by Kenneth P. McCutchan S
Southwestern Indiana was settled by Protestants – Baptists, Methodists, Cumberland Presbyterians, and a few Episcopalians. Almost no Roman Catholics came into the area in the early years, and what few did arrive were shunned by the rest of the populace.
Many of the first settlers were Scotch-Irish who harbored a profound, almost militant hatred of Catholics because of the persecution they had suffered as Protestants in Ireland.
It was not until 1837 that an attempt was made to establish a Roman Catholic Church in Evansville. Father Daydier was sent from Vincennes, Ind., and in that year succeeded in organizing the Assumption Parish. Three years later a gentle little priest name Father Roman Weinzapfel was sent to be Father Daydier’s assistant and there followed on the saddest cases of religious persecution that ever occurred in the area.
Living in Evansville was a widower named Martin Schmoll, who took up with a certain young woman of questionable reputation and married her. Mrs. Schmoll had been raised a Catholic, so upon the insistence of her father, she and her husband went to Weinzapfel and asked him to perform another ceremony in the church. Schmoll did not accept the faith, but agreed that if there were children , they could be raised as Catholics.
On the vigil of the Feast of the Ascension, Mrs. Schmoll went to the church for confession; she insisted upon being last. During her confession she seemed to faint, but she was quickly revived with water from the holy fount. The next day she took Communion.
The following day Schmoll brought charges against Weinzapfel for sexually assaulting his wife while she was in a faint in the confessional. Two constables arrested the priest and took him before Mark Wheeler, a justice of the peace and a Methodist minister.
The Protestant townspeople were violently aroused. When Wheeler offered to release Weinzapfel on a $4,000 bond, a mob threatened to burn the Catholic church to the ground.
Weinzapfel, fearing for his life, fled to Vincennes on foot. From many saloon doors could be heard the toast, “Whisky on the death of the priest.”
The trial was postponed several times. Once it had to be postponed when a band of Catholics came over from Kentucky to protect the priest and threatened to start a religious riot. It was decided a change of venue was needed, so the case was moved to Princeton, Ind. The trial was in March of 1844. Weinzapfel was quickly found guilty of rape and sentenced to five years at hard labor in the state penitentiary.
As soon as the trial was over, he was taken to a blacksmith shop and welded into irons. He was brought back to Evansville, put aboard a steamboat and sent upriver to the state penitentiary at Jeffersonville, Ind.
It was not long after the trial that the Schmolls were divorced because of some scandalous misconduct on the part of Mrs. Schmoll. Hundreds of Protestant ladies, realizing they had accepted the story of a woman with loose morals over that of a man of the church, signed a petition to the governor of Indiana asking that Weinzapfel be released from prison.
The prosecuting attorney, James Lockhart, eyeing the coming election and sensing that public opinion was changing, issued a statement saying, “I was led astray by prejudice and have done the Catholics and their priest a great injustice.”
On Feb, 1, 1845, when the new president, James Polk, and his wife were traveling up the Ohio River on a steamboat on their way to Washington, Indiana’s governor, James Whitcomb, came to Evansville to board the boat and ride with the presidential party as far as Madison, Ind.
When the boat was passing Jeffersonville, the governor pointed out the towers of the state penitentiary. Mrs. Polk asked if that was not where the Catholic Priest, who was universally believe to be innocent, was a prisoner. The governor replied that the priest was indeed a prisoner there, and he added that he did not believe the man was guilty.
Thereupon, Mrs. Polk drew herself up indignantly and said, “Sir, you mean to say that you believe the man to be innocent, yet you leave him in prison?”
The very next day, Whitcomb issued a pardon, and Weinzapfel returned to Evansville and resumed his ministry.
Sometime later it was learned that Schmoll was living in St. Charles, Mo., and had been heard to boast to his protestant friends in a saloon that he had invented a plot to have a Catholic priest put in prison.
Two priests, one from Vincennes and one from Jasper, then went to St. Charles and got sworn affidavits from witnesses who heard Schmoll’s boast.
Armed with this new evidence, they returned to Evansville and asked for a new trial, but a new trial was never scheduled and in time the case was forgotten.
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