Father Pierre Gibault, is an integral part of our story at the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, earning his place in history as the “Patriot Priest.”
Gibault, the eldest child of Pierre Gibault and Marie-Joseph Saint-Jean, was born and baptized on April 7, 1737. Though little is known about his childhood, it is assumed that he attended the Jesuit college in Quebec. Records show that in 1759 he journeyed to Detroit and eventually Michilimackinac (present day Mackinaw City, MI). The purpose of his travel is unknown, but many assume he worked with a trading company, and traveled for work.
On March 19, 1768, after studying theology for two years at the Seminaire de Quebec, he was ordained by Bishop Briand. From there he was sent to the Illinois country to assume his new role as vicar general. He was the 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. All the previous Jesuits were expelled in 1764, by royal decree.
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 priest, Father Pierre Gibault, had lately come from Canada, had made himself a little acquainted with our dispute, was rather prejudiced in favor of us. He asked if I would give him liberty to perform his duty in his church. I told him that I had nothing to do with churches more than to defend them from insult. That by the laws of the state, his religion had as great privileges as any other. This seemed to complete his happiness. They returned to their families, and in a few minutes, the scene of mourning and distress was turned to an excess of joy—nothing else seen nor heard—adorning the streets with flows and pavilions with different colors, completing their happiness by singing, etc.
Upon learning that the British had taken Vincennes, Clark consulted with Father Gibault, who in turn, volunteered to travel to Vincennes, where he spoke with the towns people and encouraged them to embrace the American cause. He also spoke with some of the Native Americans in the area and persuaded them to remain at the very least neutral in the war between the British and Americans.
Gibault, risked much in bartering on Clark’s behalf. Because of his influence and participation with the American rebels, Bishop Briand, who favored the British, suspended him from his ecclesiastical duties on June 29, 1780. There is no evidence to suggest that Gibault ever received his dismissal, as he continued for many years to minister to the villages and Illinois settlements. He did, however, later deny any involvement he had with the Americans.
Father Pierre Gibault died at the age of 65 in 1802, having never received recognition for his crucial aid to George Rogers Clark and the American cause in the West. In 1935, a bronze statue of Father Gibault was erected on park grounds in front of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral.