Father Pierre Gibault has earned a place in history as the "Patriot Priest" for his great contributions to the American cause during the Revolutionary War in the West. He also ministered to the spiritual needs of his widely scattered parishioners on this wild and far-flung frontier for more than three decades.
His early years are unknown, he was baptized April 7, 1737 in Montreal, Quebec. It is probable that he attended the Jesuit College at Quebec and perhaps briefly worked in the fur trade before being ordained into the priesthood at the age of 31. He immediately was sent to the Illinois country as the only active missionary priest serving an area which extended from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River and from the Great Lakes to New Orleans. Selecting Kaskaskia, near the Mississippi River, as his headquarters, Gibault traveled by foot, horseback, and canoe through much of this vast region to serve his scattered congregation. He also took an active part in the social life of Kaskaskia, including sports and games. According to one observer, he enjoyed proving his "skill, agility and strength," physical traits that served him well in his strenuous life on the frontier.
Kaskaskia of the 1770s was a British-controlled, but French-populated town. As such Father Gibault's parishioners became caught up in the war raging between Great Britain and its colonies.
On July 4, 1778, American Col. George Rogers Clark and his frontiersmen surprised the Kaskaskians who initially were fearful of their fate. But the inhabitants of Kaskaskia and of Cahokia (approximately 50 miles north of Kaskaskia) soon joined the American cause. A major influence in their decision was Clark's assurance of religious and political freedom. In his Nov. 19, 1779 letter to his friend George Mason, Clark stated, "... the scene of mourning and distress was turned to an excess of joy. . . (the residents began adorning the streets with flowers and pavilions with different colors, completing their happiness by singing, etc.
Having obtained such great success with the French of the Mississippi River towns, Clark's thoughts turned toward the French-inhabited village of Vincennes along the Wabash River. "Post Vincenes never being out of my mind and from some things that I had learnt (I) had some Reason to suspect that Mr Jebault (Gibault) the Priest was inclined to the American Interest previous to our arrival in the Cuntrey . . . (he had) great Influance over the people at this period St Vincent also being under his Jurisdiction (.) I made no doubt of his Integrity to us (.)" Father Gibault volunteered to travel to Vincennes where he convinced the town's inhabitants to embrace the American cause. After remaining a few days in Vincennes, he returned to Kaskaskia to resume his priestly duties.
After the Revolution, Father Gibault lived for a time in Vincennes. Later he moved across the Mississippi River to New Madrid in the present state of Missouri and continued his labors for his church and his God. He died at the age of 65 in 1802.
During his lifetime, Father Gibault never received appropriate recognition for his crucial aid to George Rogers Clark and to the American cause in the West. In an effort to remedy this oversight, a bronze statue of Gibault by Albin Polasek was erected during the summer of 1935 on the park grounds in front of the Old Cathedral.