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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Charles Nerinckx

by
Camillus Maes

published by
Robert Clarke & Co.
Cincinnati, 1880

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 8

p100 Chapter VIII

1806‑1807.

The Trappists. — Father Nerinckx foresees their failure. — His desire to join them. — Obedience better than sacrifice. — St. Stephen's. — Holy Mary's. — Bells. — Church furniture. — Danville. — St. Charles' church. — State of the Catholic Church in Kentucky in 1807. — Rev. Nerinckx' bodily sufferings. — His missionary field of labor.

The Trappists,a whom Father Nerinckx had left on the banks of the Ohio, in his eagerness to reach his destination, arrived in Kentucky in the Fall of 1805. They temporarily settled at the foot of Rohan's Knob, on Pottinger's Creek, about a mile from the church of Holy Cross.

"The Trappists," writes Father Nerinckx in November, 1805, "have had a sad and expensive journey; most of them have been sick, and two, to whom I gave the last Sacraments have died in their present residence. They are: Father Basil, who had been appointed prior, a man of great holiness, formerly a canon in France, and Father Dominic who had been a Carthusian. The others are all convalescent or entirely well. Had I remained with them, I p101would have arrived here about a month and a half later, and most likely sick with the same fever. They are now four priests, among whom my travelling companion, four lay brothers, and some students and children. They are poorly situated; St. Bernard will have to help them, for, in my opinion, Father Urban, their Superior, is not the man in the right place. Owing to sickness, they did not yet determine upon a place of settlement. I gave them a relic of St. Bernard."

The Fathers remained on Pottinger's Creek until the early spring of 1807, when "during the severest spell of an extremely cold winter which had set in before Christmas, thirteen Trappists left our neighborhood," writes Father Nerinckx, "to settle on a part of a tract of land (in Casey county), which, if I am not mistaken, they bought at $2.00 an acre. Among them are three Belgians: Mr. Donche, a pastor of the Diocese of Bruges,1 and two lay-brothers, one from the environs of Ghent, the other from Thienen.2 There is also among them a worthy p102Canadian pastor. The Superior who accompanied them is a young man of holy life, although once a soldier. His name is Father Marie Joseph. He was a grenadier during the French Revolution, and, having orders to shoot a priest, he refused to do so, and fled from the army to become a religious.3

"Other lands have been offered gratis to the Trappists, but they did not accept of them, either because of the bad situation or for other reasons best known to themselves. They will be established about forty miles from us, and will be obliged to open a new clearing of between seven and eight miles long in the wilderness. They hope that new colonies will join them from Europe, and it is even rumored that their Abbot intends to come to our regions."4

Trained in the school of strict seminarian discipline, and purified, like gold, in the fire of adversity and persecution, Father Nerinckx p103found an especial attraction in the rigid and penitential life of the Sons of St. Bernard, who, striving for perfection, deprived themselves of all the transient pleasures of this world, in order to secure the crown of eternal life. His was a reticent and serious nature, which would have delighted in the solitude of a cloister or a Thebais, but which, on that very account, fitted him all the better for the ungrateful work of our early missions. It would sustain him against the lack of human consolations, and prove his salvation, where others with more sociable dispositions, and more brilliant qualifications of mind, would not have been able to bear the hardships and disappointments, and would have given up the contest. Many need the salutary restraints of a conventual life, which, because it deprives them of their own will, securely directs them in the path of religious perfection and scientific pursuit, where they shine forth with undiminished luster; left to their own unrestrained impulses, they would soon swerve from the royal, but thorny, way, to follow the broad and flowery road that leads to perdition. The sad experience of our own days was not needed, to prove the failure of some monastic men, whom conventual discipline and vows had forced into a well-earned prominence; in their convents they were examples of religious perfection to their less gifted brethren, but, as soon as they freed themselves from the salutary yoke, they fell from the zenith of their grandeur, to p104sink, despised, into merited oblivion. The glittering meteor shooting away from the heavenly firmament which sets forth its splendor, soon merges in vapory nothingness, or falls to the earth a blackened areolite. We greatly admire the neatly trimmed vessels, which, rounded off in soft contours and pleasing lines, stately and securely glide on the smooth waters of our inland bays; they do well in their place, keeping in shore, or sailing along the broad bosom of the great rivers. But woe to them if they venture out upon the open sea! Before the angry waves have a chance to hurl them into the bottomless abyss of the deep, the breakers on the coast display the sad wreck of their once noble hull. Men, world-renowned, in the haven of a convent, have had their reputation dashed to pieces on the fog-concealed rocks besetting the raging sea of sad life in the world. But, Father Nerinckx, how much soever inclined to profit by the cloister's protecting safeguard, stood not in need of it to protect his virtue, or aid his progress in the science of the Saints. Like a stanch ship, the bold outlines of which, less pleasing to the eye, but hiding within their rugged forms beams strong and firm, bespeak her strength against the most violent outbursts of the Atlantic storms, he could safely brave the tempest, and battle successfully against wind and waves.

