Catholic Pioneers

Historical Marker #913 in Marion County notes the location of the first Catholic church west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Kentucky’s earliest settlers came from the states of the mid-Atlantic region. While Virginia, Kentucky’s mother state, probably sent the most migrants, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Maryland also sent significant numbers. Many who came from Maryland were Catholics who established parishes in the “new West.”

Among those determined to immigrate to Kentucky were a group sixty Maryland Catholic families, largely from St. Mary’s County. In 1785, about twenty-five of those families made the journey on the Ohio River via flatboat to Limestone (now Maysville) and then overland to the fortified Goodwin’s Station in present-day Nelson County. Leaving the women and children at Goodwin’s Station, the men of the party, led by Basil Hayden, set out for claimed lands on Pottinger’s Creek in present-day Marion County. After the land was cleared, homes were built and crops were planted.

The first priest to serve at the newly-formed Pottinger’s Creek community was a Father Whelan, who arrived in 1787 and served for three years. Because a church was not immediately erected, services were held in private homes. Finally, in 1792, a log structure was constructed by Rev. William de Rohan, which proved to be the first Catholic church built west of the Allegheny Mountains. This church was called Holy Cross. The present church at Holy Cross was constructed in 1823 under the direction of Belgian missionary Charles Nerinckx. Father Robert Byrne served as pastor of Holy Cross for its first twenty years.

In 1805, an order of Trappist monks (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) who had been driven out of France by Napoleon arrived and leased land for a cloister. They later purchased land, but, unable to pay the debt, they returned to France in 1809. An order returned to Kentucky in 1848 and established Our Lady of Gethsemani near their original location.

During the nineteenth century, Catholic communities flourished in nearby Bardstown. Later, migrants from Ireland and Germany formed large Catholic parishes in Louisville and Covington. However, to this day, Holy Cross is considered the cradle of Catholicism in Kentucky.