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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Catholic Historical Review
Vol. 8 No. 1 (Apr. 1922), pp59‑63

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p59 Pere Antoine, Supreme Officer of the Holy Inquisition of Cartagena, in Louisiana.1

'Père Antoine' or, as he was officially known, Fray Antonio de Sedella, almost a century after his demise, manages to keep the stage for sometime to come. Thus far history has not given us a true picture of that Capuchin Father who, in the mind of some of his admirers, was a victim of episcopal autocracy, whilst to others he seems to have been a rebellious monk and intriguer. I shall try to lift a corner of the veil which still shrouds the past and show the true character of that ambitious religious who, when driven into a corner, would defy both ecclesiastical and civil authority to gain his ends.

This paper may be called a synopsis of several documents thus far unknown to the historian, comprising letters and the official correspondence between that Capuchin Friar, his ecclesiastical superior, Governor Miró, and the Royal Court of Madrid. The contents of these documents convict Fray Antonio de Sedella of insubordination of the gravest kind, perpetrated against the welfare of the colony of Louisiana.a

When Spain, in 1762, accepted the colony of Louisiana from France to prevent its falling into the hands of the English, she quite naturally, with the advent of her officials, also brought along the cumbersome machinery of her laws and customs. However, she made one exception in favor of the colony; the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition was not to be introduced into Louisiana. This was done for political reasons. Spain knew perfectly well that very few of her children had settled in the colony, for the colonists were either French, or of French extraction.

There is still another reason why the Inquisition was not introduced into Louisiana. The Crown was very anxious to obtain settlers else that fertile territory might remain a barren waste. These settlers were to be drawn from the English colonies and, after the War of Independence, from the newly formed Republic of the United States. Most of these settlers were not of the Faith. To gain their good will Spain was ready to forego her deep-rooted prejudices against the heretics, provided they would abstain from building temples or meeting houses within the limits of the colony belonging to His Most Catholic Majesty. For the same political reason they were not required to embrace the Catholic faith, but they were to acknowledge that there could be but one public Cult, the Cult of Catholic Spain.

Fray Antonio had lived a sufficient length of time in the colony to be well aware of these provisions and to know the privileges which had been granted non-Catholic settlers by a special Edict from the Crown. These documents show how that keen-witted Friar did not scruple to make use of that identical Edict when the ecclesiastical authority called him to account for his scandalous conduct for which it had decreed its expulsion from the colony.

Governor Miró, in a succinct report to his superior, Antonio Portier, p60Minister of the Department of Justice and Pardons, under date of April 30th, 1790, furnishes ample proof of Sedella's insubordination and open rebellion. This report is marked No. 39.

In this report the Governor adduces the reasons why Bishop Cyril's request for Sedella's return to his monastery in Spain was granted. The Bishop had been engaged in the canonical visitation of the churches in the colony. In New Orleans he had found religion in such an abhorrent state that he resolved on Sedella's removal. This, however, could only be accomplished with the help of the government which had to furnish sailing facilities.

Fray Antonio, when first asked by his Bishop to return to the monastery, promised his superior that he would go of his own free will provided that letters of recommendation be granted him by which he would be assured of a kind reception at home. Governor Miró, having been notified to that effect by the Bishop and having, moreover, received assurance from the Friar himself that he would depart under the aforesaid conditions, called Fray Antonio and told him that a boat was ready to put to sea on the morrow and that a berth had been reserved for him. Thereupon Fray Antonio met the Governor's remarks with a defiant and flat refusal, telling him at the same time that he, the Governor, would shortly be apprised of his, (Sedella's) refusal. Nor did Antonio tarry long, for the same evening, he handed the Governor a paper, duly folded and sealed. Having deposited the paper into the Governor's own hands, he withdrew without one word of explanation. Great was the Governor's surprise when he read that paper; so great, indeed, that the reading made him stagger. What his eyes beheld was nothing less than a true copy of Sedella's appointment, made out in due and legal form, as Inquisitor for the whole Province of Louisiana. This took the Governor completely by surprise. He could not understand how, or by what means, Sedella could have obtained such an appointment over his, (the Governor's,) head and utterly unknown to the other officials in the colony. This, then, was the trump card which Sedella had kept up his sleeve for just such an emergency. Being an officer, and the supreme officer in the colony, of the Holy Inquisition of Cartagena, quite naturally removed him from the jurisdiction of both his Bishop and the Governor.

