When the Basilica of the Proto-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Bardstown, Ky. Was consecrated in 1819, it became the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. Illustrating its importance in the New United States, Bardstown joined Philadelphia, New York, and Boston as new dioceses, established in all four cities on the same day, April 8, 1808. Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore had requested that Rome erects new dioceses for the flourishing Church in America.
At first, simply named St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the church acted as a shining monument to the faith in a state that was for the most part a wild desert. The cathedral became a reality thanks to the determination of the first bishop, Benoît Joseph Flaget, who worked five years to raise funds to build it on the poor border. The fact that the interior of the new church remained unfinished (it was not completed until 1823) did not disrupt or hinder the celebration of Mass or other public gatherings once it was consecrated.
To further emphasize the importance of this cathedral from the start, Pope Leo XII (1760-1829), François I, King of the Two Sicilies (1777-1820), and King Louis Philippe I of France (1773-1850) were among those gift giving, which included paintings by artists such as the Flemish masters Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) and the Spanish painter Bartolome Murillo (1617-1682).
When in 1841 Louisville became the new city of the Diocese, which was renamed the Diocese of Louisville, St. Joseph’s became a parish church with the new name of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral – “proto” meaning “first”. At that time, no one imagined that, 160 years later, in 2001, Saint John Paul II would elevate Saint Joseph to a basilica. It was rededicated the following year as the Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-cathedral. Not only is this church listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the Library of Congress lists it “as a national monument of exceptional interest and worthy of careful preservation.”
There is yet another exceptional part of the history of Saint Joseph that links its beginnings to the present day.
The second Bishop of the Diocese of Louisville, Most Reverend Martin Spalding, as a young priest, first served as a pastor here in 1834. He founded St. Joseph’s College, which was next to the cathedral at the time, as Kentucky’s first Catholic college. “Then he became Bishop of Louisville and later the Seventh Archbishop of Baltimore,” said Father Terry Bradshaw, pastor of the Proto-Cathedral for nearly six years and earlier (1985-1987) as associate pastor. His connection to St. Joseph’s actually dates back to his early days, as Bishop Spalding was his distant uncle.
Father Bradshaw was also the first ordained to this church in almost a century. “Ninety-nine years have passed between ordinations,” he said. The last one in the building was in 1881. After that, Father Bradshaw said, “the rest had been transferred to Louisville Cathedral” until his own ordination in this sacred space. Another family bond is linked to his ordination. “My uncle, Father Jack Caldwell, was an associate pastor here at the time I was ordained,” he said. “It was a Spalding-Caldwell.”
This interwoven church and personal history includes Bishop Martin Spalding’s nephew, who was Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, first Bishop of Peoria, Illinois. Father Bradshaw is also related to him through the maternal side of the family. Many have heard of Bishop John Spalding’s work because he oversaw the Baltimore Catechism, and then shortly thereafter recorded a version which he abbreviated and which became known as the Baltimore Catechism. # 1. Influenced by the founding of St. Joseph’s College by his uncle Bishop Martin Spalding, he obtained permission from Pope Leo XIII to found the Catholic University of America in Washington.
Beauty in the oven
Tracing back in the history of the Proto-Cathedral to 1823, when the new St. Joseph’s Church was fully completed, the Greek Revival Church was designed by a Baltimore architect and hand-built by parishioners with local materials. They fired the red bricks for the exterior and harvested the poplars for so many details, like the six majestic Ionic columns on the facade that stand in front of the red brick behind them. On the brick itself are matching Ionic pilasters, which together with the columns add up to 12 in total – a subtle reminder of the 12 tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles.
The white columns of this porch-shaped entrance support a beautifully detailed Greek Revival style triangular pediment highlighted by lines of jagged moldings. Higher still, the clock tower topped with the steeple and spire is strong and was designed in the popular federal style of the new country.
A stroll around the church reveals a rare detail: the Ten Commandments are prominently inscribed above each of the stained glass windows to remind visitors of the biblical covenant with Moses. Then, back at the entrance, two tall statues stand on the lawn before the wide staircase leading to the porch. One pays homage to Bishop Flaget, the builder of the cathedral, and the other recalls Bishop Martin Spalding. Both were unveiled on the proto-cathedral’s 100th anniversary.
At the entrance, three statues above the trinity of doors welcome the faithful. Above the large central door stands a colorful statue of Saint Joseph, patron saint of the church, in the central double-arched niche. Above the doors on either side are statues of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart.
The nave is airy and bright, with the feeling of colonial-era federal-style churches, but with generous amounts of classical Greek Revival architecture and Roman arches, all unmistakably Catholic.
