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19th Century Emigration to the USA: A Journey Into the Unknown. The Destination
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Joseph Renee Vilatte
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Joseph Renee Vilatte

Joseph René Vilatte


Joseph Rene Vilatte was a lapsed Catholic of the Latin Rite. He was the progenitor of more then twenty churches. His adventures in the ecclesiastical world of his time are worth reviewing, again and again. Vilatte was born in Paris, France, the son of a butcher, on January 24, 1854. His parents belonged to the region of La Maine, in northwest France, and belonged to "Petite Eglise" (this church had all but died out and he was baptized by a layman). His mother died shortly after his birth and his boyhood was spent in an orphanage at Paris, under the care of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. He was re-baptized conditionally and confirmed at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, in 1867.

During the latter part of the Franco-Prussian War he enlisted in the Garde National. After the siege of Paris and the horrors of the Commune, he decided to leave France for Canada, having been attracted by the appeals for settlers in rural districts. Soon after landing on Canadian soil Vilatte found that a teacher was needed for a school near Ottawa at some distance from the nearest Catholic Church, he acted as catechist, and on Sunday, when there was no chance of getting to Mass, he conducted a simple service for the people. One of the priests that attended the region was impressed with Vilatte and taught him Latin, he returned to France after two years. He received his "calling-up" papers for the French Military service.

Upon returning to Paris, he was informed that there would be a seven year requirement in the army. He decided to leave his native land. From there he went to Belgium and after a few months entered the Community of Christian Brothers, at that time, a lay teaching order at Namur. He was in danger of arrest as a conscientious objector. Vilatte did not find his vocation in this institute and left Belgium in 1876, feeling that he was called for the secular priesthood. He once again sailed for Canada.

In Canada he approached the Bishop of Montreal, who sent him to the College of Saint-Laurent, conducted by the Holy Cross Fathers, where he studied for three years. About this time, he meet the famous ex-priest Chinquey, who was devoting his time to preaching against the Roman Catholic Church. After hearing what Chinquey had to say Vilatte left the seminary and sought the advice of a French Protestant pastor in Montreal, this pastor helped Vilatte study at McGill University for two years. After McGill University, Vilatte reconciled with Rome and entered the Clerics of Saint Viator at Bourbonnais, Illinois. Again he met Chinquey, who convinced him to leave Illinois and go to Green Bay, Wisconsin. There he would find Belgian settlers that were waiting for conversion to Protestantism, for, as explained by Chinquery, they were slipping from Romanism into infidelity. Chinquery also advised Vilatte to contact Hyacinthe Loyson, who had been a Discalced Carmelite friar. He was excommunicated in 1869, after he married an American widow and founded Gallican Catholic Church. So in 1884, with the blessing of two unfrocked Roman Catholic priests, Vilatte went o Wisconsin to minister in the Green Bay Area. He considered himself a freelance Presbyterian missionary.



By the time Vilatte arrived at Green Bay, many French-Canadians had settles and established a fairly good fur trade business. These former Belgians had ceased to practice their religion, some had become Spiritualists. At Duval, forty families of lapsed Catholics had opened a schismatic place of worship. Vilatte to turn these people into Presbyterians.

After about a year trying to convert the Belgians on the peninsula north of the city of Green Bay, he saw that matters would not work out. On the advice of Loyson, he approached Bishop John Henry Hobert Brown, the Episcopal Bishop of Fond du Lac. He pointed out that in the northeast part of his diocese there were many hundreds of Belgian and French settles who had already lapsed from communion with Rome, and that they wanted nothing to do with a church ruled over by an Italian pope. That, here in deed was an opportunity to organize a purified Catholic church which would present the Gospel to the people as did the primitive Church, and exercise authority according to the spirit of free America. Vilatte suggesting that the Presbyterian mission should be taken over by the Diocese of Fond du Lac as an Old Catholic outpost.

Bishop Brown, who was a broad-minded High Churchman, replied that he had already heard of Vilatte's mission work, and that he would be glad to help the movement. He explained that it would help promote good relations between the Protestant Episcopal Church and the Old Catholic Churches, which in Europe were doing so much to break down the power of the papacy.

Loyson had already written to Vilatte, asking him to come to Paris, so that he could discuss the possibility of his becoming a priest by Bishop Herzog at Berne. This would be the first step at setting up an Old Catholic Church in North America.

Vilatte replied to Loyson that he did not want to abandon his flock - he also did not have the money to travel to Europe.

Bishop Brown informed Vilatte that he was willing to support the missions, but that, he must be examined by two professors at Nashotah House (Seminary) on his theological knowledge. The test being satisfactory, Bishop Brown wrote that he would consult with some of his fellow bishops regarding Loyson's advice that Vilatte should be ordained by Bishop Herzog. (Herzon, by law was not allowed by the Swiss Government to perform episcopal acts outside Switzerland, but he ordained for the Gallican Church in France, some men who were sent to him by Loyson).

Word came on may 27, 1885, that the bishops (consulted by Bishop Brown) had decided that ordination of Vilatte by the Old Catholic Church was the wisest course to follow. It was also suggested at the time, that Vilatte accept ordination of the Protestant Episcopal Church and that there orders were just as valid as the Old Catholics in Europe. Vilatte did not accept this proposal, as his followers did not want to be part of any church that may have question of orders. However, Vilatte did ask Bishop Brown for a testimonial letter and the following was written:

