By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
The introduction of a new book detailing the history of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s first cathedral asks readers to “take yourself back into the pioneer times of Kentucky and watch the growth of a faith and a building.”
The 153-page hardbound book bears the long but self-explanatory title: “Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral Founded in 1816; St. Joseph College 1819-1889.” It was researched and written by Dixie Hibbs, who served as mayor of Bardstown from 2003 to 2007.
In the first part of the book, she chronicles the Bardstown cathedral through a timeline of major events that have occurred in the two centuries since the cornerstone was laid on July 16, 1816.
Using historic photos, letters and narrative storytelling, she presents a picture of what life was like for the early priests and parishioners in the area.
“I wanted this to be something that people could read easily and stop and think about,” Hibbs said in an interview earlier this week. “I’m setting the stage to let you step back and stand beside these early pioneers and feel and see what was going on. … I want people to be in awe of what efforts were made to spread the word (of God).”
Hibbs admits she’s an unlikely author of the history of the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. She is not Catholic, but her late husband, Franklin Hibbs Jr., who passed away in 2011, and their children were parishioners of St. Joseph. She attends Bardstown United Methodist Church.
“Some have called me the ‘Methodist historian’ for this church. My family was always active in this church,” she said, noting that she and her husband were married at St. Gregory Church in nearby Samuels, Ky.
The second part of the book explores the history of St. Joseph College, examining the role of the institute that educated “thousands of young men from more than 20 states and foreign countries,” Hibbs writes.
She relies on documented correspondence by numerous individuals that figure prominently in the history of St. Joseph, including Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, first bishop of the Diocese of Bardstown, and Bishop Martin John Spalding, Bishop of Louisville from 1850 to 1864.
The Diocese of Bardstown was established in 1808. The seat of the diocese was transferred to Louisville in 1841. In 1937, it was elevated to an archdiocese. The Bardstown cathedral was designated a proto-cathedral because it is the first cathedral in what is now the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Hibbs’ information also came from newspaper articles, books and the archives of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and St. Joseph parish. She also consulted Father Clyde Crews, professor emeritus at Bellarmine University; Father Dale Cieslik, archdiocesan archivist; and Father Joseph Batchelor, priest in residence at St. Joseph.
Hibbs began her research on the cathedral in the late 1970s when then-pastor Father Linus Giesler tasked a committee to research what the church building would have looked like in its early days in anticipation of a major renovation.
Since that time, Hibbs said she continued to collect newspaper clippings, photographs and first-hand accounts of parishioners, as well as her own manuscripts on the subject. The book’s publication in 2016 coincided with the 200th anniversary of the Nelson County parish.
“I have great respect for the faith and perseverance for the people of this community during that time period (of the church’s founding),” she said.
The book is $40 plus $4 for shipping. To purchase, email Hibbs at firstname.lastname@example.org. The book is also for sale in Bardstown at Artist’s Barrel and Crume Drug Store.