Jesuit Education and Slavery in Kentucky, 1832–1868
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Jesuit Education and Slavery in Kentucky, 1832–1868

Across one of two millstones planted in the cemetery of Saint Charles Catholic Church in Marion County near Lebanon, someone has written, "If these historic millstones could talk, what interesting tales they could tell." Both millstones were used by Catholic priests in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Jesuits ran a few schools in Kentucky, most notably Saint Mary's College near Lebanon from 1832 to 1846 and Saint Joseph's College in Bardstown from 1848 to 1868. Historians have described these institutions briefly, yet have hardly covered the entire experience of Jesuits in Kentucky and have only vaguely referred to one significant fact: both colleges were sustained in part by slave labor. In other words, not only Jesuits but also slaves may have turned those millstones. Careful investigation of the historical record actually reveals that the institution of slavery not only assisted the Jesuits in Kentucky but also contributed to their decision to leave the state.1 [End Page 213]

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Jesuit Millstones in the Cemetery of Saint Charles Catholic Church in Marion County, Kentucky. C. Walker Gollar, 2010.

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Almost from the moment he was appointed the first Catholic bishop of Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1808, French priest Benedict Joseph Flaget had courted Jesuits for Bardstown. Flaget arrived in Kentucky in early June 1811. He resided three miles south of Bardstown in a thirty-by-eighteen-foot, two-story log house. Flaget named the property Saint Thomas. He put fellow Frenchman John Baptist David in charge of three French seminarians, yet he soon also invited Jesuits in Maryland to take over what Flaget called Saint Thomas' Seminary. But the Jesuits were unable to accept this invitation, largely because there were only a few Jesuits in the United States. Not having enough men to satisfy the many requests they received proved to be an ongoing problem for the American Jesuits.2

The American Jesuit workforce was soon boosted through the efforts of another French-speaking priest. To resolve matters regarding the constitution of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross in central Kentucky, the first female religious order founded in Kentucky, the founder of the order, Belgian-born missionary priest Charles Nerinckx, left Kentucky on September 10, 1815. Nerinckx, who was a longtime friend of the Jesuits, visited the Jesuit Georgetown [End Page 215] College in Georgetown, Maryland (now Washington, D.C.) while waiting for passage across the Atlantic. The American Superior of the Jesuits, Anthony Kohlman, begged Nerinckx to secure some young men in Europe for the American missions. Nerinckx returned to Baltimore on July 29, 1817, with ten Belgian recruits, eight of whom joined the Jesuit novitiate, that is, the initial phase of Jesuit training at Georgetown.3

Bishop Flaget was reportedly disappointed that none of these recruits came to Kentucky.4 Flaget, nonetheless, dedicated Saint Joseph's Cathedral in Bardstown on August 8, 1819, and then moved the older seminarians from Saint Thomas's Seminary into the new Saint Joseph's Seminary on the cathedral grounds. Flaget had thus established a minor seminary (Saint Thomas's) distinct from the major seminary (Saint Joseph's). The minor seminary was for younger boys who had demonstrated an inclination toward the priesthood. The major seminary was for older youth, who had passed beyond the level of the minor seminary and who were in their proximate studies for ordination. In the basement of the new Saint Joseph's Seminary, Flaget also opened Saint Joseph's College, a school for boys who were simply interested in pursuing general academic studies. To run both the seminary and the school, Flaget again tried to secure Jesuits, this time not from Maryland but directly from France. But Flaget was told essentially what he had heard before—that the Jesuits did not have enough men to staff foreign institutions. After having been suppressed for many reasons for more than forty years, the Society of Jesus had been restored for only about five years and was thus busy trying to reestablish itself in France and elsewhere. Flaget consequently placed Saint Joseph's College in...