My dear Brother,


Permit me to introduce to your confidence and esteem bearer of this letter, Mr. Rene Vilatte, a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Fond du Lac. Mr. Vilatte is placed in peculiar circumstances. Educated for the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, he found himself unable to receive the recent Vatican Decrees, and for a short time associated himself with the Presbyterian communion, but at last, by the mercy of God, was led into contact with this branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. He resided for a while at Green bay, a city of this diocese. In the neighborhood of this place there are settled about 30,000 Belgians. Of these a large number, probably 8,000, are believed to be inclined to the principals of pure primitive Catholicism. Several delegations of these Belgians have waited Mr. Vilatte and besought him to become their priest. Mr. Vilatte's character for piety, sobriety, purity, intelligence and prudence has been attested to the satisfaction of this diocese. Our canons, however, require a longer probation as a candidate then the exigency of circumstances will bear. At the suggestion of Pere Loyson, approved by the Bishop of Connecticut and other Bishops, at the faculty of Nashoth House Seminary, and by me. Mr. Vilatte approaches you, requesting you to ordain him to the priesthood, as speedily as you can find possible that he may enter upon the great work to which he seems to be especially summoned. It has been expedient to us to send him to you that he may learn personally something of the aims and spirit of the great movement of which you are a recognized leader and to be fitted to cooperate with you in some degree in this country. Mr. Vilatte's pecuniary means are limited and he desires to be absent from this diocese as short as time as possible. I ask you to ordain him to the priesthood and attest his character, briefly but sufficiently, by saying that I am willing to ordain him, if it should not seem expedient to you to do so.


Truly a loving brother and servant,

in the Holy Church of Our Lord,


JH Hobert Brown,

Bishop of Fond du Lac.

Armed with this letter, Vilatte arranged to return to Green bay, confident that the road was clear, so he planned to sail for Europe. But the Bishop accompanied him to the railroad depot, and before the train started, said: I will ordain you a priest tomorrow, if you will be satisfied with your ordination and rest here. To this Vilatte replied: No! Old Catholic I am and Old Catholic I will be". Then came the assurance of the Bishop that he would nerve be subject to the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, Even this did not satisfy Vilatte.

He was ordained deacon and priest by Bishop Herzog on June 6 and 7, 1885. According to his own statement, he did not take the oath of canonical obedience to a diocesan bishop. This was to be the cause of much trouble in the near future.



On his return to Wisconsin, Father Vilatte opened a mission church for the Belgians at Little Sturgeon (Gardner). He dedicated it to the Precious Blood in order to stress that communion was given in both species. His first parish was located between two Roman Catholic Churches. The House of Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church granted him permission to use the French version of the Swiss Christian Church Liturgy, issued by Bishop Herzog in 1880. The Chapel was built with money donated by Episcopalians and the priest in charge (Vilatte) was paid a salary from the funds of the Diocese of Fond du Lac also gave his imprimatur to “Catechism Catholique”, compiled by Vilatte, which rejected the doctrines of Immaculate Conception and papal Infallibility, and laid down that the Sacrament of Penance was not obligatory. Not long after the mission of the Blessed Sacrament was opened in Green Bay.

For the first three years all went well for the Old catholic Missions. In September 1887 the Fond du Lac diocesan magazine referred to Vilatte as "The young pioneer priest of the Old catholic work in America, tall with a winsome countenance and enthusiastic manner, a model of a priest and pastor. A young man of energy and dignity, culture and education, he has sacrificed his life to the cause of Old catholic reform. We pray God to open the hearts and hands of all churchmen all over the land to the aid of his noble work".

In 1961 there were thirteen Roman catholic parishes in the City of Green Bay, and where Vilatte's chapel stood there is now a Franciscan friary, the original Old catholic Church (Blessed Sacrament) is listed in the Episcopal Church Annual among Episcopal Churches without qualification.

About this time, Vilatte felt that he needed an assistant. A Mr. Gauthier, a Catholic schoolmaster was sent by Bishop Brown to Switzerland and raised to the diaconate and priesthood. Upon his return to the United States he was appointed pastor of Blessed sacrament Church in Green Bay. At this time there were three Old Catholic parishes in Northeastern Wisconsin, Green Bay, Little Sturgeon and Dykesville.



Bishop Brown died May 2, 1888, and was on November 13, succeeded as Bishop of Fond du Lac by Charles C. Grafton, who had been one of the first members of the Crowley Fathers, founded at Oxford in 1866. Grafton was a rigid High Churchman. He at first supported Vilatte in his mission and most of all, did not want any Catholics to become part of the Roman Catholic Church. Grafton and Vilatte continued with their differences throughout the rest of his stay in Wisconsin.

Twenty-one months after his appointment as Bishop, Grafton realized that the Old Catholic missions of Northeast Wisconsin were not actually under his episcopal command that they were more or less "Free Lance". The Bishop managed to persuade Vilatte to transfer the legally to the trustees of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, to be held in trust for Old Catholicism. In return for this, the trustees agreed to pay stipend to Old Catholic clergy and finance their work. This soon proved to be a fatal error on the part of Vilatte.

In 1889, Vilatte published a pamphlet entitled 'A Sketch of the Belief of Old Catholics' In it, Vilatte was still quite convinced that he had a vocation to be an Old Catholic mission priest in the United States. He also promoted the idea of a Democratic catholic church in America. Nor Roman Catholic and not Protestant Catholic, but American Catholic (This is his first mention of the American Catholic Church).

In Dykesville, Vilatte established the first Old Catholic religious order and monastery. The Society of The Precious Blood ("SPB") he and two other members made up the first members.

When Archbishop Heykamp, Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht, heard of the goings on in Wisconsin between Vilatte and Bishop Grafton, he wrote to Vilatte on September 19, 1889, to break off relations with the Protestant Episcopal Church (at that time the Old Catholics did not recognize the PEC orders as valid). On October 8, 1889, Bishop Dipendaal, Bishop of Deventer wrote a letter stating that the Old Catholic hierarchy of the Netherlands regarded Father Vilatte. SPB, as one of their priests, and the recognized leader of the Old Catholics in North America.

