In a nation whose foundation was laid less than 250 years ago, a church that boasts of a 150-year history is a rare find. One that has been a continuous house of worship for 200 years would be even more difficult to pinpoint — and yet that is what is happening this year in downtown Lexington, Ky. 2012 marks the bicentennial for St. Peter Church in a part of the country where Catholics have traditionally been a minority faith tradition.
Catholics have had a presence in Kentucky since the late 18th century. Interestingly, the first priest in the United States came to Kentucky around that time. He would be joined soon by several priests; and, in May 1812, a small Gothic brick chapel in the heart of Lexington was dedicated as the Catholic Chapel of St. Peter. As is the case in the history of most churches, the current St. Peter building is the latest in a number of structures that were erected over 100-plus years to accommodate the growing congregation.
The cornerstone of the present structure was laid in November 1927. Under it contained a copper box which held that day’s Lexington Herald, coins from 1927 and all the names of the parishioners, among other things. At the time, there were about 500 families in the parish.
My wife and I were recently passing through the Bluegrass State and decided to give this vintage church a gander. Deacon Scott Hunt was our impromptu tour guide after we inquired about seeing the church at the parish office. He first pointed out the magnificent stained-glass windows. On either side of the church are 15 arching, colorful windows. They were installed in 1929.
The glass on the left side of the church contains stories of Jesus’ interaction with St. Peter, such as the giving of the keys of the Kingdom and washing of Peter’s feet. The right windows portray a number of saints that played an important role in the Church’s evangelization through the centuries.
Pointing up to the choir loft in the back, the deacon directed us to the grand Wurlitzer pipe organ. According to him, there are only two remaining organs of this type in the world.
Today, the church, which holds around 600 people, is now a destination parish, like many inner-city churches. The church also supports a thriving Latin Mass community; the traditional Mass is offered here regularly.
As I headed to the back of this Romanesque church, with its eight monolithic columns, I could see the history of this place come alive over the past two centuries. I like tradition, and this place breathed it. Despite changes in interior design or colors on the wall, I imagined the past parish community filing into the church for weekly devotions. It could have been for the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross during Lent.
The worn wooden pews spoke volumes of the joys and the sorrows that any holy sanctuary has to offer.
After thanking Deacon Hunt at the side entrance of the church, my wife and I walked to the main-street entrance. How appropriate, we thought, to see a sign painted with Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.”
This faith-filled community has definitely remained a rock in the Lexington area. With church closings a regular occurrence these days, St. Peter has stood firm. May she grow and prosper for another 200 years.
Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin.