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The Establishment of the Diocese of Bardstown (1808)

In 1808, the whole of the United States, what little there was then, came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Baltimore. On April 8, 1808, the Church established Baltimore as an ARCHdiocese with four suffragan sees. They were Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown Kentucky. The first three would be considered shoe-ins, but Bardstown? One has to look at the facts and the situation at the time. The reason for Bardstown being the site of a new diocese was the fact that Catholics were moving west and Bardstown, being the center of this migration, initially, became the logical choice for a new diocese. The area was known as the “Kentucky Holy Land”. (see below…)

From Wikipedia:

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bardstown (Kentucky) was established on April 8, 1808, along with the dioceses of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, out of the territory of the Baltimore Diocese, the first Catholic diocese in the United States. When founded, the Bardstown Diocese included most of Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The geographical area was large, and today there are 44 dioceses in the area comprising the original diocese.1

The present Archdiocese of Louisville is the “Mother” Church for Indiana. The Archdiocese of Louisville says this on their website:

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.

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 40 new dioceses, including Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Detroit.2

Thus, the Diocese of Vincennes (now Indianapolis) would be a “third generation” from the primal see of Baltimore. If you have never been to Bardstown, it is worth a visit! Also, don’t forget the surrounding area which is rich in Catholic History.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholic_Diocese_of_Bardstown []
  2. https://www.archlou.org/about-the-archdiocese/history/ []
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