St. Mary's College

Historical Marker #1026 commemorates the history of St. Mary's College in St. Mary, Kentucky. Founded in 1821, St. Mary's College was the oldest extant Catholic college in Kentucky and was the third oldest Catholic college originally founded for boys in the United States.

The history of the Catholic settlement in which the college is located dates back to 1788. That year, Catholic emigrants from Maryland made their way to Kentucky and settled at Hardin’s Creek. After they had cleared the land, built cabins, and overcome numerous obstacles, the pioneers needed to educate their children in the wilderness of Kentucky. Recognizing this need, Father Charles Nerinckx, a pioneer missionary, founded a Catholic school for girls. His school, founded in 1812, was the beginning of the Sisters of Loretto community. Seven years later, he decided to build a school for boys, patterned after the school he had previously established. He purchased the land and built several buildings, but a disastrous fire destroyed the main building and four smaller buildings. Therefore, Father Nerinckx abandoned his plans.

In 1819, the Reverend William Byrne was appointed pastor of St. Charles Church, replacing Father Nerinckx, who had served as pastor since the church was founded in 1806. Realizing that a school for boys was necessary, Byrne founded St, Mary's College in the spring of 1821. An abandoned distillery on the land purchased by Nerinckx was remodeled and became "an ‘institution of learning in which 'distilled knowledge' was imparted to students in storage rooms that had been converted into classrooms with empty barrels serving as desks and small kegs serving as chairs." When Byrne learned that some Jesuits from France were traveling to Bardstown and were hoping to settle somewhere, he invited them to take over St. Mary's College. They accepted, and, two years later in 1833, Byrne transferred control to them. He died later that year of cholera.

The college was forced to close its doors for two years, 1869-1871, because of financial distress caused by the Civil War. When it reopened in 1871, the Fathers of the Congregation of the Resurrection took charge of the college and operated it until it permanently closed in 1976.