Our missionary was too much needed in the missions to think of securing his own salvation, p105 whilst seemingly neglecting that of others, who were famishing for want of spiritual food. He was imbued with too much of the spirit of zeal which animated St. Ignatius, to take to the lifeboat when a pilot was needed at the wheel; and, upon the advice of Bishop Carroll to whom he had written on the subject, and who did not approve of his entering a religious house, he generously sacrificed his own inclinations to the welfare of his flock. "I must acknowledge," he writes,5 "that the manner of living of the Trappists has touched me in so far, that hardly any thing but the great scarcity of priests to attend to the wants of the catholics, withholds me from asking a place among them. Happy men, indeed, who, notwithstanding the sneers of a world full of deceit, know how to find charms in tribulation, joy in suffering, wealth in poverty, and an abundance of all things where the blinded worldlings not even deign to cast a glance. When you see and study their lives, you think you have finally found the infallible means of securing the salvation of your soul. What holy and modest joy do you not read in their countenance! How eloquent is their silence! How heart-stirring their chant! In a word, how violently and sweetly does their whole mode of life attract you! Vere haec est generatio quaerentium Dominum! . . ."

No wonder if Father Nerinckx deplored the removal of these men, whom he looked up to as p106the very models of christian perfection, and whose way of living naturally made them his friends. Being accustomed to sacrifice his own likings to the good of religion, he deplored it especially because, with his usual keen perception and bright intellectual foresight, the man of God anticipated that no good would come from that continual change of place. In his estimation, men who made perfection their daily business should have relied more on the providence of God, and less on the beauty of situation or fertility of soil, than the over-zealous Father Urban did. In his anxiety to secure a favorable and permanent establishment for his community, this good man was constantly on the road and away from his convent, and his brethren could not but suffer from the protracted absences of their Superior. The fact that they were to commence a new foundation without the presence of their prelate to enforce the rules, and to instill into them, from the very beginning, the spirit of fervor, which the difficulties of a new establishment must necessarily have rendered very hard to foster, was surely no help to maintain the strictness of the institute, and must have suggested many and seemingly plausible excuses not to enforce it. Rev. Nerinckx wrote in that sense, to Bishop Carroll in 1806, a letter6 which he sent to him through Father Urban: "The affairs of the Trappists are improving slowly enough. I fear the ruin of that Congregation, p107unless they receive reinforcements of men and money, both of which are promised from Belgium. It seems to me that it would succeed better, if, as I suggested several times to him, Rev. Urban commenced from humble foundations, and were not so over-anxious about the selection of a convenient spot. I am afraid that his continual excursions will drain all his resources, besides being very prejudicial to the good name and fame of the Trappists."

But the Rev. Urban did not wish to listen to the disinterested suggestions of the missionary. Scarcely had the prior, Father Marie Joseph, settled his little band in Casey county, when his superior, busy as ever in quest of better quarters, arrived at the monastery with the unwelcome intelligence of another removal. He had obtained from Bishop Carroll the pastoral care of the catholics scattered on both sides of the Mississippi, and came to break up the new establishment.

This news was a terrible blow to the earnest and energetic Father Marie Joseph, and helped no doubt the determination he came to, when the Trappist establishment was again broken up in 1813 and transplanted back to France, to sever his connection with so fickle a superior and to remain in the American mission. That he had reason to regret the step of his superior, although, like a true religious, he did not question its propriety, clearly appears from one of p108Father Nerinckx' letters,7 describing the result of the poor prior's zeal, as early as the Summer of 1807:

"I lately visited my St. Bernard's parish, and stopped over night with the admirable monks of La Trappe. They own around there, thirty-four miles from the priests' land (so people call Father Badin's plantation), about one thousand five hundred acres, which cost them on an average $4.00 an acre. That territory belonged to Holy Mary's parish, but it has been erected into a distinct mission, called St. Bernard's. Part of that large Trappist farm is very good land, well situated, cut by several streams and a rather wide brook, upon the banks of which they are already erecting a saw-mill — a good illustration of what early monks have done — they do all the work among themselves. They have received two novices — an Irishman and an American; and news has reached them that five Canadian priests intend to join them.

