St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church of Louisville, Ky., offers so much in terms of historical significance, an orthodox faith community, and sheer physical beauty. My friend Sue said it best, shortly after my husband, Ken, and I moved to the parish: “This is the center of all things Catholic.”
The parish is one of the oldest in the Louisville Archdiocese. Located east of downtown in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood, it was founded in 1853 by Bishop Martin John Spalding to help nearby St. Boniface parish serve its overflowing German-immigrant population.
The bishop named the church in honor of his baptismal patron saint, who began his career as a Roman soldier shortly after Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians in A.D. 313. St. Martin’s life was one of unceasing prayer and courage as he served as bishop, sowing Christianity throughout Touraine. His feast day is Nov. 11.
Perhaps his intercession saved the church in 1855, when the Bloody Monday riots threatened to burn it down. The Know-Nothing movement had fueled suspicions that German immigrants and Catholics were interfering in the voting process. Mayor John Barbee finally brought an end to the violence that killed over 100 people and destroyed many homes and businesses.
St. Martin’s was spared.
Overcoming adversity early in its history may have galvanized the parish’s character as a survivor — that and the staunch faith of its members.
Consider these demographics: While inner-city parishes across the country are closing their doors due to loss of membership and financial support, St. Martin is growing, drawing its 650 families from 70 zip codes in Kentucky and Indiana. The average age of parishioners is 35. Although it no longer has a school, the parish’s expanding religious education program boasts 120 students from kindergarten through grade 12 from public and Catholic schools.
Why? According to the parish’s administrative assistant, Jane Peak, the beauty of the church, faithful liturgies and devotions, the perpetual Eucharistic adoration program instituted by former pastor Father Dennis Cousens, and exceptional music are what draw people in.
When Ken and I attend either the ordinary or extraordinary (traditional Latin) forms of the Mass regularly offered at St. Martin, we sense that we are crossing the threshold of heaven. The solemn liturgies and other devotions conducted so beautifully by the pastor, Father Frederick Klotter, and Deacon Jarvis Jackson are made sublime with splendid choral music, bells, incense and the surrounding majesty of the church.
Gothic Revival in style, St. Martin is filled with light due to its high-vaulted ceilings and Royal Bavarian stained-glass windows. The crowning glory is the triptych of the Crucifixion soaring above the high altar, flanked by murals of the Ascension and the Assumption. Visitors may take a self-guided tour of these “homilies in glass.”
Lining the clerestory, life-sized statues of the Twelve Apostles pose gracefully above the Bavarian-crafted Stations of the Cross. Opposite the Crucifixion triptych, the pipes of the 114-year-old Farrand & Votey organ rise in colorful grandeur above the choir loft. Saint and angel statues, paintings and candles fill the nave.
But perhaps the most unique features of St. Martin are the relics. In 1901, Pope Leo XIII gave the full skeletal remains of two third-century Roman martyrs to the parish at the request of the pastor, Msgr. Zabler. St. Bonosa, a virgin persecuted for her beliefs, and St. Magnus, the Roman centurion who tried to save her life, both died in the Colosseum at the hands of Emperor Septimius Severus in A.D. 207. Originally buried in the catacombs of Rome, the remains were later moved to a monastery in Agnani, Italy. Then, when the Italian government confiscated the monastery and forced the nuns to leave, Msgr. Zabler petitioned the Holy Father for the relics. Harking back to the years of religious persecution shortly before the birth of St. Martin, these relics are a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many early Christians for the faith.
Today, they repose adorned with crowns and robed in velvet in glass reliquaries below the side altars. Visitors, inspired by their story, kneel before the glass to pray.
Rich Tapestry of Worship
The rich tapestry of worship at St. Martin represents a continuum of fidelity to Church teaching that weaves together the best of old and new ritual, music and art.
Father Vernon Robertson understood the need to maintain this after so much confusion post-Vatican II. But by the time he became pastor at St. Martin in the late 1970s, the parish school had already closed, parish membership had dwindled to 125, and the roof was leaking. Aided by personal charisma, good taste and wealth, he began to renovate the church, introducing beautiful traditional liturgies and music. He even persuaded the Louisville Symphony Orchestra to perform there to attract publicity. Eventually, new parishioners filled the church.
Asked about his success, he replied modestly, “Since there weren’t any people, I decided to fill [the church] with music. ... Pretty soon, people who were tired of bad music and ugly buildings started coming.”
Through the years, such exemplary stewardship has led to an impressive number of religious vocations, outreach programs and ministries. Today, with Father Klotter’s support, The Schuhmann Social Service Center and the Golden Arrow Center for Children and Families continue distributing clothing, food and supplies to individuals and families in need as they have for many years. The parish also supports an active ministry for the homebound, Knights of Columbus, Respect Life Committee, Couple to Couple League, Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, Bible study, and much more.
After a year’s membership, Ken and I agree with Sue: St. Martin is truly “the center of all things Catholic.” And we feel, in a very real sense, that we have come home.
Annemarie Muth writes
from Louisville, Kentucky.
St. Martin of Tours Church
639 S. Shelby St.
Louisville, KY 40202
Planning Your Visit
Sunday Masses are at 8, 9:30 and 11 a.m. An extraordinary-form (Latin) Mass is at 12:30 p.m. Weekday Masses are Monday-Friday at 7:15 a.m. and noon, as well as Saturday at noon. Confessions are heard Monday and Thursday following the noon Mass and Saturday at 6 p.m.
St. Martin of Tours is located one mile east of downtown Louisville, one block north of Broadway at the intersection of Shelby and Gray Streets.
The church is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Security is provided. Park in the lot behind the rectory or on Shelby or Gray Streets.