St. Augustine's Church and Leopold, Indiana

Leopold: A History

The history of Leopold begins with Catholic missionary activity. The river made the area accessible and early missions were established at Rome and Derby by Bishop Flaget of Bardstown, Kentucky. St. Mary Church, formerly called "St. Mary of the River", was founded at Derby in 1810, the first visiting missionary being the Rev. Stephen Theodore Badin, who served from 1810 to 1811. Following Father Badin, other visiting priest were: the Rev. Charles Nerinchx, 1811 - 1818; Robert Abel, 1818 - 1824; Elisha Durbin, 1824 - 1832. Priests from Indiana took charge on September 3, 1837 when Rt. Rev. Simon Brute, first Bishop of Vincennes, personally installed the Rev. Julian Benoit as resident pastor and the first diocesan priest in Perry County.

Father Benoit established four missions: Troy, 15 miles west of Derby; Cassidy settlement, 8 1/2 miles west-northwest of Derby; Mt. Pleasant, 8 miles northeast of Derby; and the Chapel, 6 miles northwest of Derby. The first three were established in 1837, the fourth in 1838. In August 1838, Father Benoit, with funds advanced by Bishop Brute bought land at the Chapel and built on it the Chapel Church, a two-story frame building 20 x 30 feet, having two rooms below for residence and one above for the chapel, or church. So steep was the stairway leading up to the church that, it is said, one day a parishioner, only two or three steps from the top, stumbled and began to roll down, carrying with him all of those coming up the steps; all landed in a heap at the bottom.

It was during these early years that Bishop Brute once paid a visit to the Chapel during a severe drought. The Bishop noticed a spot, near the Chapel Church building, which seemed more moist than the ground around it. It is said he stooped down and with his hands scooped out a place where water appeared. The people dug a well which, to their great joy, filled with water. This well was never know to go dry and was still in use in 1935, known as the Bishop's Well.

Father Benoit had moved from Derby to Leopold where the Chapel Church became the main Catholic Church of Perry County. Father Benoit wrote letters to friends in seaports in France, Germany, and Belgium, asking them to tell emigrants about the Chapel settlement. In 1840, Father Benoit was transferred to Fort Wayne and replaced by Father August Bessonies, recently arrived from his native France and ordained by the New Bishop of Vincennes, Rt. Rev. Celetine Rene de la Hailandiere.

He informed Father Bessonies that Father Benoit was "somewhere in the forest of Perry County, some 15 miles from Rome." He was to go in to Jasper where the Rev. Joseph Kundeck would give him further directions. In his memoirs, Father Bessonies recalled that the kind bishop gave him an Indian pony, a very devout one which fell frequently to his knees. Scarcely able to speak a word of English, he arrived at Jasper to learn that Father Benoit had left that morning for Vincennes and, using a map provided by Father Kundeck, he left Dubois County for the 35-mile ride to the Chapel settlement in Perry County. Realizing he had gone astray, Father Bessonies succeeded in finding Cassidy settlement. He recalled that the John Cassidy family received him kindly and promised to see him safely to the Chapel the next morning.

He came upon the log cabin of Jack Alvey, where he was told he was only six miles from the Chapel. After riding for three hours, he arrived at the log cabin of Thomas Alvey, where he learned he was still six miles from the Chapel and only one-half mile from the cabin of Jack Alvey, where he had been earlier that morning. Thomas Alvey, a Catholic, gave him breakfast, fed his horse, and sent his boy to take him home.

