St. Thomas celebrates 200th anniversary

The congregation at St. Thomas Church knelt during the Liturgy of the Eucharist at the bicentennial Mass. (For a gallery of images, click here.)

Record Assistant Editor

BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Parishioners and visitors filled St. Thomas Church in Bardstown, Ky., Sunday, July 1, to celebrate the parish’s 200th anniversary.

Archbishop Kurtz blessed Russ and Jessica Clark and their son Cody after Mass. They celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary July 1.

The celebration began with a liturgy led by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who remarked on the history of the parish, which played a significant role in the early years of the Catholic Church in Kentucky.

The parish, which is located just south of Bardstown and has about 425 families, began with a gift from a pioneer couple.

“Thomas and Ann Howard 200 years ago gave the gift of this land so there could be a parish — a church, a school, a cemetery,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “That was 200 years ago and we are still giving thanks.”

The Howards willed their farm of nearly 370 acres and their home, a log house, to the church. The parish was formally established at the site in 1812, said Father Stephen Pohl, a former pastor of St.
Thomas who led an effort to restore the log house during his tenure at the parish. That tenure ended just a few years ago.

When the Howards lived on the farm, their log house was used, beginning about 1795, to celebrate Mass. That was in the time before Catholic churches dotted Central Kentucky’s landscape and, instead, small communities of Catholics gathered to pray together in someone’s home and met irregularly for Mass when a priest rode through on his circuit.

Their log house, humble by almost any standard, became central to the development of what is today the Archdiocese of Louisville. It was the home of Kentucky’s first bishop, Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Bardstown (forerunner to the Archdiocese of Louisville). It was also the site of the diocese’s first seminary.

And the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth began at St. Thomas, too, in 1812.

“Just think of the history,” the archbishop noted during his homily. “In 1812, the bricks (to build the church) began being baked. We’re talking about a real historic time.”

Construction of the small, square church — which still stands today — began in 1813. Built in a time of hardship by rugged, but faithful pioneers, the church is simple in its design.

The interior matches the exterior in its simplicity. It has an intimate sanctuary with few furnishings — among them a baptismal font that dates to the early years of the church. The furnishings are accented by carefully painted trim outlining the high, gothic arches that line the two side aisles of the church. Its warm stained-glass windows are formed by geometric panes.

The log house sits next to the church and has been restored to its original appearance. The house and church present an image of 1813 Kentucky, though the grass surrounding them may be a bit more trim than it would have been two centuries ago.

Archbishop Kurtz asked those who attended the anniversary Mass who among them could trace their roots in the parish. Two people indicated their families were among the founding members. Dozens of people raised their hands to say their families had 75 or more years at the parish. Nine people said their families were there 100 years ago and three people indicated a 150-year history there.

The archbishop noted that anniversary celebrations aren’t only a time to celebrate one’s roots, but also a time to look to the future.

The church will dedicate a newly renovated Parish Life Center on July 14, an occasion that “shows life has not ended, but actually the Catholic faith continues to grow,” the archbishop said.

“We need families who will pass along the gift of faith to our children,” he said. “We need to support each other to face the challenges of today.”

Among those who attended the celebration were three women whose lives have been greatly influenced by the parish.

Libby Hagan, who was born in the parish but spent many years in another parish — returned in 1991 and “it felt like I was home,” she said during an interview after Mass.

Hazel Ritchie O’Bryan, a lifelong member who is 79, played the organ off and on at the parish for 65 years — since she was in the eighth-grade — and sang in the choir since the fifth-grade.
She said her family life revolved around the parish.

“My sister and I walked three miles to come and sing at the High Mass at 6 a.m.,” she noted. “We’d walk back home (afterward) eat our breakfast and go to school.

“This parish has meant a lot to me,” she said. “I have eight children and they all went to school here.”

St. Thomas School has closed, but Ann Addie Everhart, who attended the celebration, is believed to be the oldest living graduate. At 100, she attended the Mass and dinner afterward and told the archbishop stories about life in the early 1900s at St. Thomas.

She vividly and gratefully recalled a Sister of Charity of Nazareth who taught at the school, Sister Mary Rita. Everhart said she was grateful because the sister was kind and offered her encouragement. As one of 12 children, the school and parish offered an escape, she noted with a laugh, “It was everything in my life.” (More on Everhart’s memories can be found here.)

St. Thomas’ celebration will continue throughout this month with the July 14 dedication of the Parish Life Center at 4 p.m. A “birthday” celebration will be held July 22 at noon. It will include ice cream and a balloon release.

The parish picnic will be July 28 from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. It will begin with Mass.

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