Who Was Stephen Badin?

Author: John F. Marszalek '63M.A., '68Ph.D

Stepping inside the log cabin, the cluster of football-weekend visitors move from bright sunshine into subdued light. The sounds of souvenir hawkers and boisterous fans drop away, and the smell of sausages and steak sandwiches grows fainter.


The visitors, surrounded by artifacts from an earlier century, feel a curious sense of time displaced. A grave marker at their feet is inscribed, “Stephanus Theodorus Badin.” Oh, sure — he must be the one Badin Hall was named for. He must have been important, too, or he wouldn’t be buried here. Well, no time to learn more about him now. The stadium is a long way across campus, and kickoff is due at 12:30.



The priest had always been a traveler and now, in his 60s, he still ranged from Michigan all the way to New Orleans. As he traveled, it was his habit to buy up likely sites for churches and other Catholic institutions. In 1832 he purchased 524 acres containing two spring-fed lakes in northern Indiana and built a cabin by one of the lakes. He named the property Sainte Marie des Lacs.


With the idea of establishing an orphan asylum, he acquired the services of two Sisters of Charity. But Stephen Badin at 64 was not the tireless doer he had been in Kentucky 30 years earlier; besides, he had plenty to do just ministering to the Potawatomi Indians throughout the Saint Joseph River valley. The orphanage never got beyond the planning stage.


In 1835 he acknowledged the inevitable and deeded the acreage to Simon Brute, the bishop of Vincennes, with one stipulation: that the property be used for a religious establishment of some sort. Soon thereafter, Badin turned over his Indian mission to a younger priest and left for the less harsh climes of the Ohio River valley.



Thus unknowingly was the seed of the University of Notre Dame planted by Father Stephen Badin, first priest ordained in the United States and missionary extraordinaire to the young nation’s western frontier — a theologically rigid, always outspoken and sometimes irascible man who was quick to make friends, not good at keeping them, but always steadfast in a stern, uncompromising faith.


He was born in Orleans, France, in 1768, the eldest son in apparently prosperous family of 15 children. In his 21st year he entered an Orleans seminary conducted by the Sulpician Fathers, and for the next two years attended lectures that stressed the strictest observance of hierarchal discipline, stern public conduct and fidelity to the sacraments. In 1791, the seminary’s faculty and students, appalled that the Bishop of Orleans had taken the oath required by the French Revolutionary government, closed down the institution. Badin made the fateful decision to answer a call for priests from John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States.


He and four other men arrived in Baltimore in late March of 1792. The Sulpicians bought a three-story tavern complete with 26 bedrooms and renamed it Saint Mary’s Seminary. Here Badin completed his theological training, and on May 25, 1793, John Carroll ordained him a priest, the first such ordination in the United States. (In later years Badin enjoyed signing his name: “Stephen T. Badin, Proto-priest of the U.S.A.”)


Carroll was determined that his priests would reflect the dominant English language and culture of the new nation, so he sent Badin to Georgetown College for language training. But the need for priests was so great and Badin was such a quick learner that within three months Carroll gave him his assignment: Kentucky.

Badin hesitated. Kentucky was the frontier, and he was a product of city life. He protested to the bishop that his English was not good enough and he was too inexperienced. In answer, Carroll suggested a joint nine-day novena to let God decide. After nine days, neither man had budged from his position. “Of what utility, then, has been our nine days’ prayer?” Badin asked. The bishop answered softly: “I lay no command, but I think it is the will of God that you should go.”


At this point, Badin’s natural disposition to speak out and his seminary training to accept ecclesiastical authority must have battled within him. Obedience won out, and he went west.



Just getting to Kentucky was an adventure for the 25-year-old Badin and the older, more experienced Father Michael Barriere who accompanied him. The two left Baltimore in September 1793 and walked to Pittsburgh. Reaching there in November, they floated down the Ohio River to the French settlement of Gallipolis, Ohio, where they administered sacraments to the local Catholics. Continuing downriver to Maysville, they walked the last 65 miles to Lexington, where Badin established himself.


Badin spent a great deal of the first years alone, staying in the Lexington area for a year and a half until he realized that the main body of Catholics lived near Bardstown. He moved to Pottinger’s Creek and built himself a cabin on land that is now part of the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto. He called his cabin/church “Saint Stephen’s.” Everyone else called it “Priestland.”


Badin spent little time in his cabin. The widely scattered Catholic settlements required him to be in the saddle more than in his chair. At one stretch, he was on horseback for 22 straight days, riding from one Catholic settlement to another and covering hundreds of miles.


