- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

BARDSTOWN, Ky. Church bells tolled mournfully to signal the start of a memorial Mass, as they have for 183 years at a one-time frontier cathedral given special papal recognition for its rich history.
St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral the first built west of the Allegheny Mountains has been elevated to special status for Catholics.
The Vatican named it a minor basilica, making St. Joseph the 54th American church so designated and the third in Kentucky. The other two in Kentucky are the Cathedral in Covington and the Abbey Church at Gethsemani, just south of Bardstown.
The Rev. William Medley, the parish pastor at St. Joseph, said the designation is a testament to the generations of priests and parishioners who "kept the faith alive and thriving all these 180-plus years."
The honor is given to churches for their antiquity, historical importance or significance as places of worship. For one week in August, the parish celebrated with special prayer services, an organ recital of liturgical music and a dinner honoring priests and nuns who formerly served at the church or parish schools. The highlight was a special Mass led by Louisville Archbishop Thomas Kelly.
"This honor is a recognition of the historical significance of this church as the mother church of the first inland diocese in the United States," Archbishop Kelly said in a statement. "Of no less importance is the spiritual vitality of the current parish community."
For many parishioners, the recognition hasn't sunk in.
"People are very pleased, but like anybody who lives in the midst of a historic center, we kind of take for granted what a rich history our church represents," Father Medley said.
Today, the Bardstown parish covers parts of Nelson County and numbers about 4,700 people. Bardstown, a town of about 9,700 in the heart of Kentucky's bourbon country, is about 40 miles southeast of Louisville.
The congregation was tiny when the church's cornerstone was laid in July 1816. The nearly 1 million red bricks that went into its construction were made on site. Poplar trees cut from nearby woods were turned into the massive interior pillars. In a show of solidarity, Protestants helped build and finance the cathedral.
The church was dedicated in August 1819, fulfilling the dream of Benedict Joseph Flaget, the bishop of the Diocese of Bardstown.
The Bardstown diocese was formed in 1808, along with dioceses in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Before that, the only U.S. diocese was in Baltimore, the center of a large Catholic community in Maryland.
From his base at St. Joseph, Bishop Flaget worked to spread Catholicism westward. The diocese's territory spanned from the Great Lakes to Tennessee and from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. It covered all or parts of what are now 10 states and 44 dioceses and archdioceses, including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
The long list of pastors at St. Joseph included Martin John Spalding, who went on to become bishop of Louisville and later archbishop of Baltimore during the Civil War era.
Statues of Bishop Flaget and Archbishop Spalding on the front lawn stand almost as guardians of the cathedral, reminders of its longevity and history.
A few decades after the church was built, the front porch and six exterior columns were added. Since then, the church has undergone little change to its exterior.
The diocese was transferred to Louisville in 1841, but its one-time status as the "Cathedral in the Wilderness" still resonates with some parishioners.
"I've always loved the history," said Flaget Nally, a member of the parish since 1962. "It's been a wonderful place to celebrate our Catholic faith."
Mrs. Nally, 67, has a direct link to Bishop Flaget. She is named after the renowned prelate, and her great-great-grandmother was his godchild.
Mabel Patterson, 81, has celebrated life and mourned death at the church. Her three children took their first Communion at St. Joseph and were married at the church. The funerals for her two husbands were there.
"It hasn't been all happy memories, but it's a place of comfort," said Mrs. Patterson, a parishioner for 50 years who serves as a tour guide, helps clean the church, sings in the choir and heads a prayer group.
The church displays several oil paintings dating to the 17th century. They were gifts from European nobility solicited by Bishop Flaget, himself a native Frenchman. The most significant painting is "The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew" by Mattea Preti, who died in 1699. The painting was restored at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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