"I found fourteen members in the community, lodged in a double frame cabin about as large as a ten-horse stable. That structure, which hardly keeps out the rain, is dormitory, refectory, and church; a space is set apart for the lay brothers, and there is a small apartment for storing provisions, in which I lodged with my guide. The Fathers and Brothers sleep on the bare floor; I had a bag of oats to rest upon. They retire at eight P.M., after many long and edifying evening prayers. They rise at one p109o'clock A.M., and spend the time until four, singing the Office, saying Mass, reciting prayers, etc., when they go out to work. They do not break their fast until twelve A.M., and on fast days, and during Lent, until three P.M.

"Father Urban, the Trappist Superior, is often our guest, and Mr. Badin has been a great help to him. I gave the last Sacraments to two of his companions, in our house, a few hours before their death. He expects some new arrivals from Europe.

"These Trappists have adopted over twenty children from the best class of our catholics, whom they bind themselves to educate and to keep until their twenty-first year without any compensation. They leave them free to learn a trade, or to take up the studies they have the most inclination for, and we anticipate great fruit to Church and state from that good work. I have closely watched their manner of life, and I felt a longing desire to join them, . . . but the Bishop of Baltimore, whom I blindly obey, orders me not to exchange the useful work of the secular ministry for a penitential solitude. . . ."

No wonder, therefore, if Father Nerinckx, alarmed at Rev. Urban's fickleness, wrote again to Bishop Carroll, in March, 1808:8

"I understand that Rev. Wouters was very desirous of coming out to me, a thing which is just now impossible, since he joined the Society (of Jesus). I love the Society sincerely, and I believe that p110you are in great want of priests there, but I can not admit that you are in greater need than we are here. As to my idea of leading a cenobitical or retired life, away from the inevitable and real perils of the ministry, I have not given it up. But, owing to your counsels, I have set it aside for the present, convinced that obedience is better than sacrifice. In the second place, because the want of priests is so real, that it is, perhaps, better for this mission to have one like me than none at all. Thirdly (and I am very sorry to have to state it), because that so justly, and so universally, celebrated congregation of Trappists is just now in a very alarming condition. Their temporal affairs are so badly managed or so persistently upset by adverse circumstances, that, in the opinion of prudent men, the institution must necessarily fall to the ground, unless it be upheld by miracles. If they were prudent managers, they would surely act otherwise than they do. The breaking up of this convent will undoubtedly prove disastrous not only to the Order itself, but also to Religion; a sad prophecy which I gave already utterance to, when, being your Lordship's guest in Georgetown, I remarked that I could not think of any other remedy against the threatening evil, but to provide a more prudent head for that body. I do not know whether I should, or can, be more definite; but my assertions can be easily proved, and authentic information will perhaps be sent to your Lordship by the proper men."

p111 However, Father Urban carried out his plans, and "on the third Sunday after Easter, 1809, the Trappists embarked, leaving in Kentucky a very small suite with Rev. Urban, who intended to follow them in the fall."9 They ascended the Mississippi river from Cairo in row-boats, and entering the Missouri river they landed near the Charbonniere, about ten miles above the confluence of the Missouri with the Mississippi. They crossed the bluffs and settled in the village of Florissant, which is two miles from their place of landing, and in the direction of St. Louis. Here, Mr. John Mullanphy, an Irish gentleman who had moved to Missouri from Frankfort, Ky., a few years previous to their arrival, generously gave them the use of his own residence, which had formerly been the dwelling of the Spanish Intendente or Governor. It was then the largest and best built house of that region, being made of cedar logs planted upright on sleepers and braced together, and it contained three large rooms. When torn down some eight years ago its timbers were still perfectly sound.

Shortly after their arrival, the monks purchased a farm in "Looking-Glass Prairie," Illinois, including the two finest, out of a system of more than forty Indian mounds on Cahokia Creek. They moved from Florissant to this farm in 1810 and settled on the smaller of the two mounds purchased by them, where they p112erected temporary cabins, intending to build an abbey on the larger mound to the east, at a later time; it is the latter mound, on the nowº Collinsville plank-road, six miles from the east end of the great bridge over the Mississippi at St. Louis, and one mile from Indian Lake, which is, to this day, called "Monk's Mound." But sickness rapidly decimated their numbers, and the restless Superior finally started back to France, in 1813, with the few survivors who were willing to follow him in this his last peregrination. Several members of the Order remained in America; Father Marie Joseph Dunand, the prior, accepted care of souls in St. Charles' congregation, Missouri; Brother Rysselman joined the Jesuits, and the other Belgian brother went to Bardstown, where he followed his trade as a clockmaker.