The following April, Vilatte told Bishop Grafton about the correspondence with the Church of Utrecht, and suggested that he be raised to the episcopate. Bishop Grafton wrote to Archbishop Heykamp with the suggestion that Vilatte might be consecrated Abbot-Bishop of The Society of Precious Blood and suffragan bishop of Fond du Lac, but that this action would have to emanate from the church in the Netherlands and Vilatte would have to sent back to America by their mandate. That if a consecration did take place that Vilatte and the Old Catholics would face financial cutoff from the Diocese of Fond du Lac. That is was only through his financial support that the Old Catholic Missions were able to exist. The Bishop also stated that he would remove Vilatte as pastor of the Old Catholic Missions if such a consecration took place.

What took place next, it what I have mentioned so many times in my letters on his network. When the Old Catholic Missions of Northeastern Wisconsin were used as a pawn between the Protestant Episcopal Church and The Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, the true-vine of Old Catholicism in the United States was cut off and from that point on, there was no true Old Catholic Church in the United States. The Polish National Catholic Church entered into communion with the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, but they were not Old Catholic, they were Polish in every respect.

Vilatte and Grafton were determined to rid themselves of each other. At one point, Vilatte had sent letters to the Russian Orthodox Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, seeking assistance. The final breaking point took place when Bishop Grafton started publishing statements against Vilatte in Episcopal publications and asking fellow Episcopalians to stop sending money and donations to the Old Catholic Missions of Northeastern Wisconsin. He further stated that "Father Vilatte had been making proposals to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Green Bay, The Russian Orthodox Bishop and the Old Catholic Bishops of Holland.

Meanwhile, the Old Catholic Bishops in Europe continued their request that Vilatte discontinue any relations with the Protestant Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Fond du Lac. They assured him that there would be no problem arranging for his episcopal consecration. In September of 1890, when Bishop Grafton showed up at the Old Catholic mission with several of his clergy, for confirmation, he was informed that there were no candidates because the Old Catholic Bishops of Holland had forbidden him to accept any sacraments from a Protestant prelate.

Grafton insisted on addressing the congregation, stating that he was their true Bishop and he reminded them of his financial support (this was at Duval). The next day the same scenes took place at Little Sturgeon. Shortly thereafter, Bishop Grafton wrote to Vilatte and suggested that he give-up his work and turn everything over to the Diocese of Fond du Lac. (This included churches, houses, furniture, religious items and vestments). On September 19, 1890, Vilatte sent a letter to Bishop Grafton; he informed him that he was severing connections with the Episcopal Church.



As proof that he no longer accepted the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Fond du Lac, Vilatte opened a new mission station near Green Bay. On hearing this, Bishop Grafton inhibited him until he obtained authorization. On October 30, he informed "the free lance priest" Vilatte, that there was no chance in obtaining an Old Catholic bishop for the United States and that the Bishops in Europe had no right to interfere with polity in the United States.

After the Old Catholic Congress held in Cologne in September of 1890, the bishops had decided that it was not expedient to carry out the consecration of Vilatte as their only official representative in the United States. It was not until 1897 that they appointed Stanislas Kozlowski as the first Old Catholic Bishop for North America, however, his mandate was directed to serve scattered Poles (there was no concern for the Belgians of Northeast Wisconsin)

Realizing that he had been rejected by both the Episcopalians and the Old Catholics, Vilatte appealed to Bishop Vladimir for the second time. In his (Vladimir) reply, he stated that he would communicate at once with the Holy Synod of Moscow, and if no answer was received after a reasonable time, he would re-ordain him 'sub conditone', and receive him as a priest of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.

Matters dragged on until February 20, 1891, when Bishop Grafton informed Vilatte that he had been "removed from the mission station of St. Mary's, Dyckesville". The Russian Bishop urged Vilatte to fight against the impostors who challenged the authority of the Oecumenical Councils. On March 11, 1891, the Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska dispatched the following letter:



in which he states that it was a great joy for them to be a branch of the great body of Jesus Christ and members of the Church of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople, where are the seats and cathedrals of Patriarchs of the Oecumenical Orthodox Church. He asked that God help them to defend Christian truth against the errors of the papist and Protestant sectarians, who do not belong to the true Catholic Church of Christ. He asked them to defend their priest against the Bishop of Fond du Lac, other Protestants and those who could not be regarded as true brothers on Christ, because of their heresies and lack of apostolic succession.

Bishop Grafton was furious when he read the letter of Bishop Vladimir. He wrote a letter to Vilatte and stated that if he were an honest man he would do one of three things.

1) Return to a loving and loyal obedience to him

2) Take a letter of transfer to the Archbishop of Utrecht, or to Bishop Valdimir

3) Leave the Country

On April 13, 1891 Bishop Grafton suspended Vilatte for six months from all priestly ministrations of all kinds whatsoever. Vilatte merely replied that he did not recognize Grafton's authority and he refused to leave the mission. On May 9, Bishop Vladimir issued an official document which stated:

By the Grace of God, and the Authority bestowed ion me by the Apostolic Succession, I, Valdimir, Bishop of the Orthodox Catholic Church announce to all clergyman of different Christian denominations and to all Old Catholics, that The Reverend Joseph Rene Vilatte, Superior of the Old Catholic Parish of Dyckesville, Wisconsin, is now a true Old catholic Orthodox Christian, under the patronage of our Church, and no Bishop or Priest of any denomination has the right to interdict him or suspend his religious duties, except the Holy Synod of the Russian Church, and myself. Any action contrary to this action is null and void on the basis of liberty of conscience and laws of this country.



This is one of the tough parts in the history of Archbishop Vilatte. Here he has crossed over from Old Catholicism to the Eastern or Orthodox Church. In studying the theology, doctrine, tradition of both "Catholic" bodies, it is not so easy to switch from one to another.

