Kentucky, Catholic Church in
KENTUCKY, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
By 2000, Catholics constituted about 10 percent of the population in the state of Kentucky. In addition to the Holy Land area near Bardstown, the greater numbers of these lived in cities along the Ohio River that had received significant inflow of German and Irish immigrants in the 19th century. They are concentrated in Louisville, Owensboro, Covington, Henderson and Paducah. In many areas of Kentucky, especially in the south and east, it is not uncommon to find only one Catholic congregation per county. There are four Catholic jurisdictions in the state: the Archdiocese of Louisville, and the dioceses of Covington (1853), Owensboro (1937), and Lexington (1988).
Early History. The early Catholics in Kentucky were a resourceful group of pioneers. Initially without priests, their earliest parishes were gathered by laity. Their first seminary (St. Thomas) had its beginnings on a flatboat coming down the Ohio River. One of their first colleges (St. Mary's) began life in an old distillery building. One of their pioneer priests was Stephen badin, the first priest ordained in the United States.
In 1808 Pope Pius VII established America's first inland diocese at Bardstown in Nelson County, Kentucky. Nelson, Marion and Washington counties came to be known as Kentucky's "Catholic Holy Land." The designation results both from the history of the area as well as from its ongoing institutions—such as St. Joseph's Proto-Cathedral, numerous parishes, three large motherhouses of sisters and the Abbey of Gethsemani. The sizable population of Catholics in the area is something of a rarity in the rural South.
The first Catholics in Kentucky came almost entirely from Maryland, including the William Coomes family and Dr. George Hart, who settled at Harrodsburg in 1775. Dr. Hart was one of the first physicians, and Mrs. Coomes conducted the first elementary school in Kentucky. The first Catholic colony, consisting of 25 families led by Basil Hayden, came in the spring of 1785 to establish the Pottinger Creek settlement, a few miles from Bardstown. Before Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792, there were at least six distinct colonies settled on the creeks in an arc around Bardstown. The first priest to be assigned to Kentucky by Bishop John Carroll was an Irish Franciscan, Charles Whelan, who, in the fall of 1787, accompanied a group from Maryland. A controversy over his salary, issuing in a court case, forced Whelan to leave Kentucky after two-and-a-half years of service. In 1791 Rev. William De Rohan arrived with a group from North Carolina. Under his direction, the Pottinger Creek Catholics built a log chapel, named variously Holy Cross and Sacred Heart, which was the first Catholic place of worship in Kentucky. However, his ministry, unauthorized by Carroll, soon met with many difficulties, and De Rohan was deprived of his faculties. Thereafter, he taught
in various Catholic settlement schools, and resided at St. Thomas Seminary, where he died in 1832.
In 1793, Rev. Stephen T. Badin, the first priest to be ordained in the United States, with Rev. Michael Barrieres arrived in Kentucky from Baltimore. On the first Sunday in Advent, Badin said Mass in the home of Denis McCarthy at Lexington; he remained in the Scott County settlement for more than a year before moving to Pottinger's Creek. Three miles from the chapel at Holy Cross, he purchased a farm, which he named St. Stephen's. From this place (later the site of the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto), Badin directed Catholic life for the next 15 years. Among the 70,000 Kentuckians in 1793 Badin estimated there were about 300 Catholic families, to whom he alone ministered until February 1797, when Carroll sent Rev. Michael Fournier to his aid. Two years later, Rev. Anthony Salmon joined them, and shortly after, Rev. John Thayer of Boston was added to the group. However, Salmon was killed by a fall from his horse in 1799, and in 1803 Fournier died and Thayer departed, leaving Badin alone once again.
In 1805 help arrived in the person of the Belgian priest, Charles nerinckx, who soon began the erection of Holy Mary, the first of ten churches he was to build in less than ten years. The Dominican, Edward D. fenwick, also arrived that spring to look for land; a year later he returned with three English confreres, Samuel T. Wilson, William R. Tuite, and Robert A. Angier, to establish the first foundation of the Dominican Order in the United States at Springfield. By 1807 they had enrolled 12 boys in their seminary, and two years later they dedicated St. Rose Church, a brick structure. In 1809 the Dominicans opened St. Thomas College, the first Catholic college in the West, which for 20 years provided a classical education for many prominent Southerners, including Jefferson Davis. With Nerinckx, there had also come into Kentucky in 1805 a group of Trappist monks, led by Dom Urbain Guillet. After a short stay with Badin, the monks moved to a farm on Pottinger's Creek and finally bought land on the Green River in Casey County, where they began a free school for boys, the first Catholic school in Kentucky. In 1809 Dom Urbain transferred the group to the Illinois country after seven priests and eight brothers had died in the attempt to found the community in Kentucky.