Miró then goes on to describe the effect which the reading of that paper had produced on him. Sedella lost no time in pressing his advantage. He now served an official order on the Governor, requesting him to furnish the necessary troops to which he, as the supreme officer of the Inquisition, was entitled by law. He even intimated to the Governor that some guilty parties had already been under suspicion and that he needed troops at once to appreciate and jail them.

Sedella's order to the Governor reads as follows:

OFFICIAL (Reservado):

To carry into effect the instructions received under date of December 5th of last year, and in conformity with the royal Will p61therein expressed . . . . . ., it is indispensable that . . . . . . I should have recourse, at any hour of the night, to the Corps de Guardeº from which I may draw the necessary troops that could assist me, in case of necessity, to carry on my operations. To this end Your Lordship will please issue the necessary instructions to the military commander (Commandante) of the First Precinct (Principal Prevençion), or to any other Precinct which you might deem convenient as an alternative order to furnish me immediately, should the case arise, the soldiers whom I request, advising me without loss of time, of the locality where I may communicate your order on behalf of my government.

This order was dated: "New Orleans, at 9 o'clock of the night of the 28th day of April, 1790."

In the meantime the good ship had sailed without Père Antoine who lost no time in pushing the Governor to the wall. The following day he issued another formal order to Miró, couched in the following terms:

OFFICIAL.

Yesterday, at 9 o'clock of the night, I delivered into the hands of Your Lordship an official communication in which I requested that you would please issue a secret and alternative order to the Corps de Guarde which was to furnish me the assistance of troops in case I should need them. Since, at the time of writing, I did not receive any communication from Your Lordship in regard to the respective Precinct to which I should address myself, I deem it necessary to warn you that the success of my mission is imperilled by such tardy measures, and since this matter is of the gravest concern and of the utmost importance in the service of the King, Your Lordship will please inform me, without further delay, what steps you intend taking in regard to my request so that I may promptly proceed and thus accomplish my task.

This peremptory order was dated: "New Orleans, at 6 o'clock of the afternoon on the 29th day of April, 1790."

That Governor Miró was duly impressed by such audacity, may be seen from his letter to Portier wherein he writes: "I trembled at such an attempt to ignorant the prerogatives of the Royal Patronage, but, above all, because it has happened at such a critical period in these Provinces."

The Governor goes on to relate that the King had decided to encourage immigration into the colony to which should be admitted the people "that dwell along the rivers whose waters flow into the Ohio." He further states that such powers, that have reference to immigration, had really and truly been bestowed on him. These papers he had already shown to Antonio Valdes and which "Your Excellency has seen at the Supreme Court when you promised that you would not molest them (i.e. the immigrants) p62in matters of religion, provided there should be no public Cult other than the Catholic."

Governor Miró is full of apprehension as to the outcome of Sedella's treacherous move. He maintains that the mere rumor of the Inquisition being established in New Orleans would be sufficient to stop the immigration which already had begun to show such satisfactory results. It might even happen that those just lately arrived might depart again. He fears that even now it might be already too late though Sedella should be sent away as requested by the Bishop. For this same reason Sedella could not be juridically dealt with, for the public might become aware of the affair when the true reason of his being away should transpire. His Excellency should duly appreciate the reasonableness of the Governor's fears and apprehensions, for "these strangers are imbued with, and very much afraid of, the powers of said Sacred Tribunal which they consider absolutely despotic and partial, notwithstanding the uprightness, weight and circumspection of its most just proceedings."