Among the earliest French-speaking settles in what was to be Leopold Township were Peter and Catherine Jubin in the 1820's; John Coucier, a veteran of the War of 1812, and his wife, Mary; Nicholas and Anne Claudel in 1837. The 1840s marked the arrival of French and Belgian immigrants in increasing numbers. Father Bessonies acquired forty acres for a town which he named Leopold for three reasons: 1. It was the name of the Belgian King; 2. It was the name of Father Bessonies' brother; 3. For the Leopldine Society. In November 1842, the town of Leopold was laid out by Father Bessonies and recorded in the county recorder's office. Deed Book C, p. 355 as follows:

"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 the dictates of their conscience, the most glorious privilege a human being can enjoy, and of which we boast in this country of freedom, become for us 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, towit: 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 mentioned, 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 are also six streets East and West, sixty feet in 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. For lots in the center of Leopold will be kept for a public square, to-wit: the forty-fifth, forty-sixth, fifty-fifth and fifty-sixty; 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 whosoever, 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."

The Chapel was renamed St. Augustine, Father Bessonies' patron saint. Under Father Bessonies' direction, a new log church was built in 1842 - 1843. The abandoned Chapel building was rented out as a dwelling. It was twice struck by lightning and burned completely. Father Bessonies also set up a log school house in 1844. Private subscription schools were held there until 1851, when the Indiana Public Free School system began, with a public schoolteacher conducting classes.

Father Bessonies remained at Leopold until 1857 when he was assigned to Fort Wayne to succeed, again, the Rev. Julian Benoit who had left for New Orleans. Father Bessonies later served at Jeffersonville, Floyds Knobs, and St. John's in Indianapolis. He celebrated his golden jubilee in 1890 and is entombed at Indianapolis where he died in 1901.

During Father Bessonies' time in Leopold, almost unbroken forest still covered practically all of southern Indiana; clearing were few, established highways unknown, and the only travel possible was by means of blazed trees marking a course through the tall timber from one place to another. The climate and terrain were very much like those of the Province of Luxembourg in Belgium from where most of the settlers came. The first homes they built were probably one-room huts on unclaimed land, until they were able to buy land which at the time sold for $1.25 per acre.

Most of the settlers were farmers who brought with them large families. Among them were Joseph James, a merchant; Andrew Peter, who felled the first tree in the heavily-wooded area where Leopold is today; Jacob (James) Tibessard, owner of a water mill on Snake Branch about four miles west of Leopold, commonly called "Tipsaw"; other families who were landowners in 1850 included John, Andrew and Victor Goffinet; John B. Belva; Francis Allard; John B. Clais; Joseph Holman (Houlmont); and Jacob Gelarden (Gillardin).

In June 1847, Leopold Township was formed out of Union, Oil, Clark and Anderson Townships upon the petition of 60 citizens. The petition was presented by John Coucier in December 1846. Like the town, the township was named in honor of Leopold I, King of the Belgians. It was also in 1847 that the Leopold Post Office was established by President James K. Polk and Father Bessonies appointed the first postmaster.

Immigration continued into the 1850s. Among the families were those of John J. Meunier, Victor Marchal, Gerard Joseph Collignon; Francis Devillez. Almost all were from villages in the Province of Luxembourg in Belgium. Names of those villages can still be found on a number of old tombstones in St. Augustine Cemetery: Hachy, Nobressart, Vance, Ste. Cecile, Rulles, Florenville, and Les Bulles. Although almost all families were of Belgian or French birth, some notable exceptions were Victor Yaggi, a native of Switzerland who arrived in 1853; John Cody and John Gleeson, natives of County Tipperary, Ireland; and Peter Kasper (Casper), a native of Wurttemberg, Germany.

E. Yaggi's Saloon & Dance Hall,
Leopold Brass Band and Crowd
Courtesy: Catherine (Yaggi) Luckett

In 1864, Peter and Margaret (Devillez) Georges, natives of Hachy and Nobressart, Belgium, arrived with their family. Their youngest son, Frank J. Georges, later became Perry County Superintendent of Schools, then County Recorder. The account of his journey and adjustment to life in a new land was perhaps typical of many: "Born of poor parents at Hachy, Belgium, on the 28th of April 1852, his entire earthly belongings were packed into an old straw valise...and he boarded the good ship Lancaster at Antwerp on the 29th of October, 1863. A shipwreck was one of his experiences on the way to America...From a family of stonemasons, he quite naturally took up this trade as a boy and continued it as a young man in this country...He obtained work at the monastery in St. Meinrad and some of the kindly priests gave him an opportunity to study an hour or more each day...He obtained a license to teach and taught for some time in the district schools of Leopold Township. Then he went to normal school at Danville, after which he obtained a position in the schools of Tell 1885. The once immigrant boy was elected county superintendent of schools, serving in this position twelve years..."

