Church of the Week: Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-Cathedral, Bardstown, Kentucky

This week's church of the week is one I have passed numerous times, as it is located in Bardstown, Kentucky, just north of the Abbey of Gethsemani, where I have for ten or eleven years gone on prayer retreats.

In 1775, Catholic settlers, mostly of English and Irish descent, began emigrating chiefly from Maryland to Kentucky, an outpost of the crown colony of Virginia. The first missionaries came around 1787. In 1808 the four new Catholic dioceses, created at the request of Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, included Bardstown along with Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The new diocese of Bardstown covered almost the entire Northwest Territory, south to New Orleans and as far north as Detroit.

In 1811, three years after he was appointed, the French priest Bishop Flaget arrived at Bardstown, traveling down the Ohio River by flatboat and overland from Louisville by wagon, accompanied by a group of seminarians. Bishop Flaget was able to build a small brick church near Bardstown, named St. Thomas (also on the way to the Abbey). Soon he was consumed with the idea of erecting a cathedral of majestic proportions. Since most of the settlers were very poor, people contributed their materials and their labor as carpenters and masons to build the cathedral. Bricks were baked on the grounds, and solid tree trunks cut from the wilderness were lathed in a circular pattern to form the stately columns supporting the building.

The Cathedral was consecrated in 1819, though the interior was not fully completed until 1823. When the Episcopal See was moved forty miles away to the fast growing city of Louisville in 1841, St. Joseph's became a parish church, hence, the title "proto-cathedral." In 1995 Bardstown was named a titular see by the Vatican for its contributions to Catholic Church heritage in America. Once again, Bardstown, only one of three titular dioceses in the U.S., has a bishop, though in an honorary capacity.

It is a beautiful church, inside and out, and contains fine paintings and other gifts from Europe donated by Pope Leo XII, Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies, and King Louis Phillippe of France, among others.

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