Early Catholicism in Kentucky
The first Catholics came into Kentucky among the earliest settlers from the coastal colonies in 1775. They included Jane Coomes, believed to be the first teacher in Kentucky, and George Hart, the first physician. Not until 1785 did larger groups, or “leagues,” of Catholic families from Maryland begin to enter the region.
These settlers were almost exclusively of British lineage, although many brought with them enslaved African Americans who practiced the Catholic faith. While a few families settled in the Bluegrass, the majority chose an area of promising farmland near Bardstown in central Kentucky. Within a decade, three hundred Catholics were known to live in the area. Even two centuries later, the three rural counties of Marion, Nelson and Washington have significant Catholic populations and are regionally known as “The Kentucky Holy Land.”
These frontier Catholics, called by their earlier historian Martin John Spalding “an iron race of pioneers,” chose to come west in large groupings in order to sustain their ancestral faith through solidarity and also to strengthen their appeals for a priest to come eventually to the region. Thus, the earliest congregations of Kentucky were lay-gathered, in contrast to the clergy-led initial Catholic settlements on the East and West Coasts.
The earliest resident priests to arrive in Kentucky were Maurice Whelan and William de Rohan, but neither remained long in pastoral service. With the arrival of the twenty-six-year-old Stephen Badin, the first priest to have been ordained in America, clerical stability came to Kentucky. With Badin as leader, other priests came to the region, most notably Charles Nerinckx and the Dominican friars, who made their first American foundation in Washington County in 1805.
The First Inland Diocese of the United States
On April 8, 1808, Pope Pius VII subdivided the primal see of Baltimore by constituting the Dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown. To head the latter see, the first in inland America, the Holy See named Benedict Joseph Flaget, who, like Badin, was an exile from the turmoil of the French Revolution.
This “First Bishop of the West” arrived in Kentucky in 1811. Flaget’s far-flung area of responsibility covered all the land from the Great Lakes to the Deep South and from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. From this “mega-diocese” there would eventually be carved more than forty new dioceses, including Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Detroit.
With the arrival of Flaget there began an amazing burst of fervor and institutional energies. Within a dozen years, Flaget would initiate or encourage the following establishments, including many that were the first of their kind in the American West: St. Thomas Seminary (1811); the Sisters of Loretto (1812); the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (1812); St. Joseph Cathedral at Bardstown (1819); St. Joseph College (1820); St. Mary College (1821); and the Dominican Sisters at Springfield (1822). From such institutions and communities would emerge many of the leaders of American Catholicism in the nineteenth century.
Within the forty years of his tenure, Flaget would welcome to Kentucky Good Shepherd Sisters, Jesuit Fathers and the Trappist monks of Gethsemani Abbey. In addition to such eighteenth-century Holy Land parishes as Holy Cross (1785), St. Charles (1786) and Holy Mary’s (1798), Flaget would be responsible for a growing network of congregations such as St. Louis at Louisville (1805), St. Peter at Lexington (1818), Holy Name at Henderson (1824) and Mutter Gottes (Mother of God) at Covington (1842).
Catholic Urban Life in the Nineteenth Century
Late in 1841, Flaget would move the seat of the diocese from Bardstown to the city of Louisville, whose population was swelling from the inflow of Germans and Irish. An anti-immigrant riot called “Bloody Monday” in that city on August 6, 1855, resulted in more than twenty deaths.
Louisville’s Civil War bishop was the Kentucky-born scholar and writer Martin John Spalding. He oversaw construction of the city’s Cathedral of the Assumption (1852) and welcomed the Belgian Xaverian Brothers to their first American foundation (1854) as well as the German Ursuline Sisters (1858). Spalding’s successor as bishop of Louisville was William George McCloskey. In his forty-year reign, McCloskey attended to institutional growth by creating several new parishes and constructing new churches throughout the diocese.
The Twentieth-Century Experience
Denis O’Donaghue succeeded Bishop McCloskey. Bishop O’Donaghue was called to shepherd the flock during some very difficult days, including World War I and an influenza epidemic. He was an able and gentle man, but he became incapacitated by 1924 and was replaced by Nashville native John A. Floersh, known for his piety, caution and planning abilities. In 1924, Floersh began an episcopate that was to endure for more than 40 years and that helped to shape the diocese profoundly during the middle years of the 20th century.
In 1937, Louisville was constituted a metropolitan see (an archdiocese) with both the Diocese of Covington (established in 1853) and the newly established Diocese of Owensboro as suffragans. The Holy See erected the Diocese of Lexington in 1988.
Several Kentuckians were in official attendance at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), including Bishop Charles Garrett Maloney, auxiliary bishop to Archbishops Floersh, McDonough, and Kelly; J.L. Garrett of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Sister of Loretto Mary Luke Tobin, the only American female auditor at the council. In these same years, Trappist monk Thomas Merton from his Kentucky abbey of Gethsemani wrote an array of highly influential books in the areas of Christian spirituality, Oriental religions, interfaith understanding and social justice.
In 1967, Philadelphia-born cleric Thomas J. McDonough succeeded Archbishop Floersh. Archbishop McDonough called himself a “Vatican II bishop,” and he shepherded the local Church through its most intensive period of activity and change since the days of the early Church in Kentucky. Archbishop McDonough resigned in 1981 and was succeeded by Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, O.P. This Dominican cleric had served as the General Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops before coming to Louisville. He served the Archdiocese for 25 years and established a strategic planning process that guided many initiatives in the areas of social services, evangelization, lay ministry, multicultural ministry, pastoral care and education/formation.
The Louisville area has been noted throughout the country during the last generation for its ecumenical and interfaith initiatives. In 1985, the city’s Center for Interfaith Relations (formerly the Cathedral Heritage Foundation) and Cathedral parishioners turned their old church into a nationally recognized urban emblem of faith. A center of worship, art, spirituality and social service, it has been celebrated as a model civic symbol that is Catholic in its roots, inner city and interfaith in its outreach.
While Catholics are represented in the Kentucky legislature, none has ever served as full-time governor of the commonwealth. In 1994 Third District (Louisville-area) Congressman Ron Mazzoli retired after twelve consecutive terms in Washington. Anne Meagher Northup, a former delegate to the Kentucky legislature, held this seat from 1994 to 2006.
In June of 2007, Pennsylvania native and Bishop of Knoxville, Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D., was appointed the ninth bishop (and fourth Archbishop) of the Archdiocese of Louisville. Today, the Archdiocese of Louisville extends throughout 24 counties in Central Kentucky and serves nearly 200,000 Catholics.
Adapted from the Encyclopedia of American Catholic History and Faith and Mission: Parish Histories in Celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Archdiocese, both written by Fr. Clyde F. Crews