Diocese. As early as October 1804, Carroll asked Badin for a report on the possibility of establishing a diocese in Kentucky; every year thereafter Badin discussed the idea with the bishop. In 1807 the missionary recommended that the see be located at Bardstown and the first incumbent be Benedict flaget. Among the names submitted to Rome by Carroll were Flaget, Badin (whom some, including the Dominicans, feared might be selected), Wilson, and Nerinckx. In 1808 Rome finally acted, creating Baltimore an archdiocese with suffragan sees at Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown.
Flaget. Flaget, shocked by his nomination to Bardstown, tried to refuse the office, going to France to plead with his Sulpician superiors for support in his stand. However, when the Pope ordered him to accept, he gave up his resistance and spent his time in France gathering recruits for his new diocese. Upon their return, Archbishop Carroll consecrated Flaget on November 4, 1810, in Fells Point, Maryland, and the following May the new bishop set out for Kentucky.
Immediately after his installation in Bardstown on June 9, 1811, he began a visitation of the Kentucky congregations organized by Badin and Nerinckx. On December 21, 1811, Flaget ordained Chabrat at St. Rose, the first ordination in Kentucky and in the West. Three miles from Bardstown, on the Thomas Howard plantation, he established St. Thomas Seminary, and by 1816 a brick church was erected there. In 1812 two distinctly American sisterhoods were founded: the Sisters of loretto and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, both of which flourished, staffing schools, orphanages, and hospitals throughout the diocese and the country. In 1822 another native Kentuckian sisterhood, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, was formed by Wilson at St. Rose, Springfield. The order later spread to conduct hospitals, a college, and grade and high schools.
The first diocesan synod was called by Flaget on February 20, 1812; five seculars and three Dominican priests attended. This period also marked the beginning of the dispute between Badin and Flaget over Church lands. Title to practically all land was held by Badin, who had purchased many acres with his own money or funds he had personally borrowed. The bishop thought that Badin should turn over to him all titles, with no conditions; Badin argued that Flaget should at least assume the outstanding debts. Since Canon Law was not clear on the subject and Carroll would make no decision, the matter went unsettled and was partly the cause of Badin's departure for Europe in 1819. On his return nine years later, Badin performed missionary work in various states, returning frequently to Kentucky, where in later years he was again invested with the title of vicar-general. The land question was evidently settled when Badin made the transfer in his last will.
During his long episcopate, Flaget's visitations took him to Catholic settlements throughout a vast territory that ultimately embraced not only Kentucky, but also Tennessee, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. He administered Confirmation, settled disputes over trusteeism, negotiated with Indian commissioners, and directed the progress of the Church. In 1816 Flaget blessed the cornerstone of St. Joseph's Cathedral in Bardstown, which was dedicated on August 8, 1819. The first cathedral west of the Alleghenies, it has been named a national monument by the Federal government. A seminary was opened next to the cathedral and the seminarians moved from St. Thomas to Bardstown. In the fall of 1819 Rev. George Elder founded St. Joseph's College in the basement of the seminary, and within a year another building was necessary to accommodate the students. In 1821 Rev. William Byrne founded St. Mary's College near Lebanon on property acquired by Nerinckx, who had intended it for the establishment of a brotherhood. As there were only two members for the proposed community, the college remained there and in 1833 was entrusted to Jesuits Peter Chazelle and Nicholas Petit. Four years later, it was granted a charter by the state, and the next year a novitiate was opened there. The Jesuits kept this college until 1846 when they left to accept St. John's College, Fordham, New York City, on the invitation of John Hughes, later archbishop of New York. Two years later a group of Jesuits from Missouri entered the diocese, serving in Bardstown and establishing a free school and St. Aloysius College in Louisville. In 1868 the Jesuits again left the diocese.
In 1832 when Flaget decided to resign his see, Rome designated his coadjutor, John David, whom he had consecrated in 1819, as his successor. However, the uproar that ensued in Catholic Kentucky led the Holy See to reverse the action, and the see was returned to Flaget. On July 20, 1834, when Chabrat was consecrated as the second coadjutor of Bardstown, many of the priests, especially the faculty of St. Joseph College, were opposed to this promotion. Although there remained a great deal of unrest and dissatisfaction, Chabrat made no major blunders and satisfactorily directed the diocese during the several years Flaget was in Europe. Failing eyesight caused Chabrat to retire to France in 1846; he died at Mauriac, November 21, 1868.
