July 28, 2017

Growing up in ‘Kentucky Holy Land’ shaped archbishop’s faith

Structures of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Ky., peek through the trees of the monastery grounds. The abbey, established by Trappist monks in 1848, resides in Nelson County, one of the three counties comprising the “Kentucky Holy Land.” (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Structures of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Ky., peek through the trees of the monastery grounds. The abbey, established by Trappist monks in 1848, resides in Nelson County, one of the three counties comprising the “Kentucky Holy Land.” (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Fence-framed fields dot the rolling green hills as distant bells call monks to prayer. Meanwhile, bird twitters and cicada trills comprise an ongoing outdoor hymn.

It’s just another day in the life of the Holy Land—of Kentucky.

Few had heard of such a place when, during a press conference on June 13 at the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis, newly-named Archbishop Charles C. Thompson identified himself as being from the “Kentucky Holy Land.”

The Criterion staff recently traveled to this region—comprised of Marion, Nelson and Washington counties—to discover more about this region, its history, and how growing up there shapes the faith of its natives.

‘An integral part of their life’

The story begins in the 1770s and 1780s, when Catholics from southern Maryland moved west to seek more land for their large farming families.

Soon Catholic colleges, seminaries, orders and communities were established in the area they settled. The most famous of these are the Sisters of Loretto in Marion County and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Nelson County, and Gethsemani Abbey in Nelson County, established by Trappist monks and home of famed theologian and author Thomas Merton.

Such history is not just the stuff of textbooks for the folks of the Kentucky Holy Land. It is common knowledge and a source of pride.

“My family came here in 1785. The farm was in our family for 230 years until two years ago,” says archbishop’s distant cousin Charles Michael “Mike” Cecil, 71, a member of St. Charles Parish in St. Mary in Marion County, where Archbishop Thompson went to elementary school.

Standing next to Mike is another Charles Michael Cecil, 70, one of the archbishop’s 90 first cousins. He, too, goes by “Mike,” but offered to be referred to as “Michael” to spare confusion.

“This is the epicenter of the Holy Land right here,” Michael says, pointing with pride to his home church of St. Charles. Established in 1786, it is the second oldest parish in the Kentucky Holy Land.

In Bardstown, in neighboring Nelson County, Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral parish member and lifelong Nelson County resident Kenny Fogle speaks of the denseness of the Catholic population in the three-county area.

“I can honestly say I probably didn’t even know somebody that wasn’t Catholic until I went to high school,” he says. “You’re indoctrinated in [the faith] from day one, and it just gets reinforced every day by your parents, at your school, at your church.”

Father Terry Bradshaw, 63, a native of Marion County and pastor of the basilica parish, believes the Catholic “faith of the early settlers sustained them. It probably wasn’t seen so much as optional as essential. It was seen as an integral part of their life.”

He says he wondered what led Kentucky Holy Land natives to hold such pride in their roots.

“I figured it out,” he says. “It’s family and faith.”

‘Faith is just built in’

In this region, faith and family are inextricably combined.

True to traditional Catholic pro-life form, families here tend to be large: Mike is the youngest of seven, and Michael is the oldest of 11.

Standing next to them outside St. Charles is fellow parishioner and another first cousin of the archbishop, Steve Thompson, 59. He is the youngest of seven. His family was particularly close to the archbishop’s family, and he used to watch his younger cousin “Chuck” after school.

“We all went to church together, whole families,” he says. “Every Sunday morning, you went to church—that’s just the way it was.”

Michael agrees.

“Cousins live across the hill from cousins,” he says. “Faith is just built in, so to speak.”

The same experience was true for Louise Nally, 83, one of seven children and a lifelong member of Holy Trinity Parish in Fredericktown (known locally as “The Burg”) in Washington County.

“Everybody was Catholic and married a Catholic, and they were Catholic ‘til they died,” says Nally, who has been the parish organist for the last 68 years. She and her husband of 62 years are “both from ‘The Burg,’ went to the same church, school, everything.”

Father Thomas Clark, a retired priest of 55 years for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., in which the Kentucky Holy Land resides, also grew up in Fredericktown.

“There was a pride in being Catholic—and still is,” he says. “It was very much a part of your identity. It didn’t matter where you were from, or who your family was, or whether you had money or didn’t have money. There was a common connection of being Catholic, and that was your identity.”

‘Catholicism gets in your blood’

Being Catholic in the Holy Land of Kentucky isn’t just a label—it becomes the fabric of one’s being, says Father J. Mark Spalding, the current vicar general of the Archdiocese of Louisville and native of Fredericktown and Holy Trinity Parish.

“All those wider influences of the Church touch our being, both consciously and subconsciously,” he says. “Catholicism gets in the blood in a wonderful way. You appreciate the teaching, but also the life and breath of the Church.”

Nally’s niece and fellow lifelong Holy Trinity member Ann Mudd, 77, agrees. She says being so steeped in Catholicism made her “stronger in my faith, much stronger. … I just want to keep on learning and learning. To me it is a place of refuge, a place of fortitude.”

For Michael, growing up Catholic in the Holy Land of Kentucky means Mass “either caps off a week honoring God, or it propels you into the next week. To me, it’s an emptiness if I don’t go to church on a Sunday.”

With people so active in their faith, religious vocations have flourished in this area.

“The majority of young boys where I grew up toyed with the idea of becoming a priest,” says Fogle. “I think almost all of us did to some degree.”

Outside of St. Charles Church, Michael, Mike and Steve start citing names of men and women they know from the area who became priests and religious sisters. Within a minute, they name at least 15. And all three men have current or past priests in the family in addition to Archbishop Thompson.

Nally recalls three of the 16 women in her husband’s class becoming religious sisters.

“My husband and I were taught only by sisters until we graduated from high school,” she says. “And these were public schools, and we were taught religion every day. It was just like a Catholic school.”

The depth of faith in this region has reached out beyond the three counties, and even beyond the state of Kentucky, says Father Bradshaw. He lists Evansville, Owensboro, St. Louis, Peoria and Baltimore as places where priests from this area became episcopal leaders. One even founded The Catholic University of America in Washington.

‘All for the good of the Church’

Rewind to Indianapolis on June 13, where Archbishop Thompson is speaking at a press conference.

He is asked how he would describe himself to help members of central and southern Indiana get to know him.

Perhaps it is more clear now why growing up in the Kentucky Holy Land dominates his answer. Large families, pride in his roots, the foundations of faith and family—all shine through in his answer:

“I’m from a very Catholic family. My mother is one of 16 children. My dad is one of 13. I have 90 first cousins, well-over 200 second cousins.

“My family is from the most Catholic county in Kentucky—Marion County, part of ‘the Kentucky Holy Land.’ ... I think at one point, one of our historians researched—over 50 percent of all [of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s] priests and religious had roots in one of those three counties.

“I was born in Louisville. We moved out to Marion County, and we moved back to Louisville when I was 12. I was walking home from school one day and somebody tried to ‘save’ me. My mother had to explain to me that there was something other than [being] Catholic.”

Father Spalding praises his fellow Kentucky Holy Land native.

“No dust will gather on [Archbishop Thompson], I’ll tell you that,” he says. “And it will all be for the good of the Church.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!