Honoring St. Joseph in the Bluegrass State

A Visit to the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky

When the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky, was consecrated in 1819, it became the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains.
When the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky, was consecrated in 1819, it became the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. (photo: David Asher photos / Courtesy of the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral)

When the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky, was consecrated in 1819, it became the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. Illustrating its importance in the new United States, Bardstown joined Philadelphia, New York and Boston as new dioceses, established in all four cities on the same day, April 8, 1808. Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore had requested that Rome erect the new dioceses for the flourishing Church in America.

At first simply named St. Joseph Cathedral, the church acted as a shining monument to the faith in a state that was mostly untamed wilderness. The cathedral became a reality thanks to the determination of the first bishop, Benedict Joseph Flaget, who worked five years raising funds to build it on the poor frontier. The fact that the new church’s interior remained unfinished (it was not completed until 1823) did not disrupt or hamper the celebration of Mass or any other public gatherings once it was consecrated.

To further highlight the importance of this cathedral from the start, Pope Leo XII (1760-1829), Francis I, king of the Two Sicilies (1777-1820), and King Louis Phillippe I of France (1773-1850) were among those donating gifts, which included paintings by artists such as Flemish masters Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) and Spanish painter Bartolome Murillo (1617-1682).

When in 1841 Louisville became the new see city of the diocese, which was renamed the Diocese of Louisville, St. Joseph's became a parish church with the new name of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral — “proto” meaning “first.” At that time no one imagined that, 160 years later, in 2001, St. John Paul II would raise St. Joseph’s to a basilica. It was reconsecrated the following year as the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral. Not only is this church on the National Register of Historic Places, but the Library of Congress lists it “as a national landmark possessing exceptional interest and worthy of careful preservation.”


Personal History

There is yet another exceptional part of St. Joseph’s history that connects its beginnings to the present day.

The second bishop of the Louisville Diocese, Bishop Martin Spalding, as a young priest first served as pastor here in 1834. He started St. Joseph’s College, which at the time was next door to the cathedral, as the first Catholic college in Kentucky. “Then he became the bishop of Louisville and later the seventh archbishop of Baltimore,” explained Father Terry Bradshaw, the proto-cathedral’s pastor for nearly six years and earlier (1985-1987) serving as an associate pastor there. His connection to St. Joseph’s actually stretches back to its beginnings because Bishop Spalding is his distant uncle.

Father Bradshaw was also the first to be ordained in this church in nearly a century. “It was 99 years between ordinations,” he said. The last one in the edifice took place in 1881. After that, Father Bradshaw said, “the rest had been moved to the cathedral in Louisville” until his own ordination in this sacred space. Yet another familial connection relates to his ordination. “My uncle, Father Jack Caldwell, happened to be an associate pastor here at the same time I was ordained,” he said. “He was a Spalding-Caldwell.”

This intertwining church and personal history includes Bishop Martin Spalding’s nephew, who was Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, first bishop of Peoria, Illinois. Father Bradshaw is related to him also through his mother’s side of the family. Many have heard of Bishop John Spalding’s work because he supervised the Baltimore Catechism, then shortly after registered a version he shortened and that became known as the Baltimore Catechism No. 1. Influenced by his uncle Bishop Martin Spalding’s founding of St. Joseph’s College, he obtained Pope Leo XIII’s permission to found The Catholic University of America in Washington.


Beauty Baked In

Traveling back in the proto-cathedral’s history to 1823, when the new St. Joseph’s was fully completed, the Greek Revival church was designed by a Baltimore architect and built by hand by parishioners with local materials. They baked the red bricks for the exterior and harvested the poplar trees for so many details, like the six stately Ionic columns across the façade that stand before the red brick behind them. On the brick itself are matching Ionic pilasters, which, together with the columns, add up to 12 in all — a subtle reminder of the 12 tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles.

The white columns on this porch-like entry support a beautifully detailed Greek Revival triangular pediment highlighted by lines of dentil molding. Higher still, the clock tower surmounted by the bell tower and spire are strong and were designed in the new country’s popular Federal style.

A walk around the church reveals a rare detail: The Ten Commandments are prominently inscribed above each of the stained-glass windows to remind visitors of the biblical covenant with Moses. Then, back at the entrance, two tall statues stand on the lawn before the wide stairs to the porch. One honors Bishop Flaget, the builder of the cathedral, and the other remembers Bishop Martin Spalding. Both were unveiled at the proto-cathedral’s 100th anniversary.

At the entrance, three statues above the trinity of doors welcome the faithful. Above the large center door stands a colorful statue of St. Joseph, patron of the church, in the double-arched central niche. Above the doors on either side are statues of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart.

The nave is airy and light, with the feeling of Federal-style churches from colonial times, yet with generous amounts of classic Greek Revival architecture and Roman arches, all unmistakably Catholic.

