Opportunity to stargaze through a 150-year-old telescope

Chris Graney worked with a tiny screwdriver as he restored the telescope. (Photo Special to The Record)

The Archdiocese of Louisville is providing a rare opportunity to gaze at the moon and stars through the lens of a 150-year-old telescope that belonged to Monsignor Michael Bouchet. Monsignor Bouchet was an inventor and served as vicar general for the Diocese of Louisville in the 1870s.

Starting in mid-September, Christopher Graney, an astronomer with the Vatican’s astronomical observatory, and Tim Tomes, archivist for the Archdiocese of Louisville, will take the telescope out and invite individuals to a series of stargazing events titled “Kentucky’s Oldest Telescope: Born and Bred in Louisville.” 

The events “interconnect religion, science and local history,” said Graney during a recent interview. 

When participants in the first stargazing event, set for Sept. 15, look through the lens of the telescope, it’ll likely be the second time anyone has done so since Monsignor Bouchet used it to look at the heavens more than a century ago.

Tomes showed Graney the telescope for the first time in 2016, and both men took a look. At the time, the telescope didn’t have a mount. It lay on a table and they were able only to look at the lights in a parking lot adjacent to the Cathedral of the Assumption, Graney said. 

“Nevertheless, it was very cool to think that Tomes and I might well have been the first people to have looked through Bouchet’s telescope in over a century,” he later wrote in an article for the Vatican Observatory.

Monsignor Bouchet was an inventor. He converted a small space in the cathedral’s rectory into a workshop filled with tools, all sorts of machinery and “clever devices,” according to a 1958 article published in The Record. He was known to work on the cathedral’s organ and almost up until his death in 1903, he’d climb into the cathedral’s spire to fix the clock.

His first invention was a folding bed. And his most famous invention was an adding machine, which he used for bookkeeping for the diocese. Tomes noted that a version of that machine is in the Smithsonian Museum and Monsignor Bouchet is credited with its invention. 

“He liked to tinker and he paid attention to his passions,” said Tomes. “It enriches your mind and life and when you’re able to share that, it enriches others.”  

His telescope, made of brass, needed some work to get it in shape for public use.  

“Getting it back into operation was a matter of taking it apart and cleaning,” said Graney, who spent hours taking it apart. “It was dirty, stuck, and gummed up. I spent lots of time tapping lightly, oiling and hours getting the screws undone.” 

Chris Graney, an astronomer with the Vatican’s astronomical observatory, left, and Tim Tomes, archivist for the Archdiocese of Louisville, looked at Monsignor Michael Bouchet’s telescope Aug. 31. The 150-year-old telescope is on display in the Archdiocesan History Center located in the Patterson Education Center on South Fifth Street. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Graney noted that loosening more than a century-old brass screws proved to be a challenge. For some guidance, he reached out to his scientific circle online and found it in Paolo Del Santo of the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy, who responded with encouragement and useful tips. 

Del Santo, who Graney said has worked with Galileo’s original telescope, cautioned him against trying to get the telescope to look like a replica and to be happy with the telescope’s ancient look.

“It was tedious, old-school kind of work, but it worked,” said Graney. “We’ve seen the moon, we’ve seen Venus. It has certain limitations but if someone saw Saturn or Jupiter they’d think it looked pretty cool.”

Graney believes it’s the “oldest surviving telescope in Kentucky.” It was made by A.C. Schuman, a maker of scientific instruments located a short distance from the cathedral, Graney said. An old receipt shows Monsignor Bouchet re-ordering parts for the lenses from Schuman in 1890. 

Tomes believes that following Bouchet’s death, the telescope was housed in the cathedral’s museum and later moved as the archives were moved. “We’re lucky it survived,” he said. 

Graney purchased a wooden mount from the Louisville Astronomy Center, which is co-sponsoring the first stargazing session. It is set for 7 p.m. Sept. 15 at Tom Sawyer Park’s Urban Astronomy Center.

The other presentations will take place at 7 p.m. as well at the following locations:

  • Sept. 24 at Our Lady of the Woods Chapel on the campus of Bellarmine University, 2001 Newburg Road.
  • October 1 at St. Gregory Church in Samuels, Ky.
Ruby Thomas
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Ruby Thomas
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