At this point, in the life of Vilatte, he was hated by Bishop Grafton, who called him a con-man and published letters and warnings describing him as a swindler who kept bad company, and whose associates, some of whom he mentioned by name, were his equal in crime and debauchery. It was one of these friends referred to by Bishop Grafton, a clergyman named Harding, formally a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and a missionary in India, who inspired Vilatte to pursue a line of action which might prove to his advantage then his remaining under the protection of the Russian Orthodox Bishop. The story told was as follows:

(Taken from “Bishops At Large”  Peter Anson, p. 105)

“In about 1888 about 5,000 Catholics of the Latin Rite of Ceylon and South India had formed a schismatic body known as the Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon, Goa and India. The reasons for this break with the papacy were political rather then religious. From the sixteenth century there had existed a concordat between the Holy See and the King of Portugal which allowed the latter to nominate Bishops to the diocese of Latin Rite India, as well as other colonies which had formally been Portuguese colonies. The arrangement was known as the Patrondo (Patronage). By the second half of the nineteenth century it had become obvious that it was high time for Patrondo to be abolished.


On January 2, 1887, Pope Leo XIII set up a new Latin hierarchy for India and Ceylon, with the bishops (except for the province of (Goa) directly dependent on the Congregation of Propaganda. This change aroused considerable indignation because there still existed strong sentimental link between Indian Catholics and Portugal. Many native priests were indignant at being transferred to jurisdictions of French or Italian bishops.


Thus came into being what was called the 'Patrando Association'. Its leaders petitioned King Luis I of Portugal, to use his influence at Rome to have the royal patronage restored. On February 10, 1888, A Goan priest, who had beena Brahmin, Antonio Francisco-Xavier Alvarez, was elected by the Association as first bishop of the schismatic church. He applied to Mar Dionysios V, Jacobite Metropolitan of Malankara since 1976, to consecrate him, but with no result. His appeal to Mar Ignatius Peter III, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch was more successful.

Vilatte, realizing that there was no further hope of being raised to the episcopate by any of the Old Catholic bishops of Europe, and doubtful of an association with the Patriarchate of Moscow, Vilatte decided to write to Alvarez - who called himself 'Mar Julius I' Metropolitan of the Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon, Goa and India --- asking if he would be willing to consecrate him. The answer came as following:…”

(Again from Anson)

“We from the Bottom of our hearts thank God that He has mercifully shown you the way out of the slavery of Rome; and we rejoice to see a large number of Christians making heroic efforts in the same direction as ourselves in the New World.


Alvarez was willing to come to America to consecrate Vilatte, but Vilatte replied that it would be better if he went to Ceylon, which would save the hardships of traveling to North America. In his second letter to Vilatte, Alvarez said he would be delighted to welcome the "worthy minister of God from Wisconsin".



No time was wasted. Vilatte placed his Old Catholic missions under the care of Brother Augustine (Harding) and explained to his flock the reasons for his making the long voyage to the Far East. They were the following:

1) Because the Old Catholics in America were forbidden by the Archbishop and Bishops in Holland to present their candidates to Anglican Bishops for confirmation, or to use holy oils blessed by them;

2) The fear that in case of his death, the people would be left without pastoral care, in which case he would be responsible should they have to submit to Roman Catholic bishops;

3) The long silence of the Holy Synod of Moscow, and the apparent indifference of the Orthodox Church towards the Old Catholic Movement in North America;

4) the expressed Orthodoxy of the Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon, together with the urgent invitation to go there and receive the Apostolic Succession.



Before leaving Green Bay, Vilatte held a Synod at which he was elected bishop and begged to obtain an indisputable episcopal consecration as soon as possible. He was given $225.00 for the trip and traveled economy or third class on a steamer. He sailed from New York on July 15, 1891, and was away from North America for over one year.

After almost a year, Vilatte was consecrated in the former Portuguese Church of Our Lady of Good Death, Colombo, which now belonged to the Independent Catholic Church. Mar Julius was assisted by his own consecrator, Mar Paul Athanasius, Bishop of Kottayam and Mar George Gregorius, Bishop of Niranam. The Roman Pontifical was used. May 29, 1892.

In the Bull of His Holiness Peter III, signed and sealed from the Patriarchal Palace at the Monastery of Sapran and Mardin on the borders of Syria and Kurdistan on December 29, 1891, the consecration of Joseph Rene Vilatte was granted for the archiepiscopal dignity, Archbishop Metropolitan, in the name of Mar Timotheos, for the Church of the Mother of God in Dyckesville, Wisconsin, United States and the Churches of the Archdiocese of America, viz. The Churches adhering to the Orthodox Faith.

On May 30, 1892, an agreement was drawn up between Alvarez and Vilatte, in which the latter acknowledged the Confession of Faith, the canons and Rules of the Syrian Jacobite Church, and rejected all the doctrines which are declared heretical by said Church. Vilatte promised that he would be subject and obedient to the Patriarch, and to his successors in the Apostolic See of Antioch. In return for this he would receive from Antioch, the necessary supply of holy oil which the Patriarch alone is allowed to consecrate. Vilatte also promised to remit to the Annual Peter's Pence Collection. He also stated that if he ever severed relations with the Monophysite Churches of the Antiochian Rite or diverted from their canons or rules, he would be subject to dismissal from the dignity of Metropolitan. Mar Julius signed the certificate of consecration June 5, 1892, which conferred upon him the title of the Old Catholic Bishop of America, together with the power to consecrate churches, chancels, cemeteries and all functions appertaining to Metropolitan rank. The witness to this document was Dr. Lisboa Pinto, USA Consul for Ceylon.

On returning to Green Bay he visited Holland and France. Arriving in Green Bay, he found the following deposition from the Bishop of Fond du Lac:

(From the archives of the Bishop of Fond Du Lac)

In virtue of the authority left by Our Lord Jesus Christ to his Church of binding and loosing and of putting away every brother that walketh disorderly, we do hereby deprive the said Joseph Rene Vilatte of all privileges and powers of the ministry of the Church and Depose him from his office as Priest. And we call upon the faithful to keep themselves from any ministrations at his hands, and we do erase and blot out his name from the register of clergy of this Church, in token that if he repent not and amend, God will blot out his name from the Book of Life.