Miró then gives notice to the grave apprehensions which the attitude of the French population was already causing him by the mere thought of what might happen should Sedella's political masterstroke become known. It could not be ignored that France never took kindly to the Inquisition; still less could it be expected that the French and their descendants in the colony should entertain a different opinion. On the contrary, should they be apprised of the introduction of the Inquisition in New Orleans, they would not hesitate to make common cause with the other colonists in the Province. Thence it would be but one step to the spreading of their seditious ideas broadcast throughout the inland Provinces.

Fray Antonio, however, was no novice in political intrigue, for he had already been successful in bringing some members of the Governor's official household to his way of thinking. Miró was well aware of this state of affairs; hence he distrusted the very one to whom he should have applied for advice. This fact he mentions in his report to Portier where he states: "Such reflexions went helter-skelter through my brain and caused a very tumult in my imagination when I read that paper which is marked No. 3, and which the said Padre remitted to me at 9 o'clock at night, immediately withdrawing from my presence ere I could read it. Finally, it must have been 10.30 that same night when I decided to call my Assessor, Don Manuel Serrano, because I did not dare consult the Auditor for the well-founded reasons which the Bishop had already expressed in his letter, marked No. 1."

This Auditor must have been very intimate with Sedella, probably for the reason, as Bishop Cyril puts it so charitably, that they were countrymen.

Governor Miró, very much embarrassed and now thoroughly afraid lest the true reason of Sedella's dismissal from New Orleans become known, seized with avidity upon the plausible excuse which the Bishop's request furnished him that the obstreperous monk be sent in haste to Spain for canonical reasons. Such reasons, as his brothers-in‑arms admit in an p63official communication to the Governor, under date of October 30th, 1791, would never have been countenanced at any other time. This document proves that these gentlemen, officials of the Crown and leaders in the colony, showed scant courtesy and respect to the Church and her representatives when the question between the Bishop and his priests was of a disciplinary nature, no matter how grave the provocation might have been. These gentlemen were Gayoso, Colonel of Natchez, Serrano, Assessor of the Province, and Lopez, the Secretary of the colonial government. Conjointly they give vent to their feelings, expressed as their "unanimous opinion," in the following words: "We were unanimous in our opinion that, to render impossible any harm which might have been inflicted upon the colony by his (Sedella's) doings, we should favor the ideas of the Auxiliary Bishop whereby R. P. Sedella would be separated from this country and sent to Spain, because by such a procedure the public would remain in ignorance of the real cause. It is quite evident that the Governor did not take such a step to second the efforts of the Auxiliary Bishop, but simply to preserve the tranquility and to promote the well-being of the Province, etc., etc."

This admission, over the signatures of the aforesaid three prominent officials, throws a vivid light upon conditions as they existed 130 years ago in New Orleans. The cry of anguish of the Auxiliary Bishop; his sublime courage in the face of unparalleled persecution; his willingness to die a martyr should such a sacrifice be required to restore morality to that most licentious capital of the colony — all these considerations had no weight with the politicians of that age. Fray Antonio had to be exiled, not because he had incurred the just censures of his bishop and monastic superior, but because he had become a political menace to the colony. This will appear more clearly when all these documents thus far kept out of the reach of our historical societies, shall have been properly translated and made accessible to the future historian. Gradually we shall reconstruct Père Antoine, not as the numerous legends make him appear at this late date, but as the inexorable logic of true history shall depict him from documents now accessible to the writer.

Rt. Rev. F. L. Gassler,

Baton Rouge,

La.


The Editor's Note:

1 Paper read at the Second Annual Meeting of the Catholic Historical Association, St. Louis, Dec. 27‑29, 1922.


Thayer's Note:

a Gayarré's account (History of Louisiana, III.270 ff.) differs sharply; so does C. W. Bishpam's attempt to rehabilitate Sedella (LHQ 2:24‑37).


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