The Georges were the stonemasons employed in the first phase of the building of the present St. Augustine Church. The present stone church was begun by Father Philip Ducron in 1866. Measuring 115 x 45 feet, the church was built of sandstone found in a quarry near Leopold. Stone was hauled up the hill by teams of oxen; those who moved the stone contracted to do it for the sum of $300.00. The walls were raised during the tenure of Father John L. Brassart from 1867 to 1869. Many delays were encountered before the roof was added and enclosed by Father Philip Doyle who served from 1869 to 1872. Discouraged and heavily in debt, the people were about to sell the church when Father John B. Unverzagt, a native of Baden, Germany, arrived in 1872. By 1873, order was restored, the altars and pews moved from the log church into the new stone church, which was at last ready for use. Thirty years later, under Father Joseph A. Thie, the tower, spire, chimes and bells were finished.

The church was originally built with huge pillars supporting the roof. They were removed amid controversy that this would weaken the structure. The reason given for the removal was that some of the parishioners slept behind the pillars.

One of the most-often-told stories of Leopold concerns the statue of Our Lady of Consolation which can be seen on the left side of the altar of St. Augustine Church. The statue is one of only three such statues in the world -- the original in a church in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and the other one at Carey, Ohio; many miraculous cures have been attributed to the statue enshrined at Carey, which was brought to America in 1875 by the Rev. Joseph Gloden, also a native of Luxembourg. Devotion to Our Lady of Consolation dates back to the 16th century in Europe when the Black Death devastated the population.

The statue in Leopold represented a sacred vow made by three young men from Leopold -- Henry J. Devillez, Lambert Rogier, and Isadore Naviaux -- who, serving in the Civil War, were captured at Gunstown, Mississippi in 1864 and imprisoned in the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia. There, over 14,000 Union prisoners died from starvation or disease. Henry Devillez, who had come to this county at the age of 14, remembered well the shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in his native Luxembourg. The three made a vow that, if delivered from the horror of Andersonville, they would return to their native land to have a replica of the statue of Our Lady of Consolation made and brought to Leopold.

Eleven months later, they were freed and, with the help of John P. Georges, fulfilled their vow. The statue was brought back by Lambert Rogier, arriving in New York on July 4, 1867, transported to Leopold, where it remains to the present day. The statue was absent during one period in its history when Father Boland, not knowing the background of the statue, packed it away in the attic where it remained until 1927 when Father Pierce Dixon became pastor. Father Dixon was familiar with this particular statue and soon returned it to its rightful place at the side altar. Some years later an outdoor shrine, carved by a stone artist in Italy, was set up by Father Moll. For several years pilgrimages were held outside during the month of May at the shrine.  The statue is one of only two in the United States.  The other one is at Carey, Ohio.

During the years 1877 -1880, when Father Hypolite Pierrard was at Leopold, King Leopold II of Belgium, pleased to know that a good Belgian family had a son as pastor of the church there, sent vestments, a monstrance, and a set of candleholders valued at about $1,500 as a donation to the church at Leopold. Father Pierrard is buried in St. Augustine Cemetery.

Another unique feature of the church is the statue of St. Hubert and the deer. According to legend, he was a hunter and unbeliever. Once converted, he became an active missionary in the forest area of the Ardennes; He became known as the patron saint of hunters and trappers.

Several tragedies have also marked Leopold's history. In 1859, the Know-Nothing Party had a following in Perry County. Disturbed by so much missionary activity and building of churches, they pillaged furnishings from the parsonage and set fire to them. They placed fire brands in the windows and doors of the church. The townspeople rushed to extinguish the fire. Father Dion, who had been absent on a mission to Harrison County, was so upset when he returned that he decided to live at Frenchtown from where he still cared for the Leopold parish. He returned several years later.