The Old Catholic Archbishop of North America also found awaiting his return to Wisconsin a report issued by the House of Bishops at the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, presided over by Bishop Drone, Bishop of Albany, which read:

It appears that the bishops from whom M Vilatte claims to have received consecration belong to a body which is separated from the Catholic Christendom because of nonacceptance of dogmatic decrees of the Council of Chalcedon as to our Blessed Lord's Person:


These bishops had no jurisdiction or right to ordain a bishop for any part of the diocese under the charge of the Bishop of Fond du Lac: M. Vilatte was never elected by any duly accredited Synod It appears that M. Vilatte, in seeking the Episcopate, made statements not warranted by the facts of the case, and seemed willing to join with any body, Old Catholic, Greek, Roman, Syrian, which would confer it upon him. More than two months before the time of his so-called consecration, he was deposed from the sacred ministry. In view of these facts, we propose the following resolutions.


'Resolved. That in the opinion of this House, the whole proceedings in connection with the so-called consecration of J. Rene Vilatte were null and void, and that this Church does not recognize that any Episcopal character was thereby conferred.'

'Resolved. That a statement of the above-recited facts be sent to the Archbishop of Utrecht, to the Old Catholics in Germany and Switzerland, and to the Metropolitans and Primates of the Anglican Communion'.


To help save the French speaking Catholics from Archbishop Vilatte, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Green Bay, sent to France for Flemish and French priests to minister to the people under the care of Vilatte. It was never determined how many parishioners or followers he had, but an estimated 500 is in the records of the Diocese of Green Bay.





Before starting lesson # 8, I want to say something about Peter Anson and his book, 'Bishops at Large'. I first read this book at Seminary, in the 1960's. It was then, considered the "gossip" or "tell on the trash" about the Old Catholics in England and the United States. At that time, there was very limited printed material about Old Catholicism or Independent Catholics.


How I found most of the information I have shared here is: I became personal friends with Archbishops Wallace D. Maxey, Richard A. Marchenna and Robert Burnes. I held a long correspondence with prelates of England and kept a record of events, times and places. Today I have several file cabinets chuck full of information.


Now, in this modern age of computer data and web pages, some of the Old Catholic Churches have beautiful and pictorial information about their particular branch of Old Catholicism. Here I am trying to bring out the facts. I believe that Vilatte was sincere in his quest to build an American Catholic



In my many talks with Archbishop Maxey (ordained to the priesthood by Vilatte) he often spoke of Vilatte's desire to unite the small independent Catholic churches. There are so many situations and circumstances that must be taken into consideration in Vilatte's quest. The two main obstacles were the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Episcopal Churches. They had the resources and money to attack every effort made by Vilatte. Then too, the Old Catholics of Holland and Germany did not keep their word to Vilatte and when he looked elsewhere, they became very authoritative (like unto Rome) and joined with American clergyman against Vilatte.


There were times when Vilatte considered taking his flock back to the Roman Catholic Church, this documented correspondence can be found in the archives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay and was made available by Monsignor Joseph A. Marx, former Vicar General of the Diocese. Msgr. Marx spent a good deal of his life researching Vilatte's career in Wisconsin.


At no time did Vilatte ever have a large following in Wisconsin. It is estimated that 500 members would be about right. Here is where Bishop Grafton is able to belittle the work of Vilatte, saying that Vilatte's followers were unlearned and did not know the truth, that they were poor and for the most part they were. Vilatte canvassed the Eastern United States among Episcopalians, seeking clothing and other creature comforts for his parishioners. Many staunch Catholics refused to have anything to do with him, even when he did offer comforts. In some places the Archbishop of North America was driven away by the Belgians.


Often Vilatte had a difficult time making ends meet. He and his monks went hungry. Bishop Grafton had managed to get hold of the property and though he said that "it was being held in trust for the Old Catholics'" when they needed the revenue, the bishop did not make the sources available. Sometimes he had to flee to avoid creditors. He did have a booth at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, but was not officially invited to participate in any of the events.


Finding himself at the end of his rope less then two years after being consecrated, Vilatte decided that the best thing he could do for himself and his followers was to be reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church (he believed Bishop Grafton and the PEC to be Protestant).


He approached Archbishop Satolli, the Apostolic Delegate (March 26, 1894) and the archbishop informed Bishop Messmer of Green Bay, that Vilatte was ready to submit to the Roman Catholic Church. About three weeks later, he wrote to Messmer that he was preparing his people for reconciliation with Rome. Further correspondence took place between Satolli, Messmer and Vilatte. In August of 1894, Satolli advised Messmer to finance Vilatte's journey to Rome. That the Propaganda would refund the money.


Matters dragged on for almost four years. In February 1898 the Apostolic Delegate wrote to the Bishop of Green Bay that Vilatte was now quite ready to recant his errors and submit to Holy Mother Church as a layman.


While all of this was going on, Vilatte had published an Old Catholic catechism and announced the formation of a sort of religious order - The Knights of the Crown of Thorn's - which would have a monastery in Green Bay, when money was found to build it.


In spite of the offer of a journey to Rome, at the expense of the Diocese of Green Bay or the Congregation of Propaganda, he continued to waver. Eventually both Archbishop Satolli and Bishop Messmer realized that Vilatte would not submit to Rome. At that time, Vilatte was approached by a group of Poles, who asked him to be their bishop. Bishop Messmer wrote to Archbishop Satolli "For the present, he has an asylum among schismatic Poles, who will pay him court until he will be infatuated and foolish enough to consecrate one of them for the episcopate. Then they will cast him out." This happened six years later.


Rome offered terms to Vilatte, but they did not satisfy him. After he left Wisconsin, some of his followers reconciled with Rome but most joined with the Diocese of Fond du Lac and ended their days as Episcopalians. The priests that worked with Vilatte in Wisconsin, Gauthier ( a good man); Mouthy (said to have become a scamp and drunkard); Lopez (moved to New York to take care of an Italian independent Catholic congregation.