He soon developed a system: His day at a settlement began before dawn with morning prayers and Mass, preceded and followed by hours of hearing confessions. People woke him as early as 3 a.m. to tell their sins because the lines got so long during the daylight hours; Badin began handing out tickets in the order of arrival to ensure each penitent’s rightful place in the confessional line. It was not unusual for families to wait all day for their turn, so they brought food along for a meal.


Badin encountered financial difficulties with his far-flung flock. In Maryland, the church’s ownership of property provided it with independent means, and it did not demand much support from the laity. In Kentucky, therefore, these former Maryland Catholics were not prepared to offer Badin much financial help — so little, in fact, that there were times when he had to go without food for days, and his clothes grew ragged.


He was frequently overcome with loneliness for lack of clerical companionship. As he heard others’ confessions, he yearned for someone to hear his. He never was allowed to relax, often being roused from his bed for a sick call to an outlying cabin 60 or 70 miles away. Sometimes he lost his way in the woods and spent a night in the rain, unsure just where he was. He frequently said his office by the light of a small fire.


But he persisted at his tasks, and a hard taskmaster he was. He put into practice the stern religion he had learned in the seminary. He was a stickler for regular prayer, insisting on worship at the beginning and the end of each day. Kentucky children grew used to hearing him say, “My children, mind this: no morning prayer, no breakfast; no evening prayer, no supper.”


He tolerated few excuses for missing Mass, and he quantified the rules so there would be no misunderstanding: Anyone who had a horse must ride up to 10 miles to Mass; anyone on foot had to walk up to five miles. Beyond those spatial limits or when Mass was unavailable, a family was to recite the rosary or repeat the Mass prayers together aloud.


Badin’s most persistent controversial rule was his opposition to dancing parties. He believed these events were, as he wrote to the Bishop Carroll, “an infallible occasion of sin for most of the actors or spectators.” These parties, he pointed out, lasted late into the night, causing the dancers to neglect their evening and morning prayers. Often they took place on Sundays and holidays, turning those religious times “into days of profanation” and occasions of “general scandal.” Women’s immodesty at these parties “always cause cruel ravages,” he added.


Badin did more than denounce dancing; sometimes he took direct action against it. One Saturday evening in Pottinger’s Creek he was disappointed to find only a few young people in attendance for confessions and catechism. Learning of a party in a nearby schoolhouse, Badin went there, walked in on the festivities, and smilingly announced to the surprised assemblage: “My children, it is all very well; but there the children are, there the father must also be; and where the flock is, there the pastor must attend.” Then he had them all sit down and, to their chagrin, taught a catechism lesion in the middle of the dance floor.


Whether they missed Mass, attended a dance or broke some other of Badin’s many rules and regulations, the priest was sure that his people had a serious need for the sacrament of penance. He spent vast amounts of time hearing confessions, often taking an hour with a single penitent even if the line was long. He believed in assigning severe penances, and once made a woman who married a non-Catholic without ecclesiastical approval appear at mass in ashes and sackcloth. When her husband, out of love for his wife, joined her, Badin remained unmoved.


Perhaps his most famous penance was having a man dig a hole large enough for a casket and then lie in it several hours daily for a week, thinking about his transgressions. Badin once declared that “a priest is God’s surgeon, and he must cut to cure.”


He was also staunchly opposed to the camp meetings that swept through Kentucky during these years. He condemned the liquor, singing and dancing that he insisted accompanied these events. He gasped at reports of women tearing off their clothes and people giving one another a kiss of peace. “These assemblies,” he declared, were “evidently infamous revels and the harbor of libertinism, the more unbridled because covered by the cloak of Christian religion.”



Badin spent a great deal of time debating Protestants. Anti-Catholicism was widespread in Kentucky, and he felt obliged to combat it. He imported catechisms into the state and in 1795 published his own book, The Principles of Roman Catholics, the first Catholic book printed in the West.


His forthright, no-holds-barred beliefs resulted in several memorable encounters with Protestant protagonists. He did not go out of his way to provoke controversy — he was habitually courteous to everyone — but he never shrank before any perceived affront to his faith. One time while riding along a narrow road, Badin was joined by a leading Protestant layman. The conversation turned to religion, and Badin’s companion objected to priestly celibacy as “unscriptural, dangerous and impracticable.”


“When you vowed celibacy, did you know that it would always suit you to live unmarried?” he asked Badin. The priest replied: “When you vowed at the altar to always be faithful to your wife, did you know that she would always suit you?”