Arches join each of the white columns surmounted by decorative Corinthian capitals whose design recalls that of a fountain with water jets. These columns are the originals made from poplars, then covered with lath and plaster, and now painted with gilded and marbled trim.
Above the columns and between the arches, 12 circular medallions feature the apostles and lead to medallions depicting Jesus and Mary in the shrine which were painted by Jim Cantrell, a local artist well known from beyond the Bardstown area.
“The role models for the apostles were various priests, including the pastor in the 1980s, as well as a priest-teacher in Louisville and some well-known local figures,” said Father Bradshaw. “What I like about it is that, in a way, the artist says, ‘Can you imagine yourself a saint?’ I can imagine these people I know as saints – ordinary people – the way we should all imagine ourselves as disciples of the apostles, carrying on the apostolic tradition.
Place of privilege
From the nave, the two rows of columns flow into the sanctuary and form its slightly rounded and curved apse with the same theme of arches and columns, this time in pilasters or semi-columns.
The original tabernacle, in gilded bronze and copper, features a Lamb on its door, surmounted by two faces of adoring angels. The reserve altar in Italian white marble is carved with the large letters “PX” connected by an “Alpha” and “Omega” on each side. Above this tabernacle, a gift from the King of Belgium, the simple white marble altarpiece presents the inscription Altar Privilegiatum – “A privileged altar.
The white marble communion railing replaced the wooden original – in 1819 parishioners did not have access to Italian marble.
The original main altar (replaced in 1979 by another in Italian white marble) had a large mensa – the top of the altar – about 10 feet x 3 feet and made of Kentucky limestone, which has a more tone dark than white marble. One of the pastors then discovered the original consecrated mensa and then restored it and placed it on the marble base of the tabernacle altar. Father Bradshaw calls the restoration “a wonderful part of history.” He took the new replaced marble mensa and used it for the new restored baptismal font in the shrine. “The baptismal font leads to the altar, and the altar nourishes you for the mission you receive at the baptismal font.”
Above the original tabernacle, the central arch frames a huge painting of the Crucifixion, which depicts Our Lady, Saint John and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross looking at the suffering Christ. While in Europe, Bishop Flaget commissioned Belgian artist Philippe Van Bree to paint it for the cathedral, and it was one of the paintings donated by King Louis Phillippe.
Another painting is The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Mattia Preti, painted in Naples around 1650 and offered to the cathedral by King Francis I of the Two Sicilies. At the turn of this century, it was restored by the Getty Museum for their exhibition of the painter’s work. “It was one of the essential works of Pretti that they needed,” said Father Bradshaw. It was restored in 2002 for the reconsecration of the proto-cathedral into a basilica.
Other gifted paintings have a variety of themes: by Van Dyck Saint-Pierre chained and The winged St. Mark (this painting is the only evangelist represented in art in the church) to Van Eyck Descent of the Holy Spirit and The Annunciation, at Murillo’s The Heavenly Coronation of the Mother of God.
Father Bradshaw said that at the beginning Back in the 19th century when the paintings were donated and brought to St. Joseph’s, they were quite spectacular art, especially for those who lived west of the Appalachians. Parishioners could make the bricks, obtain the limestone and cut the wood locally, but the liturgical art and quality liturgical vestments needed came from elsewhere.
Guardian of the Church
Saint Joseph has a special place in the sanctuary. A life-size statue of him has been in the church for years beyond memory. He stands on a pedestal jutting out from the curved wall of his sanctuary. The patron of this basilica and proto-cathedral for more than two centuries since its consecration, Saint Joseph appears in a humble pose, his head slightly bowed, his right hand on his heart, and in his left hand a stick flowered with lilies. There is a simple altar under the statue.
The arched stained glass windows were placed during one of the church’s renovations decades ago. Their clear central panes with colored frosted edges invite light into the interior, while their light blue borders with numerous scrolls contain round or diamond medallions in gold that feature various liturgical symbols such as crosses, flowers, the hand of God the Father, the Holy Spirit above a chalice and a host, a sailboat, the crossed keys of the Kingdom and the fleur-de-lis.
All of this liturgical art lifts hearts and minds skyward – and eyes, too – as visitors are forced to contemplate a 12-foot ceiling painting of Saint Joseph wearing a brown mantle and holding a flowery staff with a lily. in one hand and a carpenter’s square in the other. Against a background of a blue sky filled with white clouds, St. Joseph seems to gaze with thoughtful eyes on the nearly 5,000 parishioners and visitors – welcoming all who come to this church dedicated to him.