While enslaved, the woman whom Deacon Ned Berghausen said could rightly be called a mother of the Archdiocese of Louisville and of Catholics — Black and white — cared for the diocese’s first bishop and instructed the children of her enslavers in the Catholic faith.
She later became a founding member of the first African American parish in the archdiocese.
Mary Narcissa Frederick was born around 1815 in Virginia. Her native language was French but she learned English as an adult and went on to teach the children of her enslavers to read and write in addition to being their catechist.
Her story in the archdiocese begins when she was brought to Louisville as an adult by a French planter who gave her to James Rudd — a wealthy Catholic businessman and politician — to settle a $10,000 debt.
Deacon Berghausen, who serves at St. Agnes Church, said Mary Narcissa Frederick, despite being enslaved, “played a prominent role in the faith life of the early Catholic community.”
Sacramental records he uncovered show that Frederick served as a sponsor for numerous baptisms of enslaved individuals — both infants and adults and that of at least one white child. She served also as a sponsor for confirmations and she witnessed many weddings of other enslaved individuals.
Deacon Berghausen said when he found her on the pages of historical and sacramental documents, he was amazed that her story was unknown.
“I felt like this was a story that needs to be told. Here’s one of the mothers of our diocese and her story has been untold,” he said during a recent interview at St. Agnes.
The records say Mary Narcissa Frederick was a tall woman. Documents describe a severe head injury that caused her to lose several pieces of bone from her skull. She was left disfigured, lived with constant pain and was known to wear a bandage on her head daily. The injury left no permanent cognitive damage and she went on to live well into her 90s.
Mary Narcissa Frederick was enslaved by the Rudd family until emancipation and continued to serve them until 1880, well after she was a free woman. She and her husband Thornton Frederick, who was also enslaved by the Rudd family, lived in the Rudd mansion, which was located where the Kentucky International Convention Center now sits on the corner of Third and Jefferson streets.
Her duties were varied, but Mary Narcissa Frederick was known as the Rudd’s “confidential servant” and as a “mammy” who raised two generations, more than 30 Rudd children in total, teaching them to read and write. She also taught them how to pray and led their religious formation.
It was in the service of the Rudds that she also met and served Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, the first Bishop of Louisville, according to Deacon Berghausen’s research. James Rudd made some of his money by renting out his slaves for their labor. Rudd owned about 46 slaves.
In the 1840s, Mary Narcissa Frederick was “loaned” to Bishop Flaget, who was in the last years of his life and ailing. She served the elderly bishop as a maid, cook and housekeeper. The records do not clearly state for how long she served him or whether she lived in the St. Louis Cathedral rectory or if she walked from the Rudd’s mansion every day to care for the bishop.
Bishop Flaget also owned slaves, as many as 25 in 1830, according to Deacon Berghausen’s research. The bishop believed that enslaved people should be formed in the faith, given the sacraments, treated well and buried in Catholic cemeteries.
The Rudds allowed Mary Narcissa Frederick to worship at St. Louis Church, which later became St. Louis Cathedral.
After emancipation, she was a founding member of St. Augustine Church, the first African American parish in the archdiocese. On Feb. 20, 1870 — only seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people — she may have been one of the Black Catholics who walked in a procession from the undercroft of the Cathedral of the Assumption to the newly built St. Augustine Church on 14th Street and West Broadway. The Cathedral of the Assumption succeeded St. Louis Cathedral.
On Feb. 23, 2020, St. Augustine parishioners re-enacted this procession from the cathedral’s undercroft to where the church stands today at 1310 W. Broadway. The current building was dedicated in 1912.
Mary Narcissa Frederick and her husband lived until old age in a home purchased for them by the Rudd family after they were freed. She continued serving the family until 1880.
When she died in 1908, an 800-word obituary appeared in the Kentucky Irish American — a local newspaper at the time — where the Rudd family expressed an outpouring of grief over her death.
She is buried in an unmarked grave in the Rudd’s family plot in St. Louis Cemetery.