This is the end of the Old Catholic Missions in Northeast Wisconsin. This is also the end of any real Old Catholic Church in the United States - associated with the Old Catholic bishops of Holland and Germany.





Here is a time to draw a fine line. When Vilatte left Green Bay, did he leave the Old Catholic Church of Northeast Wisconsin there or did he take it in "in his pocket" so to speak? Many would say that the Old Catholic Church of Holland and Germany ended at that time. As pointed out in series #8, most of the members joined the Episcopal Church and a few were reconciled with the Roman Catholics, some scattered in other directions. We know that the Old Catholics did not depose Vilatte or excommunicate him - but he did join another branch of the catholic church and signed and swore allegiance to another bishop.


The Archbishop of Ceylon, Goa and India (independent Catholic Church) sent Vilatte back with papers saying that he was the Old Catholic Archbishop of North America. There are those who would question the authority of that appointment. Non the less, Vilatte did use that title at times. The Old Catholics, for a brief time appointed a Polish priest/bishop to represent the Church, but that was not long termed and it certainly showed Vilatte that he was not their representative.


Having failed to show to many Belgians the way out of slavery of Rome, and apparently indifferent to his obligations to the Syro-Jacobite Patriarchate, Vilatte turned his attention to a much larger body of people, optimistic of gaining support from them. These were the widely spread Polish Catholics. There had been a steady immigration of Poles to the USA since about 1830, and the first Polish priest arrived in 1851. Many Poles crossed the Atlantic in the hope of making their fortunes in the New World. After the civil war, many moved to the Middle West, mainly Chicago.


After 1873 there began a series of conflicts between Polish priests and American bishops. So fused were religion and nationalism with the Poles that most of them were determined not to be integrated with other Catholics. They wanted a church of their own. Towards the end of the century, independent Polish Catholic Churches existed in Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Toledo and elsewhere. The chief leader of these Poles was Father Antoni Kazlowski, who procured episcopal consecration from the Dutch Old Catholics in Holland on November 17, 1897 (mentioned above, this was an Old Catholic consecration, but not an official Old Catholic community in the United States). This was not the Polish Old Catholic Church in the United States, like the Belgians in Northeast Wisconsin.


The first meeting between Vilatte and the Poles was in 1894, when Father Kolaszewski invited him to dedicate a church in Cleveland. After Kazlowski's consecration, Vilatte was approached by Father Stephen Kaminski pastor of the Holy Mother of the Rosary, Buffalo, New York, to raise him to the episcopate. This priest had failed to persuade the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht to raise him to the episcopate.


There is rumor and gossip that Vilatte was paid $5,000 for this consecration and that the invitation stated that both Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop Martinelli, the Apostolic Delegate would assist in the ceremony.


With characteristic bravado, Vilatte arrived in Buffalo on March 21, 1898, and consecrated Kaminski (in his own church), giving him the title "Assistant Bishop". However, the new bishop fled the United States to Canada because of creditors. He was excommunicated by Rome and abandoned Vilatte. He later returned to the United States and pastored his church until he died in 1911.


On October 24, 1976; Archbishop Wallace David de Ortega Maxey related the following to me, in San Francisco, California:


After the consecration in Buffalo, Vilatte sailed to England, to meet-up with Father Ignatius of Jesus, OSB, of Llanthony Monastery, in the Black Mountains of South Wales.


Vilatte became acquainted with Ignatius when he visited the USA, 1890-91, raising funds for the work in England. Ignatius claimed that he belonged to the Ancient British Church, which was the oldest after Jerusalem and Antioch.


In his book, 'Bishops at Large', Anson makes Vilatte out to be a charlatan and accuses him of going to England to get his hands on Llanthony money. We know that Vilatte sailed from New York to England and arrived three months after the Kaminski consecration. He first visited Dr. F.G. Lee, of the Order of Corporate Reunion and Bishop of Dorchester. Lee gave Vilatte a letter of introduction to Ignatius.


Vilatte arrived in the Black Mountains on July 18, and was greeted by Ignatius. He brought all of his documents and vestments and offered valid orders to any and all, including Ignatius. Explaining that he was on his way to Russia. Anson's book relates a story from one of the monks of Llanthony:


"After the Old Catholic Archbishop's arrival at Llanthony there went up to God a ceaseless stream of prayer from 5 AM to 5 PM, besides the midnight services, daily, that God's will might be done. The archbishop offered services daily. Our superior presented three objections to the Archbishop.


1) He could not follow the Old Catholics in their excessive rancor against the Church of Rome.

2) He could never be anything but a faithful son to the Church of Britain and must use the 'Filioque' until the National Church permitted its erasure from the Creed.

3) Was not the Syrian Patriarch and his Church, Monophysite?


There is a long story about Vilatte and these monks, eventually Ignatius and others received ordination from the hands of Vilatte, using the Latin Rite. It was further stated that 'the Archbishop had great humility and gentle courtesy'


The last three days of his visit to Llanthony, Vilatte confirmed a young boy, blessed and consecrated holy oils, consecrated veils for nuns, gave his solemn benediction. There was a former monk, Bertie Cannell, whom the archbishop took long smoking walks with, was also convinced that he was called to the priesthood as was Baron Rudolph de Bertouch, then 16 years old.


Before leaving Llanthony, Vilatte blessed Ignatius as abbot. Bishop Grafton started rumor that Vilatte was given a large sum of money from Ignatius, but a member of the community Calder-Marshall states that: "A small sum of money was pressed in the hands of the archbishop" In the same letter Bishop Grafton accuses Vilatte of being a drunkard. In a letter to the Church Times, he writes:


1) I was obliged in the year 1892 to degrade Joseph Rene Vilatte from the priesthood and excommunicate him from the Church.

2) I have discovered that he is morally rotten; a swindling adventurer. He was

reported to me for drunkenness, swindling, obtaining money under false

pretenses and other crimes, he is a notorious liar.