Father Nerinckx had hoped that the Trappists might help Rev. Badin and himself in the ministerial duties of the mission which was committed to their care; hence, he had hailed their advent in the wilds of Kentucky with great delight. Seeing that his hopes in that direction were to be partially frustrated now, and, in his opinion, totally so at no distant future, he bravely settled down to work with his accustomed energy.

As has been stated in a previous chapter, Rev. Nerinckx arrived at St. Stephen's, Marion county, on the 18th of July, 1805. Father Badin received him with open arms, and requested p113him to make his house his own, so that they might work with more harmony and system for the general good of the widely scattered missions. The request was readily complied with. St. Stephen's, so called from the small domestic chapel which Father Badin had erected in his log cabin in honor of his patron Saint, may well be looked upon as the cradle of catholicity in Kentucky. Here the veteran apostles of Kentucky, Stephen T. Badin, the first priest ever ordained in the United States, at the hands of the noble and patriotic John Carroll, its first Bishop, and Charles Nerinckx, the intrepid pioneer, resided for many years. From her shone forth the supernatural light of faith which was to illuminate the whole North-west. From here flowed all the spiritual graces which, in as many years as it took centuries in the Old World, worked miracles in the hearts of men, and made of "the dark and bloody ground" the most lovely region of the New World, covering the sloping sides of its hills, and the fertile clearings of its primeval forests, like unto a crown studded with jewels, with numerous convents, where pure and holy virgins, the first and native fruits of the prolific zeal of its apostles, offered to the Lord God their sanctified vigils and pious prayers. Here, the Patriarch of the West, the gentle and holy Benedict Joseph Flaget, the first Bishop of Kentucky, having like his Divine Master, not a stone whereon to repose his head, made his place p114of abode for many a month. Here he commenced a theological seminary, consisting of two rooms, which Father Badin shared with the Bishop and his brother priests, and a loft or attic which the poorly-fed and overworked students crowded at night, to catch a few hours' rest from the bodily and mental toils of the well-spent day. Here stands to this day, on the very spot where its venerable Founder first dwelled, the Mother-house of Loretto, destined to keep sacred the forgotten soil their Father first trod, and to perpetuate the designs of Providence upon it, by sending from its walls colony upon colony of devoted sisters, to shed the light of faith upon the children of the far Western wilderness.

Within the first year of his residence at St. Stephen's, Father Nerinckx took possession of the house at Holy Mary's of the Rolling Fork, the property of which Rev. Badin had conveyed to him notwithstanding his reiterated refusals.10 As stated in a previous chapter, a farm of ninety-four acres had been purchased there by Father Fournier, and he had made it his residence. "At the Rolling Fork," writes Father Nerinckx, in November, 1805, "there is a frame house two stories high, provided with two brick chimneys, an uncommon feature around here. This house and three or four frame shanties were built at the expense of Rev. Fournier, who lived here but six years. A farm of ninety-four p115acres, a third of which is cleared, belongs to this mission. A poor old man, who seeks to live with me, offers me about ninety-four acres more, and the parishioners are willing to help me to clear part of it. As yet there is no church; but, hearing that I intended to settle there, the people hastened to put up, near the bend in the river, a frame building, about the site of which they had been long disputing. This mission numbers about four hundred souls. . . . I have changed the name of the church at the Rolling Fork to that of Holy Mary, on the feast of the Holy Name of Mary [September, 1805], and enriched it with a relic of the Blessed Virgin."

Father Nerinckx began the erection of a new church, the first placed under the invocation of the Blessed Virgin in Kentucky, as soon as he had taken up his residence at the Fork, thus dedicating to the Holy Mother, whom he so tenderly loved, his first work in the New World.11

"On the 15th of November, 1805," he writes,12 "just one year having elapsed since my arrival in America, I had the happiness of laying the corner-stone of Holy Mary's church. Eternal thanks to our Blessed Mother for that event, which more than repays the long-forgotten difficulties that I went through during my tiresome journey. If I can meet the expense, I intend to build an addition of three rooms to that church, and I trust that some good Flemish p116priests will come to my help; when once here, they can either remain and work with me, or go further in the country. However, times are hard. Money is so scarce, that I can not collect the amount necessary for the purchase of lumber; yet, $50 will cover the bill. The church will cost about $400, which I intend to pay in kind. Lumber costs next to nothing; but iron is not used, not even on doors; these last turn on wooden hinges and are provided with wooden latches; a common carpenter earns a dollar a day. Glass is more expensive; I am asked $1.00 for four common-sized window panes. . . . There being little money, people pay in trade, and the current coins are cut up and divided in pieces to suit value and exigencies of business.

