By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
FAIRFIELD, Ky. — Parishioners of St. Michael Church sum up their faith community with one word — family.
“Everyone here has laughed together, worked together and cried together. We are a close community — a family,” said parishioner Suzanne DeWitt.
Parishioners, visitors and former pastors gathered Oct. 1 to celebrate the parish’s 225th anniversary with a Mass and luncheon.
St. Michael is located at the northern tip of what is known as the Kentucky Holy Land — the three rural counties of Marion, Nelson and Washington. It was founded in 1792 and served Catholics who had migrated from Maryland to the Kentucky frontier. St. Michael is the oldest church in Nelson County and the third oldest parish still in existence in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Louisville’s first parish — St. Louis — began as a mission of St. Michael. The Louisville parish was later renamed and rebuilt and became the Cathedral of the Assumption.
Many of St. Michael’s parish families, including Gilly Simpson’s, can trace their family lineage directly to the founding of the parish in the 18th-century.
Simpson wrote an encompassing account of the parish’s history in his 2010 book “Pioneer Faith: A History of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Fairfield, Ky.”
“This parish means a lot to everybody, whether they are new parishioners or been around a few generations,” said Simpson, who can trace his family back 10 generations at the parish.
Simpson, the parish’s director of religious education, said he highlights the legacy of the original settlers of St. Michael in his instruction of young people.
“The people who have come from here have played a big role not in just the history of Kentucky Catholicism but in the history of American Catholicism,” he said. “I ask them ‘Who’s next? Who will be the next person that comes from here to make a mark?”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who presided at the anniversary Mass, told those gathered that the gift of faith is passed from one generation to the next.
“Sometimes … we only think of those who are alive now, but the truth is, our families and your parish include not just those who are active right now but they include those on whose shoulders we stand,” he said.
The archbishop recalled the day’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, which he said, reminds “us we pray to God that we might be changed and changed for the better.”
Catholics are supposed to leave Mass, he said, different from when they came.
“We are supposed to be a changed people. Conversion is something that is essential to us. … When we honor our parish it is the place for conversion; it is the place for us to be different,” he said. “It’s about you coming and God looking into your heart and my heart, too, and seeing who and what we could become — the greatness of the gifts God has given us if we can only avoid sins that tear us down.”
Father John R. Johnson, pastor of St. Michael, said the parish exemplifies what a church is — “both a family and a community living out the great commission.”
“St. Michael has sent out from its doors men and women of faith into the world to share God’s love and mercy. What a blessing and grace this is for me,” said Father Johnson, who is also pastor of All Saints Church in Taylorsville, Ky. The two parishes are clustered.
St. Michael is the home parish of Mother Catherine Spalding, the foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth; Mother Frances Gardiner, a superior of the SCNs; Bishop Richard Miles, the first Bishop of Nashville; and Msgr. Felix Newton Pitt, a prominent leader in Catholic education. It has produced dozens of priests and women religious.
Today, St. Michael has about 200 families and still possesses a good deal of that original pioneer spirit, said Rhonda Crepps, parishioner and parish bookkeeper.
“This parish is run almost solely on volunteers. There’s only two people on staff and everything else is run by volunteers, even those who mow the grass. They have really taken ownership and put their hearts into it,” Crepps said.