3) The man has somewhat exceptional gifts as an impostor. He can preach and pray with great fervor

4) He has been surrounded by and uses for his tools, a small group of ex-Roman Catholic priests who are equal in his crime and debauchery. His late secretary is now in State prison, a Brother William is now in an insane asylum and he is accused of criminal conduct with boys."


Again, I to point out that Vilatte continued to have problems with Bishop Grafton, this Episcopal Bishop followed the career of Vilatte and often wrote against him, but on several occasions, he offered him a position in the Diocese of Fond du Lac if he would just submit to him. I personally believe that "submit" is the word and that because Vilatte refused Episcopal orders and Bishop Grafton believed the Episcopal orders to be the only authentic catholic orders in the United States, there remained a constant feud on the side of Bishop Grafton. The bishop did not want to be told that he was not authentic and here Vilatte, a former priest of Northeast Wisconsin, now an Archbishop.




Before he left South Wales, Vilatte stated that his next official stop would be Russia and a visit with the Holy Synod. There is no proof or documentation that he ever reached his destination when he departed in the last week of July 1898, one hundred years ago.


However there is documented proof that the archbishop was in Rome and in January of 1899, most Catholic newspapers of Europe and North America reported that Vilatte was seeking reconciliation with the Holy See of Rome, instead of the Holy Synod of Moscow. On February 2, 1899, Father David Flemming, Defender General of the Friars Minor, and Consulter of the Congregation of the Holy Office, issued a statement to the effect that Joseph Rene Vilatte had expressed his most sincere and heartfelt regret for having taught many errors and for having attacked and misrepresented the Holy Roman Catholic Church; that he withdrew any such teachings, and that he regretted that he has illicitly and sacrilegiously conferred upon others various orders. This cleric called upon others whom he ordained to submit to the Vicar of Christ. On May 25, 1899 Bishop Zardetti wrote Bishop Messmer (Green Bay) that Father Flemming had the case well in hand.


Then came reports that Vilatte had not made his final abjuration with Rome or been reconciled with the Church. It was explained that he was awaiting the result of the Process before the Holy Office. Meanwhile, the Holy Office received an eight page report from the Diocese of Green Bay, in which the Bishop laid stress on the insincerity of Vilatte in the past; suggesting that he merely wanted Rome to say that his orders were valid so that he could go to England and validate the Orders of Anglican clergyman.


By 1900, Vilatte was in France. His hosts were the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Saint Martin, near Poitiers. He was there to make a careful study of his orders in the Syro-Malabar Church, so that he could convince the Holy Office of the validity of his episcopate. This is confirmed by Joris Karl Huysmans, A French novelist that was also visiting the Abbey. When asked in later years to comment on that visit and Vilatte. He said "He is dead now; may he rest in Peace, for his Havanas were excellent".


{here I must point out, was a very low time for the archbishop. While he enjoyed the company of the monks of the abbey, he had no income. He waited for the slow process of the Congregation of the Holy Office to decide on the validity of his orders and yet he wanted to proceed in the building of the Church}


On April 17, 1900, Cardinal Richard of Paris circulated a warning among his clergy to be on their guard against priests who produced papers signed by Vilatte. On June 13, 1900 Roman authorities issued excommunications against two priests, Paolo Miragila Gulotti and Joseph Rene Vilatte. On May 6, 1900, Vilatte consecrated Gulotti as Old Catholic Bishop of Italy, with the title of Bishop of Piacenza. This later became known as the Italian National Episcopal Church.


After two years in Europe, Vilatte decided to once again seek refuge in Canada. He went to Saint Joseph Island (1901) and there he opened a small domestic chapel. It is said by the local Jesuit priest, that the Indians, who were used to seeing their priest in black cassock, were "overawed" to see Vilatte in his Roman purple cassock.


In the summer of 1903, Vilatte was back in South Wales and raised to the episcopacy the Rev. Henry Marsh-Edwards, with the title of Bishop of Cearleon. He was a former Anglican priest of the Diocese of Southwell. The next day both men consecrated Henry Bernard Ventham as Bishop of Dorchester. Priests were ordained that summer in both England and the Continent.


While Vilatte was in England and Europe a series of conflicts between the Church and the State of France broke out, arising from anticlerical legislation. This gave Vilatte inspiration to return to his native country. This he did in the summer of 1906.


The previous December the government passed a bill stating that they did not recognize any form of religion. Vilatte was on friendly terms with Aristide Briand, one of the leaders of this movement and the Minister of Education. There were talks of opening up a National Church on Gallican lines. The State now had the power to sequester property administered by church councils, and pass it over to welfare and charitable institutions under the control of local authorities.


Soon after his arrival in Paris, Vilatte managed to obtain possession of the Barnabite Church in Rue Legendre, which he reopened for Old Catholic services. One of his former priests from Wisconsin assisted.


{Once again, Anson has dug up stories and dirt against Vilatte. He had a difficult time paying bills and on March 2, 1907, the police in Paris took away his miters and crozier for nonpayment, but Vilatte managed to retrieve them by June 21 of the same year}


On June 21, 1907 Vilatte consecrated a former Trappist monk, Francois Giraud. Shortly after this consecration Cardinal Richard issued a warning to the people about apostate priests who were celebrating mass under cover of a pseudo American Bishop. Vilatte was then excommunicated a second time by the Archbishop of Paris. Soon thereafter Vilatte returned to the United States.





Chicago became the next home to Archbishop Vilatte. At this time, he had severed all relations with the Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon, Goa, the Syro-Jacobite Church and the Old Catholic Churches of Europe. The establishment of the Polish National Church and the consecration of Father Francis Hodur was the final blow to his to his hope of being the Old Catholic Archbishop of North America.


In 1909 he traveled to Winnipeg, Canada to ordain two monks from Llanthony Abbey - Dom Asaph Harris and Dom Goldas Taylor. The latter went on to Mexico, where for some years he worked in establishing the Mexican National Church.