"So far, this mission is poor, and the country very sparsely settled; but I trust that, with help and time, it will become self-sustaining. Bordering on one of the most populous catholic congregations of Kentucky, Holy Mary's must grow and would be a desirable site for a community of priests, whence we could attend to distant missions. However, if I receive sufficient help, I intend to begin a new missionary settlement with over fifty families who are ready to follow me at any time.

"The statue of the Blessed Virgin, that I brought from Belgium, will be placed in Holy Mary's church. A young lady convert, who gains her living by her handiwork, was so taken up with that statue, that she gave to the church p117a fine linen alb, the material of which she had bought for a new dress."

The families which were the most numerous and influential at the Rolling Fork were the Spaldings and Abels. Father Deparcq, Rev. Nerinckx' countryman and successor, subsequently rebuilt the church of brick.

About this same year, Bardstown seems to have sprung into prominence, for Rev. Nerinckx writes, in 1805: "Mr. Coppingen, an Irishman without children, who intends to give all he makes to the church, is ready to settle, thirteen miles from here, in one of our most important missions, Beardts' town,13 where he has bought thirty-six acres. We think of building a chapel or church and a residence for the future bishop of Kentucky in that town." Major Erkuries Beatty stopped in Bardstown during his western tour in 1786, and writes of it, under date August 28th:14 "Bardstown . . . forty miles from Louisville. . . . This village is near Salt River toward its head, and consists of fifty or sixty log houses, regularly laid out, and pretty well built, the capital of Nelson county, as Louisville is of Jefferson."

Father Nerinckx also visited Louisville, which Major Beatty notices, August 15, 1786,15 as follows: p118"A little below the Diamond or Six Mile Island, Louisville appears in view, pretty, as the river is straight and wide. . . . Found it situate on a second bank, very high; just at the head of the rapids; it consists of about fifty or sixty houses a good deal scattered, chiefly log, some frame. A good strong fort here during the war, now going to decay." Says Father Nerinckx, in 1806: "The number of catholics will undoubtedly rapidly increase in Louisville if they have a good priest, and there are just now great hopes of building a church without delay, if they can have a priest to visit them from time to time."

That same year, 1806, Father Nerinckx erected St. Charles' church, the fourth built in Kentucky; it was a modest structure of hewed logs with room attached for his temporary residence, and situated on Hardin's Creek, Marion county. Over six hundred people attended that church in 1806.16 He had named this mission, in September, 1805, after St. Charles Borromeo, his patron Saint, whose life he was constantly reading and meditating on, and with whose spirit he was thoroughly imbued. The zeal for reform exhibited by that great bishop, Father Nerinckx constantly strived to imitate in the correction of abuses among his people, but more especially in his own austere and mortified manner of life. "Before he built St. Charles' church, Mass was said, marriages and baptisms p119were performed, at the house of Henry Hagan, some two miles to the south of St. Charles'. Father Nerinckx had charge of the station at Hagan's house, which, as well as St. Charles' afterward, was known as Hardin's Creek, from the vicinity of both places to the little stream of that name. Father Nerinckx, when he built a church, made different persons subscribe one or two hewn logs, of prescribed dimensions, and deliver them on the spot. Then all assembled with him to have the 'house raising,' as it was styled. The fitting of the prepared logs to their places, was the work of one, or at most, two days. Father Nerinckx was able to lift with two men opposite him at the hand-spike. As the people had great veneration for him and were even in awe of his spirit, he could accomplish any thing he undertook with them."17 Pulled down in 1832 to make room for the new grave-yard, the humble log church was replaced by a brick one, eighty feet long by forty wide, which the zealous Father Deparcq finished the same year, together with a new brick house begun four years previous. The old house in which Father Nerinckx resided, when, near this very spot, old Loretto was struggling for existence under his paternal but severe discipline, is standing yet, a relic of the hard but glorious past; it was until lately the refuge of a poor negro family. Father Fermont, the resident pastor of the place, enlarged the church to a p120length of one hundred and sixteen feet, and added a transept of fifty-four feet in width, during the Summer of 1874.