When Flaget made his first ad limina visit to Rome in 1836, he petitioned for the removal of the see from Bardstown to Louisville. This was done in 1841, four years after the boundaries of the diocese had been reduced to the single state of Kentucky. Bishop David died July 12, 1841, in Nazareth, Kentucky, and was buried there.
Soon after Martin J. spalding's return from Rome in 1834 he joined the faculty of the seminary and the college in Bardstown and initiated the publication of the first Catholic periodical of Kentucky, a monthly literary magazine, the St. Joseph College Minerva. After a year it was succeeded by a weekly newspaper, the Catholic Advocate under Benjamin J. Webb, which was to last 15 years before merging with the Cincinnati paper.
Flaget's invitation to the French sisters of the Institute of the Good Shepherd was accepted in 1843 when they established a house in Louisville. In December 1848, a colony of 40 Trappists purchased 1,600 acres in Nelson County from the Sisters of Loretto. This foundation of Gethsemani, which was raised to the rank of abbey in July 1850, gave the diocese seven religious communities. Flaget consecrated Martin J. Spalding coadjutor bishop of Louisville on Sept. 10, 1848. The following year the cornerstone of the new Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville was blessed. When Flaget died on Feb. 11, 1850, he was 87 and had been a priest for 62 years and a bishop for almost 40. Buried first in the garden of the Good Shepherd convent, his remains were later transferred to the crypt of the cathedral in Louisville.
Flaget was succeeded by his coadjutor, Bishop Martin John Spalding who served until 1864 when he was transferred to Baltimore. In 1853 the diocese of Covington was erected by separating the eastern part of Kentucky from Louisville.
The Civil War took its toll on Catholic institutions in the state. The colleges and academies of the Holy Land were especially hard hit in their enrollments. St. Joseph's College in Bardstown had to close and was commandeered for a military hospital. Train accommodations were in such short supply that Bishop Martin John Spalding was once required to ride back to Louisville in a baggage car with soldiers' corpses.
In the years after the war, the turbulent administration of Bishop William George McCloskey began (1868–1909). At Rome during the Vatican Council, he long opposed the declaration of papal infallibility as inopportune, eventually joining the large number who accepted it. At home he managed to quarrel frequently and publicly with his priests as well as with many of the religious communities in the diocese. He once placed the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto under interdict over an insurance issue. During these disputes a number of priests left the diocese, perhaps the best known was the intellectual John Lancaster Spalding (1840–1916), nephew of bishop Martin John Spalding and later first bishop of Peoria.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the state was home to a group of lively and talented Catholic laity: Colonel Patrick Henry Callahan (1866–1941), an early national figure in furthering social justice issues as elucidated by papal social encyclicals; poet Elvira Sydnor Miller (1860–1937); writer Charles T. O'Malley (1851–1910); John Whallen (1850–1913) and James Whallen (1851–1930), brothers, who ran the Democratic political machine in Louisville; and Colonel Matt Winn (1861–1941) who turned the Kentucky Derby into an international event. Additionally, in this era there was Daniel Rudd (1854–1933), a national black lay leader who helped to bring together congresses of African American Catholics in the 1890s. He grew up in the area, moved away, but was buried at Bardstown.
The Catholic Church in Kentucky has had a long, venerable tradition with academic institutions. Five Catholic higher education centers stand proudly in the commonwealth today: Spalding University opened in 1920 in Louisville as Nazareth College, continuing an educational tradition of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth dating back to 1814. St. Catharine Junior College at Springfield was founded by the Dominican Sisters in 1931. Bellarmine College in Louisville, established in 1950, merged with the city's Ursuline College in 1968. Bellarmine, a university since 2000, hosts the international Thomas Merton Studies Center. Covington is home to Thomas More College, originally founded as Villa Madonna in 1921. Brescia University in Owensboro began in 1925 as a junior college for women on the grounds of the mother-house of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph.
Bibliography: j. a. boone, ed., The Roman Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky (Owensboro 1995). t. d. clark, A History of Kentucky (Lexington 1977). c. f. crews, An American Holy Land (Wilmington 1987). j. hayden, ed., This Far by Faith: The Story of Catholicity in Western Kentucky (Owensboro 1987). l. harrison and j. klotter, A New History of Kentucky (Lexington 1997). j. h. schauinger, Cathedrals in the Wilderness (Milwaukee 1952). m. r. mattingly, The Catholic Church on the Kentucky Frontier, 1785–1812 (Washington, D.C. 1936). p. e. ryan, History of the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky (Covington 1954). m. j. spalding, Sketches of the Early Catholic Missions of Kentucky (Louisville 1844). b. webb, The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky (Louisville 1884).
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