BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Processing through the quiet streets of downtown Bardstown Dec. 12, members of St. Monica Church sang, “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy Word. He’s never failed us yet.”
Close to 100 individuals — including children, teens, religious sisters and clergy — took part in a walk to commemorate 150 years of the African American faith community of St. Monica. They processed from the original location of the old St. Monica School on West Stephen Foster Avenue to the current St. Monica campus, at 407 S. Third St.
Carrie Stivers, a life-long parishioner of St. Monica, said the faith passed on from their ancestors has kept the parish going for a century and a half.
“They taught us how to have dignity as Black lay people in the church,” said Stivers, who parishioners refer to as the church historian. “We have people that had ancestors that were very devoted to St. Monica and they passed that down.”
St. Monica Church is located in downtown Bardstown and was formally established in 1956. The parish has shifted from a predominantly Black church over the years to a multicultural parish of about 250 members.
While the parish is relatively young, the faith community’s roots date to 1871, when the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth opened a school for former slaves on West Stephen Foster Avenue.
But the community’s roots run even deeper than that, said Stivers. She said its enduring faith came about when the first Catholics from Maryland settled in the Nelson County area, bringing with them enslaved people.
These new settlers worshiped at St. Joseph Cathedral, often bringing their slaves to Mass. Stivers said enslaved Africans and their offspring worshipped at St. Joseph well into the 20th century under segregation and other limitations.
By 1942, these formerly enslaved Catholics and their ancestors were ready for a space where they were free to incorporate their African heritage into their worship, she said. African Americans started leaving St. Joseph to worship in what was known as St. Monica Chapel, a classroom at St. Monica School, which continued operations on West Stephen Foster Avenue.
Father Michael K. Lally celebrated the first Mass at St. Monica Chapel on All Saints Day in 1942. He had been appointed by Archbishop John A. Floersh to serve as pastor to African American parishioners of St. Joseph.
St. Monica School, operated by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, initially received support from Jesuit priests. In 1863, the Jesuits who operated St. Joseph College in Bardstown started organizing religion classes for freed or emancipated slaves and later raised funds to build the school, according to historical records from the archdiocese. The school was named St. Martha at first, but was later changed to St. Monica.
Both Stivers and her sister Daisy Allen attended the old St. Monica School. Allen said she remembers moving chairs on Friday in the schoolroom — heated by a potbelly coal stove — to prepare for Sunday Mass.
Stivers, who graduated from the old St. Monica School in 1949, remembers the school having no running water.
“We drank from a faucet outside. The sisters had a bathroom inside but the kids used an outhouse. It was awful. … They seemed to have forgotten us out there,” said Stivers.
She added that though the conditions at the school weren’t good, the education was.
The sisters “were always thinking of our good. … We loved and respected them. We wouldn’t have gotten as far if they hadn’t” started a school, she said.
Members of the African American community worshiped on Sundays in the schoolroom but were still connected to St. Joseph. They celebrated holy days of obligation there, recalled Stivers. Many were still attending St. Joseph until the 1950s but “we weren’t comfortable in the church,” she said.
During that time “everything was segregated” and people “were still treated as servants” she noted. “There was a special place for Blacks in the back of the church known as the bullpen, and you didn’t go any further.”
African Americans were the last to come up to the communion rail to partake in the Body and Blood of Christ and they were not allowed to get married in the church building, she said. The priest would celebrate a prayer service only in the rectory for African American couples who were wed at St. Joseph.
Stivers got married in 1956 and she was allowed to have a prayer service inside St. Joseph after she received a dispensation from Archbishop Floersh, she said.
The people grew tired, she said, and the desire for a church building of their own grew.
On Jan. 24, 1954, the archdiocese announced plans to build St. Monica Church, according to historical records. Funding to build the church came from the archdiocese, white benefactors and from money raised through church suppers and events such as bingo, banquets and shows organized by parishioners of the old St. Monica Chapel, said Stivers.
On Christmas Eve of 1955, though the floor was bare concrete and the pews hadn’t been installed, Father Lally celebrated the first Mass for the African American community at the new St. Monica Church. Stivers, who attended the Mass, said it was a “joyful” celebration filled with singing.
“What was really outstanding as I looked around the church, I looked at a folding chair and it had ‘Second Baptist Church, Fairfield, Ky.,’ ” written on it, she said, noting it dawned on her that African Americans from other faith traditions had reached out to help the St. Monica community.
The new church was completed and dedicated in March of 1956. A new school was also completed Dec. 15, 1955. According to historical records, 121 students, led by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, formed a double line and walked from the old building on West Stephen Foster Avenue to the new school building as parents and well-wishers lined the streets cheering. The school eventually closed in 1970.
Stivers said she had some of the greatest experiences of her faith journey as a parishioner of St. Monica. One such experience was being on the committee that organized the 1987 National Black Catholic Congress, which took place in Washington, D.C. It was the first congress to follow the landmark event founded by Daniel Rudd, a former slave and Catholic journalist, in 1889.
“That was really something. That’s about the greatest thing that has happened to me on my faith journey,” said Stivers.
Over the century and a half, generations of St. Monica’s parishioners have not only remained strong in their faith, but strong also in their call to work for social change, Stivers noted.
One of the parish’s ministries is “Room in the Inn,” an ecumenical effort carried out through a partnership with two other local churches. Room in the Inn serves the homeless in Bardstown by providing meals on Saturday evenings, recreational activities, a place to sleep overnight and breakfast and a sack lunch in the morning, Stivers said.
Father Steven Reeves, who serves as St. Monica’s pastor, said in the few months he’s led the parish, he’s seen “faith, love, compassion and solidarity” present in the church.
He spoke to those gathered Dec. 12 during a prayer service following the walk. He told them they have been “an example and inspiration of faith.”
“I see the challenges, struggles and ups and downs you go through and the way you face them with faith and confidence that God is with us,” he said.
In an interview following the service, Father Reeves said the presence of St. Monica’s faith community “is a great witness of what it means to be African American and Catholic. To celebrate that legacy of faith that has endured throughout the history of the United States and celebrate the way the faith has endured through segregation and slavery. St. Monica is a great witness to that faith.”