Whilst these works were going on, Father Nerinckx received, in answer to his urgent requests for help from Belgium, a check of $100 for the missions, and another of $105 for himself, through Mr. Dewolf, of Antwerp. Having the glory of the house of God at heart, and anxious to introduce into Kentucky the good old customs of catholic countries, he immediately ordered, in Baltimore, three new bells for the then existing churches. But being advised that this sum was all he could expect for some time to come, and having nothing to hope for from his poor parishioners, he wrote to Bishop Carroll, June 2, 1806:18 "If the three bells I ordered are not yet bought, I would prefer to have only one, for I see I will have to bear all the expenses myself. Please, also, send me a bell of about $30 for the church where I reside, and let the rest be spent in buying pious books, catechisms, prayer books, etc., of which people are in great need here. I also wish a Holy Bible for myself. Be so kind as to direct it all to Mr. De Gallon, a baker in the hamlet of Louisville, on the banks of the Ohio river. These drafts being all I can expect, because of the extraordinary efforts they are making to help the Jesuits and the Trappists, I have thought it better to spend the money for what will tend most to the glory p121of God. I will try to be little solicitous about myself, for He who always took such fatherly care of men, notwithstanding my unworthiness, will never abandon me. It seems there is little hope of obtaining more missionaries from Belgium; they need the zealous men themselves, and we do not want the lukewarm. Some generous friends of mine are going to send two or three trunks of vestments, the distribution of which they will leave to your Lordship; I beg that you will not forget us, for our people are deficient both in means and in good will."

The humble priest did surely not exaggerate the poverty of his missionary stations, for, as we gather from a letter written to his parents, in 1807:19 "Only one of our churches, Holy Cross, has an altar. Not one has more than one chasuble, and none has a linen alb except those I provided myself; whilst middling good Irish linen, the only quality obtainable here, costs $1.50. I procured already four chalices; and the best one, which I brought from Belgium, I intend to offer, for the glory of God, to the one who will be selected as the first Bishop of this region; he will undoubtedly make a better and holier use of it than I would."

However, his love for the beauty of the house of the Lord suggested to him means to adorn and beautify his missionary stations. Here, as in Herffelingen, he had the secret of attracting p122the children, and, in 1807, he built, with their help, an altar and pulpit in St. Charles' church; these articles were inlaid with different kinds of woods, after a plan which Father Nerinckx himself designed, and cost $130. "Myself," he writes, "and the children who made their first communion this year, pay part of it; the younger children all pay something in thread or corn; so that it is again with the children I begin and succeed. Most of them are very anxious to contribute something, and gain the good will of their parents so thoroughly, that, God helping, they will all be enlisted in the good cause. The most discouraging feature here, is, that when you have mastered the difficulties in one place, the same or greater obstacles await you in four or five others. Well, God's holy will be done!"

During the year 1807, the first brick church of Kentucky, built with the generous help of the non-catholics of the town, was finished in Danville by the joint exertions of the two missionaries. "Danville," says Major Beatty, August 30, 1786,20 . . . "this is forty-five miles from Bardstown, and lies near the waters of Dick's river, which empties into the Kentucky, and also near the headwaters of a branch of Salt river. The capital of Mercer county, and where all the public business of the county is done; it being the most central place — the town is new, about forty log houses in it, neatly built, and a frame p123court-house; appears to be some genteel people here; a pretty good tavern kept by Mr. Barber."

Lexington was another of the missionaries' stations, which the major visited, August 31, 1786, and notice as follows:21 "Lexington. . . . This is thirty-five miles from Danville, the largest of any of the villages in the settlement, and the oldest. I suppose there are ninety or one hundred houses in it, all log, but some neatly built. It lies upon the headwaters of the branches of the Kentucky, and is a good deal scattered. A small brook runs through the town, which is supplied by a number of fine springs, which supply the town with water that is very good. . . ."

The people, without distinction of creed, every-where welcomed the priests, and gave them substantial aid, as Father Nerinckx testifies in his journal, in the year 1807: "Some merchants of Bardstown, Lexington, Danville, Louisville, etc., where catholic churches were built, contributed $50, $100, $200, and $400, although non-catholics. In Hopkinsville, after a sermon which Father Badin preached in my presence, the non-catholic listeners called a meeting of citizens at the court-house (there were not half a dozen catholics in the place), circulated a subscription list for the building of a catholic church and a Loretto school, and within a day and a half they had four thousand acres p124of land pledged, some giving as high as five hundred acres, and promising more if necessary, which, at the low valuation of five dollars an acre, would have netted $20,000. The gift was not accepted, the Loretto convent being unable to spare any of its members. We intend to build a brick tower on the Danville church, which, although small, will be the first tower in Kentucky."

