Pioneer cathedral celebrates bicentennial

Mass-goers walked into the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Ky., Aug. 18 to mark the bicentennial of the dedication of the Nelson County parish. (Record Photos by Jessica Able)

BARDSTOWN, Ky. — For 45 years, Kay Corbett has called the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral her spiritual home.

“You just feel like you are with the Lord when you are here,” she said following a Mass Aug. 18 celebrating the 200th anniversary of worship in the basilica.

She and hundreds of others filled St. Joe parish here in Bardstown on the sweltering August day to remember, reflect and give thanks to God for the humble origins of the historic parish in Kentucky’s Holy Land.

The Mass was the culmination of a yearlong bicentennial celebration that included 15 events including potluck picnics and the planting of trees. The theme of the celebration was Built to Serve.

The Nelson County basilica was dedicated in 1819 by Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, three years after the parish was established. It was built of red bricks, handmade from local clay.

Bardstown and the surrounding areas were populated with pioneer Catholics who first came to the area from Maryland around 1785.

St. Joseph was the first U.S. cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. St. Joseph was also the original cathedral of the Archdiocese of Louisville, which at the time was known as the Diocese of Bardstown. The see of the diocese transferred to Louisville in 1841. The diocese became an archdiocese in 1937.

In 2001, St. John Paul II, then pope, designated St. Joseph as a minor basilica, one of three in Kentucky. The others are the Trappist’s Basilica of the Blessed Virgin of Gethsemani, also in Nelson County, and the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington.

During Sunday’s afternoon celebration, three bishops, an archbishop, an abbot, numerous priests, deacons and seminarians composed an ample procession from the adjacent rectory to the front doors of the red brick cathedral. They included Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis, Bishop William F. Medley of Owensboro and Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, who have roots in the Kentucky Holy Land.

Also in the procession were Auxiliary Bishop James Massa of Brooklyn, who serves as Titular Bishop of Bardstown; and Abbot Dom Elias Dietz of the Abbey of Gethsemani; Father Terry Bradshaw, pastor of St. Joseph and other former pastors.

Music was provided by the parish’s several choirs —  the Basilica Choir, Contemporary Choir, One Voice Choir, Resurrection Choir, Bell Choir and Children’s Choir. The congregation joined in singing “Built to Serve,” a new hymn composed for the occasion by Catherine Wilson, an assistant professor of music education at Western Kentucky University.

In his homily, Bishop Massa recalled the parish’s origins and said the faith of pioneer parishioners can still be felt today.

“We are all members of the one church. The one mystical body that spans generations and continents. We build on the foundations that others have raised,” he said.

Though the occasion recognized the completion of the church structure, a church, first and foremost, he said, is composed of the people, not the building.

“The word church first applies to people before it pertains to buildings, even spectacular ones like St. Joe’s,” he said.

In his homily, Bishop Massa called attention to Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who also celebrated his 73rd birthday on Aug. 18. Archbishop Kurtz was unable to attend the Mass because he is undergoing cancer treatment in North Carolina.

Bishop Massa noted the archbishop’s “characteristic vigor” and called him “our spiritual father.”

He “has been a cornerstone for this archdiocese and the entire Catholic leadership of the country. He has given us all a shepherd’s care,” he said.

In honor of his leadership, the people of the parish created a scroll to be sent to the archbishop for his birthday. Bishop Spalding, who served as associate pastor of St. Joseph from 1992 to 1996, blessed the scroll during the Mass.

Bishop Medley, who served as pastor of St. Joseph from 1993 to 2005, dedicated the parish’s new baptismal font, a blue-green glass bowl fitted on a white marble slab.

A few decades ago, Allen Ice, was baptized in the basilica and he’s now raising his family there. He has served the parish as an usher since he was 16, said his whole life has centered around activity at St. Joseph, he said.

“It’s home. I almost feel like I haven’t been to church if I attend somewhere else,” he said, joking.

Ice, the youngest of 11 children, said his faith was always an important part of his childhood and hopes to pass that on to his children.

“I hope when the parish celebrates the 250th anniversary, my son will be there,” he said.

With nearly 5,000 parishioners, the parish’s future seems promising. In addition to the parish, St. Joseph operates a school that serves 402 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade.

The St. Joseph Middle School and Children’s Choir sang a selection of songs prior to the start of Mass Aug. 18.
Juliana Palumbo and Harper Smith were servers at the 200th anniversary Mass Aug. 18.
Members of the contemporary choir sang “There is a River” prior to the start of Mass.
Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis greeted youth from the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Ky., as they brought forth the bread and wine. Archbishop Thompson served at the Nelson County parish in the late 1980s.
Priests and bishops, below, who had ties to the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral concelebrated the 200th anniversary Mass.
Jessica Able
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Jessica Able
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