The Catholic Church and the French monarchy were intimately aligned prior to the French Revolution. With the advent of the revolution, however, the Church in France came under attack. Because of the cooperative relationship between the Church and the French monarchy, the people’s hatred for the monarch grew to include the Church. By 1790, the Church became the focus of the people’s attacks. Priests and bishops were exiled, imprisoned or killed. Ecclesial holdings, including churches, monasteries, and convents, were confiscated or destroyed. Many left the Church feeling betrayed.
With these events, the Church lay greatly wounded after the revolution. Having witnessed the destruction, those who kept the faith in spite of abuses of power were driven to rebuild their Church and their country. These pious souls inspired others to follow. As a result, many religious orders for both men and women began. Among these was the Congregation of Holy Cross founded, by Blessed Basil Moreau in 1840.
Blessed Moreau saw the need for priests who would serve the poor and those in the outlying areas of the city of Le Mans. Other priests who recognized the need for such work joined Blessed Moreau. The group became known as the Auxiliary Priests of Le Mans. Another group, the Brothers of Saint Joseph, aided Blessed Moreau and his priests in their work. Rev. Jacques Dujarié founded the Brothers some twenty years prior to the Congregation. The Brothers assisted Fr. Dujarié in opening schools in the countryside where young Catholics might be instructed in the faith. Weakened by this demanding work, Fr. Dujarié became unable to direct the Brothers, so the Bishop of Le Mans appointed Blessed Moreau to lead them. Under the direction of Blessed Moreau as their superior, the Auxiliary Priests of Le Mans and the Brothers of Saint Joseph united to form the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1840. One of the first among the priests to join the ranks of the order was a 26 year-old energetic and dynamic priest, Rev. Edward Sorin.
The population of the Northwest Territory of the United States was increasing due to immigration from the eastern states. Among the newcomers to the Northwest Territory were many Catholics. The first Bishop of Vincennes, Most Rev. Simon Bruté, recognized the need for priests to minister to the growing Catholic population in the area. Among the most pressing needs of the area was for Catholic schools to educate young Catholics. Protestants ran the only schools that existed in the area. If they were to acquire even the most basic education, young Catholics would be forced to attend Protestant schools. Recognizing the outstanding missionary service of the Congregation of Holy Cross to France’s rural Catholics and to the poor, and knowing of the success of the Brothers of Saint Joseph in establishing Catholic schools in rural France, Bishop Bruté saw Blessed Moreau as one uniquely suited to provide for the needs of Catholics in the Northwest territory. So, in the summer of 1839, Bishop Bruté pleaded with Blessed Moreau to send priests and brothers to the missions in Indiana, that they might sustain and spread the faith there. Blessed Moreau accepted Bishop Bruté’s request.
In the summer of 1841 Blessed Moreau decided to send six brothers to Indiana. They would set sail in the fall, accompanied by a priest who would serve as their director and superior. Blessed Moreau selected Fr. Sorin for this task. From Indiana, another group of Holy Cross Brothers traveled to Southern California in the 1940s.