Besides Holy Mary's and St. Charles', Father Nerinckx attended St. Ann's, on Cartwright's Creek, in the now Washington county. "The latter church was situated about ten miles northeast of St. Stephen's, and was a wooden fabric of logs. A grave-yard was attached to it, being the second burying-ground in the catholic mission of Kentucky, as St. Ann's was the second church; Holy Cross chapel and grave-yard, where the two French priests were buried, being the first. Mass continued to be said at St. Ann's by Father Nerinckx till 1806; the Dominicans then attended it as a station from their new church of St. Rose, until 1819, when the tottering old church was taken down, and the congregation attached to it was merged in that of St. Rose's. Some traces of its ruins are still visible two miles from St. Rose's."22

The following list of missions, made by Father Nerinckx in 1807,23 will give us an accurate idea p125of the state of catholicity in Kentucky in the beginning of this century:

"Previous to Mr. Badin's arrival here there was not a church, and when I came not one was known by name. We now have the pleasure of distinguishing the most important by the name of a Saint under whose protection they are placed:

"1. Holy Cross, previously known as Pottinger's Creek, has over two hundred families, and is four miles from our home.

"2. St. Stephen's, the place where we dwell, and named after Mr. Badin's patron Saint, has about forty families.

"3. St. Ann, eight miles from here, has two hundred families; so called after relics of that Saint which I brought from Europe.

"4. St. Charles, named in honor of my patron Saint, whose relics I deposited there, has ninety families and is situated six miles from here.

"5. Holy Mary's, named in honor of the Blessed Virgin, has seventy families and is distant thirteen miles.

"6. St. Joseph, Bardstown, which is destined to be the Episcopal See, is thirteen miles from here and has fifty families.

"7. St. Michael, has fifty families and is twenty-four miles from here.

"All these have churches, though only frame ones.

"8. St. Thomas, eleven miles from here, has thirty families, but no church. An old married p126couple living here, are said to reserve their property for the church; it consists of four hundred acres, estimated at $5,000.

"9. St. Clare, twenty-four miles from here, has seventeen families. Every thing in readiness for a church and one hundred acres for the priest.

"10. St. Anthony, eighty miles from here, has twenty-five families, no church, but three hundred acres for a priest.

"11. St. Louis, in the city of Louisville on the Ohio, where there is much trade and wickedness, has twenty families. The French are the worst portion of the people, and few catechisms in that language are bought, few confessions are heard, but plenty of curses uttered. There is, however, an old French dragoon of ninety years who goes monthly to his duty. . . .

"12. St. Benedict has fifteen families, no church, and is thirty-three miles distant.

"13. St. Francis, seventy-two miles from here, has fifty families, a church, a house for a priest, and fifty acres of land.

"14. St. Peter, Lexington, the most important city in the state, has twenty families, no church, but a house and some land. It is situated seventy miles from here.

"15. St. Christophorus, eighty miles from here, has twenty-five families, no church, but one hundred acres of land.

"16. St. Patrick, Danville, thirty miles from here, has a new, though small brick church, the p127first ever built in Kentucky, but no land. The town contains few houses, but does a thriving business.

"17. St. Bernard, thirty-four miles from here, has eleven families, but neither church nor land.

"18. St. John, fifteen miles from here, has fifteen families.

"These are the named congregations. To each of these belong outside missions, where Mass is said and the Sacraments are administered.

"Father Badin attends to most of the distant missions; the congregations exclusively belonging to me are Holy Mary's, St. Charles', and St. Bernard's. Father Badin wants me to assume the care of Holy Cross and St. Stephen's, but I am already overworked. I attend occasionally the outlying missions, and the sick calls are attended to by the one who is called; I have to keep two horses to wander through these regions, and I am convinced that there are nearly as many more families as I mentioned, scattered among unbelievers, who belong nowhere because they have no priest to guide them and are ashamed to own up their belief among infidels."

Writing to Bishop Carroll that same year, Father Nerinckx stated that the duties devolving upon him in these congregations were more than he could attend to, declaring himself ready, however, to attend to any place the prelate might assign him. Bishop Carroll tried his humility and obedience to the utmost, by assigning p128to him a district, which embraced nearly half the State of Kentucky, extending from Washington to Union county, a territory in which there are at present more than thirty organized congregations.

