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A Word From Bishop Medley: Remembering Kentucky’s first Catholics

In 1775 the first band of Catholic families uprooted their lives in southern Maryland to travel to the Kentucky frontier to establish new homes in the area of Pottinger’s Creek in what is today Nelson County. Within 10 years they had organized the first Catholic parish in the state at Holy Cross in 1785. They were most intentional in their plans, for their Catholic faith was core to their lives. By settling together they had hopes that a priest might be assigned to them. Of course it must be remembered that in 1775, the 13 colonies that would become the United States of America had yet to be recognized by the Church at Rome with the establishment of even one diocese in this vast area. That would not happen until 1792 when Baltimore was established as the primatial diocesan see in the fledgling nation.        

Other bands of Catholic settlers made the trek across the Allegheny Mountains to central Kentucky, establishing settlements and parishes on Hardin Creek (St. Charles), on the rolling Fork River (Holy Name of Mary), on the Beech Fork River (St. Thomas), and on Cartwright Creek (St. Rose). And within another generation, settlements and churches were established in the area that would become the Diocese of Owensboro.

From humble and challenging beginnings the Catholic families sustained the faith through the first couple of generations with only an occasional visit from a priest passing through the area. Yet their resoluteness was acknowledged in 1808 when Pope Pius VII established a new diocese on the frontier at Bardstown on April 8, 1808. On this same date, dioceses were created at New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The Diocese of Bardstown encompassed what would come to be divided into 13 states from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River and from the southern border of Tennessee to the Great Lakes.

Benedict Joseph Flaget, a Sulpician priest and missionary, was appointed the first bishop of Bardstown. With genuine humility he frankly did not want the job. He spent three years imploring his superiors and the pope to appoint someone else and allow him to continue his life as a teacher and missionary. But finally in 1811 he arrived in Kentucky with a vision of building up a community of education, service and worship. The education and service goals were greatly enhanced when young women on the frontier worked with him to establish two religious orders of women: the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the Sisters of Loretto. To rally the community to worship, he set out to construct a cathedral, the mother church of any diocese. Working with meager resources, eager architect plans evolved to build St. Joseph Cathedral in Bardstown as the first cathedral west of the mountains. The cornerstone was laid on July 16, 1816.

This month (August 2019) the Catholic Church in Kentucky and the whole Midwest will celebrate the bicentennial of the dedication of our first cathedral. It is recorded that the Reverend Robert Abel, the first native of the Kentucky frontier to be ordained a priest, gave the homily at the dedication and that the homily ran for more than three hours. When I was pastor at that cathedral in between 1993 and 2005, I often told the people that this was a record just begging to be broken. But I never accomplished that feat.

When we recount the stories of Kentucky’s first Catholics and their immense accomplishments in but a few decades, we might ask ourselves if we who are the heirs of these faithful and determined Catholics have so bold a vision of Catholic life in our day. In 200 years, will our descendants be celebrating our faithfulness?

Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro

Originally printed in the August 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic

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