The white frame parsonage burned in 1918 when Father Boland was pastor. He narrowly escaped and was unable to save very much except a few chalices which were stored in a steel safe. Some church records were lost. The priest's residence had been built by Father Brassart in 1893, to replace a log house built by Father Bessonies in 1840 and lasting until 1873. The present parish house was built by Father Boland in 1920-22.

It was also in 1922 that a tornado struck Leopold early in the morning of April 21 and did extensive damage. The William Devillez residence was lifted from its foundation and moved several feet. James Ward's store and residence were completely demolished. The store belonging to the Henry Kanappel family, located in the former Cody property, was badly damaged when one wall was torn partly away from the main structure. St. Augustine's Church was heavily damaged when portions of the roof and a heavy beam were ripped away from the building.

In 1900, Father Mattingly started a parochial school in Leopold. It was taught by the Sisters of Providence from St. Mary of the Woods in a rented house for seven or eight months. It was abandoned as impractical since the pupils were so widely scattered.

When Highway 37 was completed it left Leopold a mile off the improved road. Father Omer Eiseman sponsored the building of a road which connects with Highway 37. Father Ed Eiseman was instrumental in getting telephone lines in condition for service. He helped do much of the work himself. Faithful operators of the old-time switchboard included Mrs. Peter Ward and Mrs. Rosa George Braunecker.

When Father John Herold was pastor, he directed the construction of the parish hall. The lumber was donated by members of the parish. The building has been used for a number of activities, especially for basketball. The Leopold Grade School and Oil Township High School and Grade School played all of their home games in this gym. In recent years, it has been used by Perry Central School Corporation players for practice sessions.

For many years, Leopold had a resident physician, Dr. John E. Taylor. Born in Perry County on October 10, 1869, the son of David and Sarah Roberts Taylor, he grew to manhood on a farm and had no opportunity for schooling until the age of 21 when he attended a one-room grade school near his home. By the age of 25, he was teaching and eager for more education. He went on to study medicine and returned to practice in Perry County, practicing in Leopold until his death in 1950.

In 1992, 150 years after the founding of Leopold and construction of the first log church, parishioners continue to take great pride in St. Augustine Catholic Church. A four-year-long renovation of the church building was begun shortly after the arrival of Rev. Mark Gottemoeller in 1985. Many parishioners contributed their time and skills to the project. The ceiling was replastered; heating and electrical systems repaired and replaced; the roof replaced; the walls repainted; a glassed-in cry room constructed; carpeting and air conditioning installed; pews, altar, statues, and stations of the cross were refinished. Stained glass windows, donated near the turn of the century in memory of parishioners' families, were cleaned and new storm windows placed on the outside of the church. These windows and three bronze bells, cast in St. Louis and shipped to Leopold before the turn of the century, continue to be among the most valuable possessions of the parish. A vesting table, also dating to about 1900, was refinished and brought into the interior of the church. Renovation continues on the exterior as well, as planting and landscaping continues in the church cemetery.

Father Bessonies' vision of Leopold as an urban center and county seat was never fulfilled. Nevertheless, it is "home" to countless descendants of Belgian immigrants. Many live in the surrounding area and gather regularly at St. Augustine parish. These, and many who live at a distance, still gather at the annual parish picnic in late July, a tradition dating from the early years.

From "Leopold: A History", edited by Judy (Holman) Howe. Produced in cooperation with the Perry County Chamber of Commerce, Perry County Commissioners, and Perry County Council.

Immigrant families who came to Leopold from the respective Belgium villages of the Semois River Valley

St. Augustine Catholic Church Pastors and Dates

The Statue of Our Lady of Consolation at St. Augustine's Church in Leopold: A Narrative

Perry County News:  "Three who came back are remembered"