral in Bardstown, August 8, and consecrated therein his first coadjutor bishop, Rev. J. B. M. David, on the 15th. In 1821 he started on a visitation of Tennessee, and bought property in Nashville for the first Catholic church. The years 1819 to 1821 were devoted to missionary work among the Indians. He celebrated the first Synod of Bardstown, August 8, 1823, and continued his labors until 1828, when he was called to Baltimore to consecrate Archbishop Whitfield; there he attended the first Council of Baltimore in 1829. In 1830 he consecrated one of his own priests, Rev. Richard Kenrick, as bishop of Philadelphia. A great friend of education, he invited the Jesuits to take charge of St. Mary’s College, Bardstown, in 1832. In the meantime he had resigned his see in favor of Bishop David with Bishop Chabrat as coadjutor. Both priests and people rebelled, and their representations were so instant and continued that Rome recalled its appointment and reinstated Bishop Flaget, who during all this time was, regardless of age and infirmities, attending the cholera-stricken in Louisville, Bardstown, and surrounding country during 1832 and 1833. Bishop Chabrat became his second coadjutor and was consecrated July 20, 1834. Only Kentucky and Tennessee were now left under Flaget’s jurisdiction, and in the former he founded various religious institutions, including four colleges, two convents, one foundation of brothers, and two religious institutions of priests. Tennessee became a diocese with see at Nashville in 1838.

His only visit to Europe and Rome was not undertaken until 1835. He spent four years in France and Italy in the interests of his diocese and of the propagation of the Faith, visiting forty-six dioceses. Every-where he edified the people by the sanctity of his life, and well authenticated miracles are ascribed to his intercession. He returned to America in 1839, transferred his see to Louisville, and crowned his fruitful life by consecrating, September 10, 1848, a young Kentucky priest, Martin John Spalding, as his third coadjutor and successor in the See of Louisville. The cornerstone of the cathedral of Louisville was laid August 15, 1849. He died peacefully at Louisville, sincerely mourned and remembered to this day. His only writings are his journal and a report of his diocese to the Holy See.

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