Arches join each of the white columns topped with decorative Corinthian capitals whose design is reminiscent of a water fountain spray. These columns are the originals made from poplar trees, then covered with lathing and plaster, and now painted with gold trim and marbleized.

Above the columns and between the arches, 12 circular medallions present the apostles and lead to medallions depicting Jesus and Mary in the sanctuary that were painted by Jim Cantrell, a local artist well-known beyond the Bardstown area.

“The models for the apostles were various priests, including the pastor in the 1980s, as well as priest-professor in Louisville and some well-known local personalities,” Father Bradshaw said. “What I like about it is, in a way, the artist is saying, ‘Can you picture yourself a saint?’ I can picture these people that I know as saints — ordinary people — the way we all should picture ourselves as followers of the apostles, carrying on the apostolic tradition.”


Place of Privilege

From the nave, both rows of columns flow into the sanctuary and form its gently rounded, curved apse with the same arches and columns theme, this time as pilasters, or half-columns.

The original tabernacle, golden bronze and copper, presents a Lamb on its door, with two adoring angel faces above. The white Italian marble reserve altar is carved with the large letters “PX” joined by an “Alpha” and “Omega” to either side. Above this tabernacle, a gift from the king of Belgium, the simple white marble reredos presents the inscription Altar Privilegiatum — “A Privileged Altar.”

The white marble Communion railing replaced the original made of wood — in 1819, the parishioners had no access to Italian marble.

The original main altar (replaced in 1979 by one made of Italian white marble) had a large mensa — the top of the altar — approximately 10 feet x 3 feet and made of Kentucky limestone, which has a darker tone than white marble. One of the pastors after that discovered the original consecrated mensa and later restored it and placed it on top of the marble base for the tabernacle altar. Father Bradshaw calls the restoration “a wonderful part of history.” He took the replaced newer marble mensa and used it for a new baptismal font restored to the sanctuary. “The font leads to the altar, and the altar feeds you for the mission you receive at the font.”

Above the original tabernacle, the central arch frames a huge painting of the Crucifixion, which depicts Our Lady, St. John and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross gazing upon the suffering Christ. When in Europe, Bishop Flaget commissioned Belgian artist Philippe Van Bree to paint it for the cathedral, and it was one of the paintings gifted by King Louis Phillippe.

Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral Bardstown, KY
The basilica, designed in the Greek Revival and Federal styles, honors the Blessed Mother and the Sacred Heart, in addition to St. Joseph. The painting of the Crucifixion was completed by Belgian artist Philippe Van Bree. | David Asher photos(Photo: David Asher photos)

Another painting is The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew by Mattia Preti, painted in Naples around 1650 and gifted to the cathedral by King Francis I of the Two Sicilies. At the turn of this century, it was restored by the Getty Museum for their exhibit of the painter’s work. “This was one of the essential works of Pretti they needed,” Father Bradshaw said. It was returned in 2002 for the proto-cathedral’s reconsecration as a basilica.

Other gifted paintings have a variety of themes: from Van Dyck’s St. Peter in Chains and The Winged St. Mark (this painting is the only evangelist depicted in art in the church) to Van Eyck’s Descent of the Holy Ghost and The Annunciation, to Murillo’s The Coronation in Heaven of the Mother of God.

Father Bradshaw said that in those early 19th-century days, when the paintings were donated and brought to St. Joseph’s, they constituted quite spectacular art, especially for those who lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. Parishioners could make the bricks, get the limestone and cut the wood locally, but necessary quality liturgical art and vestments came from elsewhere.


The Church’s Guardian

St. Joseph has a prominent place in the sanctuary. A life-size statue of him has been in the church for years beyond recollection. It stands on a pedestal projecting from the curved wall in his shrine. The patron of this basilica and proto-cathedral for over two centuries since its consecration, St. Joseph appears in a humble pose, head slightly down, right hand on heart, and in left hand a staff blooms with lilies. There is a simple altar beneath the statue.

The arched stained-glass windows were placed during one of the church’s renovations decades ago. Their clear center panes with colorful frosted edges invite the light into the interior, while their light blue borders with plentiful scrollwork contain round or diamond medallions in gold that present various liturgical symbols such as crosses, flowers, the hand of God the Father, the Holy Spirit above a chalice and host, a sailing ship, crossed keys of the Kingdom, and fleur-de-lis.

All this liturgical artistry lift hearts and minds heavenward — and eyes, too — as visitors are bound to gaze upon a 12-foot painting on the ceiling of St. Joseph wearing a brown mantle and holding a staff blooming with a lily in one hand and a carpenter’s square in the other. Against a background of blue sky filled with white clouds, St. Joseph appears looking with thoughtful eyes upon the nearly 5,000 parishioners and visitors alike — welcoming any and all who come to this church dedicated to him.