Another time he had a ready answer when a preacher asked him why priests like him did not marry. “I am married,” Badin replied; “I am married to the Holy Catholic Church of God!” “Oh,” responded the preacher, “I am married to the church, too, but I have another wife.” Badin pounced: “Then you have two wives — one of them must be an adulteress — now take your choice between your church wife and your woman wife! The Scripture says: ‘No man can serve two masters’ — and surely, no man can serve two mistresses.”


But he was also capable of joking with Protestant confreres. Once a Presbyterian minister saw him walking down a road carrying a saddle and asked about his horse. “He was taken sick and died on the road,” the priest replied. “Did you give him absolution before he died?” pressed the minister. “Oh, no,” Badin said, “it would have been useless; the silly animal turned Presbyterian in articulo mortis and went straight to hell.”


Perhaps the most public example of Badin’s willingness to confront his non-Catholic neighbors came at the end of the War of 1812. Churches throughout Kentucky were holding ceremonies of thanksgiving for peace, and near Lexington Protestants twitted Catholics for failing to meet their patriotic duty by doing the same. Seeing that this upset his congregation, Badin decided to conduct a ceremony that would put the castigations to rest, a thanksgiving Mass.


A large number of Protestants attended, including a vice president-to-be of the United States, Richard M. Johnson, and the war hero William Barry. Concluding the Mass, Badin turned to the large, religiously-mixed congregation: “Now, my friends, you will kneel down with me, and we will give thanks to the good Lord for His mercies.” The Catholics all knelt, but the Protestants, who outnumbered them in the crowd 10 to one, remained standing. Badin’s voice rang out again: “All of you who are Christians will kneel down with me and thank the Lord for His mercies!” This time a majority of the crowd knelt, but many, including the dignitaries, still stood. Looking directly at these individuals, Badin intoned: “All of you who are gentlemen will kneel down with me and return thanks to the Lord our God who has remembered us in mercy!” Not a knee remained unbent.



By 1815 Badin had been in Kentucky for 23 years, and the number of Catholics had grown to over 6,000 and now spread 100 miles east and west of the original settlements. There were 16 churches and 10 priests in the region. Badin was 48 and his dark hair was showing streaks of gray. He was a few inches over five feet tall and solidly built. His eyes were hazel and kindly, often flashing with humor yet with a determined glint. He was in remarkable shape, considering the hard life he led, although he had his share of ailments: His head frequently throbbed, and he had dizzy spells; anxiety was a problem at times, and loneliness and stress often brought on depression.


When the Dominican fathers showed up in Kentucky in 1805, at first Badin was so happy to see them that he thought of joining the order and wanted to sign over all Catholic church property in the state to their care. But this attitude quickly changed when Kentucky Catholics, tired of Badin’s harsh rules, turned to the Dominicans’ more compassionate pastoring. Badin sided with Father Charles Nerinckx, a Belgian priest who had come to Kentucky the same year as the Dominicans and outdid Badin in the strictness of his religious attitudes.


The pair considered the Dominicans lax, particularly when they approved of dances, at least during daylight hours. Both sides appealed to John Carroll, but the bishop told them to work out their differences. By the time Benedict Joseph Flaget, one of Badin’s shipmates on his 1792 voyage to the United States, was appointed Kentucky’s first bishop and arrived in 1811, an uneasy truce existed.


Badin had warmly encouraged Flaget’s appointment; he feared the office might be offered to him, and he had no interest in it. Kentucky Catholics shared his fears — they were willing to have him as their priest but were concerned that his sternness might grow worse should he don episcopal robes. Even Father Nerinckx could see problems arising out of a Badin appointment. He said his friend had “a little too much of the French fervor, is of more than necessary rigidity, and if tempered with a little of the honey of kindness would be more palatable to his people and more successful in curing inveterate sinners and loathsome wounds.” A lay friend of Badin’s put it more succinctly when she said he was “cross and crabbed.”


Badin’s pleasure over Flaget’s arrival turned to coolness when Flaget asked Badin to turn over to him all the Catholic property under his care. Badin fought a long battle over the matter, and in 1819 he grew so upset that he went back to France rather than obey.


He remained in Europe for nine years, angry and disappointed at the Kentucky church but willing nonetheless to work for it and for other American dioceses among wealthy European churchmen and laity. He never lost his homesickness for America, and in 1828, at the age of 60, he sailed the Atlantic once again.


