By Mark Michael
You can spot them easily on maps of nationwide religious membership, three Catholic counties in central Kentucky, amid a sea of evangelicals. Rural Nelson, Marion, and Washington counties are known collectively as “the Holy Land,” and their rolling hills are dotted with hamlets called St. Mary, Calvary, and Loretto. About a third of their combined population of 70,000 are Roman Catholics, the highest percentage in the Southeast outside greater Miami and Louisiana’s Cajun country.
It’s a land of front-yard statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and pickup trucks lined up for Saturday night vigil Masses, high-vaulted 19th-century churches surrounded by well-tended cemeteries and flanked by schools rebuilt for baby boomers 75 years ago. There were once seven religious communities based in the Diocese of Louisville, most of them here in the Holy Land. Gethsemani Abbey, the former home of Thomas Merton, still welcomes many pilgrims, as does the Basilica of St. Joseph in Bardstown, completed in 1819 as the first Catholic cathedral west of the Alleghenies, and decorated with paintings sent by Pope Leo XII and King Louis Philippe of France.
Bardstown is more famous these days for its bourbon, and you could fit the basilica inside one of the industry’s seven-story black warehouses without too much trouble. But here, too, the Catholic roots run deep.
The first group of Catholics to settle the region in 1785, 25 families from southern Maryland, were led by Basil Hayden. He was the pioneer distiller of the region (Old Grand-Dad is named for him), but also built its first Catholic church on his farm, Holy Cross, which is the only going concern in the Marion County hamlet to which it gives its name. The Beams (as in Jim Beam) of nearby Clermont were pious Catholics as well, and legend has it that when Father William Byrne founded St. Mary’s College, the first of its kind west of the Alleghenies in 1819, in an abandoned distillery, he used whiskey crates for classroom benches and desks.
I discovered the region while researching my family history, as I am descended from old Maryland Catholics. These English recusants flocked to the colony during its brief interlude as a refuge for Catholics in the mid-17th century. My ancestors gradually made their way west after the colony’s 1689 “Protestant Revolution” banned Catholic worship, and tensions about the Hannoverian succession led to crackdowns on loyalty to the Catholic Stuarts.
One ancestor of mine built a large chapel in his log home as a way around laws against public worship. Some sent children back to Europe to train as Jesuit priests and to join convents. Another was associated with a group arrested for firing a volley in front of the State House on the Old Pretender’s birthday in 1716, when state law banned Catholics from owning firearms. He responded by naming his daughter in honor of the would-be king and his consort a year later. The name “Jacoba Clementina” was proudly passed down through the family for several generations.
None of my relatives were part of Basil Hayden’s first band, but some joined parties that followed soon after, and Kentucky and Maryland cousins kept in contact for generations, often intermarrying, or resettling in each other’s communities to work or be cared for in old age. A first cousin many generations removed, Catherine Spalding, was the foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, a teaching order founded in Bardstown in 1812. Made superior at 19, she ruled the order for 54 years.
The Kentucky Catholics became remarkable institution-builders, founding in a few decades — besides St. Mary’s College — a seminary to train missionaries, several convents, orphanages for boys and girls, and dozens of parishes and schools at a time when central Kentucky was still on the edge of the frontier. They built their churches in brick, generally in a Neoclassical style modeled on the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. The oldest were adorned with age-blackened Baroque paintings, whose journeys over mountain footpaths or down the Ohio River on keelboats were surely once the stuff of campfire yarns.
Their proclivity for fiery tipples and horseracing aside, the Kentucky Catholics probably most resembled America’s other once-persecuted, culture-building religious group, the Mormons of Utah. Years of opposition from the surrounding Protestant culture confirmed their sense of a just cause and helped cast a vision for the kind of society they could build, if their neighbors would just give them space to do it. Placing a high value on education, they fostered gifted leaders, and hundreds dedicated their lives to helping their new institutions thrive.
I spent a day exploring Nelson, Marion, and Washington counties in December, after attending the Louisville wedding of our former executive director, Christopher Wells. I visited several churches and walked long lines of headstones carved with family names I knew well from my research: Elder, Spalding, Mudd.
After vigil Mass on New Year’s Eve, I chatted with the pastor of a church that had been served almost 200 years ago by a distant cousin. Like me, he was a Marylander, but most of his ministry had been in the Holy Land. He was a few months short of retirement, and wasn’t sure how the diocese would staff his two remote churches once he stepped down.
“They call it the Holy Land,” he told me, “that’s what it used to be, anyway.” His two parish schools had closed decades ago, when vocations ran short at the convents and the local farmers just couldn’t afford to pay lay teachers. The church buildings were still tended lovingly, and there were a few dozen families in the pews that Saturday night, in a village with an official population of 144 — not all that bad, considering. But his parish was graying, with few children, offerings were down, and there were serious doubts about the future.
“What happened? Was it the abuse scandals?” I asked. “No,” he responded, “furthest thing from it. Just laziness — not teaching the faith to their children, not showing up. I guess they just didn’t know what they had.”
I hope the well-meaning — if rather weary — priest won’t have the last word on the Catholics of Kentucky’s Holy Land. As a leader in another church blessed with its own glorious past and struggling with similar forms of decline and forgetfulness, I can hardly cast stones. These days, at least, old Maryland Catholics and Anglicans have more in common than our ancestors would have guessed.
In church after church, I gave thanks for those who had brought the gospel to these communities, facing the hazards bravely, inspiring dedication and generosity in those who gathered in them. I also prayed for renewal, that the sons and daughters of Kentucky would fill the convent stalls and seminary desks again, that parish schools would reopen, and leaders be raised up to tackle today’s problems: joblessness and opiate addiction.
Lent summons God’s lazy people, those who “just don’t know what they had.” Joel speaks to weary Israel, “Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” God, who justly condemns our indifference, also promises new life to those who repent. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”
Once the Spirit was poured out, and a 19-year-old girl became mother superior, cathedrals were raised in the wilderness, and boys learned the faith while sitting on whiskey crates. Who’s to say he can’t do it again?
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