Nothing loth, the missionary set to work with an energy which would have put to shame the most enterprising pioneer, and which soon told on his vigorous constitution, as he confidently acknowledged in a letter to his parents:24 "I feel that my strength of body is diminishing, and my vigor of mind giving way, under the constant pressure of hard work. I am frequently troubled with diarrhoea and indigestion, owing to reasons which I can not avoid: among others, long fasting and very irregular meals. Many a day, I have only one very late meal, entirely different from the food I was used to." In fact, his food was always of the coarsest kind — pork and milk was his almost daily diet;25 and, as he never missed offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, no matter what had been his previous fatigues or indisposition, he was often known to ride twenty-five or thirty miles fasting in order to be able to say Mass, and he seldom broke his fast until three or four o'clock in the evening. "This," he continues, "I can not avoid, unless we obtain a good reinforcement of priests, something which seems to be in the very distant future. My complaint of fistula is often p129renewed. We perspire a great deal in Summer, and suffer from inflammation of the bowels; and in February and March, my limbs are laid bare with blotches and blains which emit considerable water. In this, however, as in all the rest, I am resigned, thinking that it does me good."

Notwithstanding these sufferings, he was almost always on horseback. Day and night he went about from settlement to settlement, and from house to house, among the widely scattered catholics in the country, and lived henceforth on the missions which he was to fecundate by his labors, impressing upon the minds and hearts of his people that earnestness of purpose and solidity of faith which were emphatically his own. Practical and enlightened piety to this day distinguish the catholics who were the happy recipients of his instructions when children. Not only Father Nerinckx' name, but his undying spirit abides with them; and judging by these abundant fruits, the reader will admit with us, that the following account of his missionary labors is only the dim reflection of a life of toils and sufferings, which, at a distance of half a century, are more indelibly impressed upon the souls of Kentucky's noble catholics, than they will ever be on paper.


The Author's Notes:

1 He was a very learned Canon of Bruges and joined the Trappists in Darfeld.

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2 One of these with Henry Rysselman, who remained with the Trappists until they broke up their establishment at the "Monk's Mound," in 1813, to return to their monastery in France, when he went to Georgetown College, and joined the Jesuits, among whom he died, June 30, 1857. He often spoke of his sojourn with the Trappists in Casey county, in 1809. Archbishop Spalding does not mention the Casey county establishment. Mr. John Wethington, a reliable gentleman whose father settled on Casey Creek about the year 1802, states that many old people of that county still remember when the Trappist monks were there.

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3 Father Marie Joseph Dunand, the Trappist prior, remained in America after his brethren had returned to Europe. He first attended the missions west of the Mississippi, and resided at St. Charles, Mo., where Bishop Flaget visited him in July 1814. Accustomed to the strict discipline of the Trappist convent, Father Dunand was often at war with his rather lukewarm flock. He afterward had charge of the congregation at Florissant, until about 1820, when Rev. Lacroix (see infra) was appointed to succeed him, on account of dissensions among the people which the former could not settle. The prior returned to France that same year.

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4 Autograph letter of Rev. Nerinckx to his parents, dated February, 1807.

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5 Father Nerinckx' autograph letter. Sup. Cit.

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6 Baltimore MSS.

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7 Letter of Rev. Nerinckx, in the Bollandist Library, Brussels.

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8 Baltimore MSS.

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9 Letter of Father Nerinckx, May 25, 1809.

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10 Father Nerinckx' autograph letter to his parents, dated 1807.

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11 Rev. Nerinckx' last will, dated 1820.

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12 MSS. letter, begun September, 1805, and ended May 16, 1806.

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13 Sic. It was called Bairdstown, from its founder, Mr. Baird; and many old people still spell it that way. Bardstown is a later spelling, more euphonious, but less correct.

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14 Cfr. The Magazine of American History, April, 1877, pg. 242.

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15 Ibid. pg. 239.

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16 Letter of May 16, 1806.

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17 Letter of Rev. Walter H. Hill, S. J., December, 1875.

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18 Baltimore MSS.

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19 Autograph letter dated Ash Wednesday, 1807.

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20 The Historical Magazine, edited by J. A. Stevens, 1877, pg. 242.

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21 Idem. pg. 243.

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22 Letter of Rev. Walter H. Hill, December, 1875.

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23 Letter in Bollandist Library, Brussels.

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24 Letter of 1807; Sup. Cit.

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25 Letter of 1805‑6; Sup. Cit.


Thayer's Note:

a The Trappist saga under Dom Urban Guillet is told in greater detail and more cohesively in "The Trappists of Monk's Mound", Illinois Catholic Historical Review VIII.106‑136.


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