In 1830 he became a missionary to Chief Leopold Pokagon’s Potawatomi Indians. These men and women had preserved the Catholic faith they had received from Jesuit blackrobes long before, and they were thrilled to have a priest ministering to them once again. Aided by Angelique Campeau, a 68-year-old Detroit woman who spoke the Indians’ language, Badin ministered to the Potawatomis all over southern Michigan and northern Indiana, traveling as far west as Chicago. When the Indians let it be known that farming was women’s work, Badin went into the fields himself to teach by example.


After abandoning northern Indiana and the site of the future Notre Dame in 1835, Badin never again stayed long in any one place. For several years he traveled the entire Ohio Valley, serving the Irish and German laborers who were building the Wabash and Erie Canal. He purchased land everywhere for future churches and visited scattered Catholic congregations.


His eccentricities and stubbornness continued to grow. He was seldom invited to preach in any church more than once because he regularly insulted some member of the congregation over something he considered religiously improper. Once, when asked to preach over the body of a deceased senior member of an old Kentucky family, Badin shocked the dead man’s survivors by saying: “He had not much sense, to be sure, but we are not to forget that he had all the sense that God gave him.”


In 1842 he moved to Louisville, where his forthright comments caused bad feelings between him and the two bishops with whom he lived. In 1849 he so opposed the building of a new cathedral that, after the formal cornerstone-laying ceremony was over, he appeared in surplice and walked around the foundation chanting the Miserere, asking God to right what he considered a major blunder. Soon after that, a wagon appeared at the bishops’ residence for Badin’s belongings. He climbed on top and rode the waterfront to catch a boat to Cincinnati.



He remained active until the end of his life, sometimes “more annoying than useful,” in the words of a fellow priest. For example, while helping one small-town pastor with his duties, he decided unilaterally to make some alterations to the church. The 80-year-old Badin climbed up to the belfry with a hatchet and began chopping away at the lattice in front of the bell. When the pastor protested, Badin called down: “Don’t you want your bell heard, and if you do, why crib up the sound with these painted boards?”


Meanwhile, in northern Indiana Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and his band of brothers arrived at Sainte Marie des Lacs on November 26, 1842. The ambitious, 28-year-old Sorin had tried to start a college in Vincennes, but since one already existed there, the Bishop of Vincennes offered him the Badin property. Sorin had only to promise to start his college within two years, which suited his plans nicely. The first thing he did was change the name of the property to Notre Dame du Lac.


Badin visited Notre Dame many times, pleased to see what Edward Sorin had done with the land. Not unexpectedly, however, these good feelings did not last. Badin grew angry with Sorin because of the Holy Cross priest’s slowness in sending a yearly allowance of $400 in return for Badin’s gift to the school of two pieces of property in Louisville. Badin insisted the lots were worth $12,000 to $15,000, but Sorin had sold them for only $6,000. Badin accused him of being a bad businessman and began criticizing Notre Dame’s entire operation. Things got so testy that Badin refused to communicate with Sorin except through a hired agent. Eventually the matter was rectified, but the two priests never developed particularly good feelings toward each other.


Badin died on April 19, 1853, and his last hours were true to form. The priest who administered Extreme Unction was, an observer noted, “as slow and methodical as Father Badin was quick and impulsive.” As the priest carefully applied the holy oils, Badin drifted in and out of consciousness. Arousing himself at one point and seeing the priest still at his task, Badin demanded: “Is it possible you haven’t got through yet!”


He was interred in the Cincinnati Cathedral, prompting a long-time acquaintance to remark: “It is the first time he was ever at rest in his whole life.” But his rest was not yet to be eternal. In 1904 his remains were moved for permanent interment in the replica of his log cabin overlooking Saint Mary’s lake at Notre Dame.


Stephen T. Badin had many distinctions: first priest ordained in the United States; frontier missionary to the cradle of Midwestern Catholicism, Bardstown, Kentucky; 19th-century blackrobe to the Potawatomi Indians; purchaser of the land on which now stands one of the world’s major Catholic universities. But most significant, perhaps, was the imprint he helped place on early American Catholicism: a church of stern morality, hierarchical governance and denominational superiority, all characteristics that would mark it until well into the 20th century.


Badin would not know what to make of football Saturday on his former property, and he would be equally puzzled by the post-Vatican Catholic Church. His sense of obedience to church regulations might allow him to acquiesce in some modern religious matters, but infrequent confessions, contemporary dance and ecumenism — these would elicit a more forthright Miserere than the one he prayed that day in Louisville over the foundation of the future cathedral.


John F. Marszalek is a professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State University.