It was in 1910, that Vilatte raised to the priesthood, Dom Francis Brothers, prior of Saint Dunstan's Abbey, Waukegan, Illinois. This was an Old Catholic group of men, legally incorporated in Fond du Lac (1909) by Bishop Grafton as "The American Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict" (In 1911 the Abbey was united with the Polish Old Catholic Church).


In 1915, Vilatte founded "The American Catholic Church". It was at this time that he received Rev. Frederick Ebenezer Lloyd into the Church and on December 19, 1915 was consecrated at Saint David's Chapel on East thirty-sixth Street, Chicago. Vilatte was assisted by Bishop Paul Miragila Gulotti, formally of Italy and then of New York and working with Vilatte in the United States. During this consecration the Archbishop addressed the congregation and newly consecrated prelate saying:


It needs to prophet to fortell for you and the American Catholic Church a great future in the Province of God. The need for a Church both American and Catholic, and free from paparchy and all foreign denominations, has been felt for many years by Christians of all the denominations. May your zeal and apostolic ministry be crowned with success.


The second wife of Bishop Lloyd, Philena Peabody was an ancestor of George Peabody, the American industrialist and merchant who made his fortune in England. They were a devoted couple.


Bu 1914, the dynamic energy of Vilatte was diminishing and in a Synod held in Chicago on April 10, 1920, he offered to retire and named Lloyd as his successor as Primate and Metropolitan of the American Catholic Church. The clergy attending granted Vilatte the honorary title of Exarch. He lived in retirement at 4427 North Mulligan Avenue, Chicago and the did not perform any more episcopal functions until September 22, 1921 when he helped launch the African Orthodox Church. It was also at this time, that he ordained to the priesthood, Wallace David de Ortega Maxey.


This is the end of the American ministry of Archbishop Vilatte. I received a letter yesterday asking that I say something good about Vilatte. There is very limited information about the life of Vilattte. Most printed material comes from men like Bishop Grafton or Anson - men who were out to write bad about the Old Catholic movement and anyone that had anything to do with launching the Church in England or the United States.


Vilatte was a poor man but because of friends and financial help from here and there managed to survive. He had all the beautiful vestments and appointments of a bishop, many originating from Rome. They were gifts from prelates and other people that admired his work. He was a Frenchman that remained loyal to his native country and on every occasion afforded him, he returned there.


In Article One, of this series I tell of Vilatte being born into the Petite Eglise, he was a a small non-papal Catholic Church from birth. He wanted to continue to provide France with a Church free from the papacy and when he could not do that, he made the attempt among the French settlers of Canada and the United States.


France was poor, the settlers were poor, friends offered him the money to proceed. Sometimes he lived well and other times he was so poor that he and his monks went hungry.


Do you know a missionary who has not given his life, money, cloths and other material values for the 'Love of God'. The bishop writing to me asked that I say something kind about Vilatte.


He was dedicated, he was kind and loving to his people, he traveled in the United States, Canada and Europe begging for clothing, food and medicine for the people of God that he served in Northeast Wisconsin. He humbled himself to work within the Diocese of Fond du Lac, and when his benefactor died, the buildings and churches he erected were swindled away from him. Yes, some of those buildings are there today. They are a memorial to his work. However no one in Northeast Wisconsin is working at erecting a monument or scholarship fund or any other memorial attributed to this man.


Someone suggested to me Sunday last, "Vilatte should be a Saint" - Yes he should. Bishop James Rankin pointed out that almost all of the Old Catholic and Independent prelates (including myself) of the United States have apostolic succession from Joseph Rene Vilatte. He is truly our Father in the American Catholic Church.


In Article 12, I will discuss the last days of Archbishop Vilatte.




On June 1, 1925, Vilatte made his formal declaration before Bishop Ceretti, Apostolic Nuncio at Paris, regretting and repenting having received Holy Orders and having conferred them on others. A week later LaCroix and other newspapers announced that Vilatte, with an American boy-servant (Maxey), was staying at the Cistercian Abbey of Port-Colbert. He was there at the request of Pope Pius X!. The Holy See granted him a pension of 22,000 francs annually in recognition of his episcopal status.


On June 23, 1925, the Bayerischer Kurieg published at statement, at the orders of the Swiss Christian Catholic Church, to the effect that Vilatte had never been a priest of this body nor any other genuine Old Catholic Church. Bishop Ceretti replied to the newspaper as follows:


Archbishop Vilatte received Minor Orders and the Order of Subdeacon on June 5, 1885, The Order of Deacon of June 6 of the same year, and on the following day, June 7, 1885, the Ordination to the Priesthood. All these orders were conferred upon him by Bishop Herzog (Old Catholic Bishop) in the Old Catholic Church in Berne. This proved by documents, seals and signatures of Bishop Herzog.


Concerning his Episcopal Consecration, it took place on May 29, 1892. Archbishop Vilatte was consecrated by three Jacobite Bishops in the Cathedral of Archbishop Alvarez in Colombo (Ceylon). Archbishop Vilatte is likewise in the possession of the consecration deed in question bearing the signatures of the three above mentioned bishops and of the American Consul, who was present at the ceremony.


This letter was published in the same newspaper and Vilatte was very pleased that Bishop Ceretti believed and accepted his priesthood and consecration, even though they were irregular.


For the next three and a half years, Vilatte led a quiet and secluded life in a cottage within the Abbey grounds. He was addressed as Archbishop, but wore a soutane, he was offered to be re-ordained by Pope Pius XI, but he declined. He attended daily Mass, receiving communion on Sundays.


His end came suddenly. Archbishop Joseph Rene Vilatte died of heart failure on July 8, 1929, he was buried in simple form in the cemetery in Versailles. One of the bishops he consecrated and some of the priests he ordained were among the mourners In his lifetime, he consecrated seven bishops. Shortly after his death, most of his papers vanished.



Information reprinted from the Old Catholic web site.