Among other things, Kentucky is known for its thoroughbred horses, bourbon, basketball and bluegrass, not to mention the Southern hospitality offered to visitors. Perhaps less well-known are the hidden gems—places of inspiration found in the small towns across the state.
Lori Erickson, a faith travel writer who specializes in spiritual journeys, has experienced what Kentucky has to offer. Erickson explained, “I have learned that spiritual sites are everywhere, and often in out-of-the-way places. Many may be surprised to find that one of the most important pilgrimage experiences one can have is found in Kentucky—at the Abbey at Gethsemani near Bardstown.” This Trappist monastery is just one example of the places of inspiration one can find in small-town Kentucky.
Kentucky’s Holy Land
Mention the Holy Land to most, and what immediately comes to mind is Israel, a country that welcomes more than three million visitors per year. If a Holy Land pilgrimage is on your bucket list but you prefer a trip closer to home, perhaps a visit to the Kentucky Holy Land is in order. Located in the Bluegrass region of Nelson, Marion and Washington counties, this holy land got its start when both Catholics and Protestants began to settle in the central part of the state in 1775.
Catholics began to migrate to the Kentucky frontier to escape persecution in Protestant-dominated territories in the east. Father Stephen Bain, the first priest ordained in America, came to Kentucky in 1795 to live in a Catholic community that would later be home to the Sisters of Loretto. The Belgian missionary Charles Nerinckx followed, establishing several churches along the way. In 1805 the Dominican friars arrived, followed by the French priest Benedict Joseph Flaget in 1811.
Flaget, known as the First Bishop of the West, was appointed to lead the Diocese of Bardstown, which was the first inland diocese in America. This very large district covered the area from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Shore and from the Mississippi River to the Allegheny Mountains. Under Flaget’s leadership, several important Catholic establishments got their start in the area, including St. Thomas Seminary, St. Joseph Cathedral, St. Mary College, St. Joseph College, the Sisters of Loretto and the Trappist monks of Gethsemani Abbey, among others.
Protestants also got an early start in Kentucky, with Scotch-Irish settlers from Virginia moving to Washington and Marion counties and establishing Springfield Presbyterian Church in 1788. The oldest religious building in Bardstown is Union Church, built in 1812 and now home to First Baptist Church.
Top sites in Springfield
Tiny Springfield—with a population just over 3,000—is part of Kentucky’s Holy Land. The town offers destinations of religious significance, many of them the first establishments during the frontier days. St. Rose Church was the first Dominican church built in the U.S., and the Sisters of Loretto was the first community of Roman Catholic women serving the frontier. St. Catharine Motherhouse is where the Kentucky Dominican Sisters began in 1904.
According to Stephanie McMillin of Springfield Tourism, groups frequently come to Springfield to visit the churches on the Holy Land tour, with the most popular stops being St. Rose Priory, St. Dominic, Springfield Presbyterian and St. Catharine. “These churches are the oldest west of the Alleghenies,” says McMillin, “and they keep good records, too. Many visitors come to Springfield to do genealogy research because of these records.”
Groups will visit these sites and more on the three-day “Let the Spirits Move You” tour offered by Springfield Tourism. Says McMillin, “This tour takes groups through our Holy Land, but also to three different distilleries, including Maker’s Mark, that are part of Kentucky’s famous Bourbon Trail.” The tour has been very popular with visitors of all types, from faith travelers to bourbon enthusiasts.
Surprisingly, the histories of Catholics and bourbon in Kentucky are intertwined. In 1785 the Hayden family led a group of 25 Catholic families from Maryland to central Kentucky near Bardstown to settle and escape religious persecution. Basil Hayden, the patriarch of the family, built the first Catholic chapel in the area and later donated land for St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Bardstown, the first one west of the Allegheny Mountains. In addition to his faith-related work, Hayden also made his own whiskey, a trade his grandson continued when he built a distillery in Nelson County to produce “Old Grand-Dad” whiskey in honor of his grandfather. Other Catholic families developed their own bourbon whiskey brands, such as Jim Beam, Lord Calvert and Willett. All of these brands are still produced today.
A visit to Springfield isn’t complete without strolling along its picturesque Main Street and stopping by the Lincoln Legacy Museum. Located within the historical 1816 Washington County Courthouse that houses Abraham Lincoln’s parents’ marriage license, the museum tells the story of the 16th president’s life. As McMillin says, Springfield “…is where the true story of Lincoln began.”
Georgetown: Faith options and more
Another small-town option in Kentucky is Georgetown, located 61 miles northeast of Springfield. With its quaint downtown, friendly people and rolling farmland, it’s a slice of Americana offering several group options.
For visitors interested in faith, Saints Francis and John Catholic Parish is a great place to start. Established in 1793, this church was the site of the first mass in Kentucky, held on Dec. 1 of that year and led by the first priest ordained in the U.S., Father Stephen Badin. The church property includes the only Catholic cemetery in Scott County and is listed on the National Historical Record.
The Cardome Renaissance Centre is a historical building constructed in 1821 for the governor and now used as a fine arts academy. The Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary purchased the home in 1894 and converted the property into their monastery and the Visitation Academy, an all-girls boarding school operated by nuns. More than 600 women had graduated from Cardome when the school closed in 1969.
Today Cardome offers two arts academies with community classes. The Music Academy provides voice lessons, organizes community choral groups and hosts piano recitals and other musical performances. The Art Academy hosts art classes and showcases, festivals and other events.
Georgetown College is the oldest Baptist college west of the Allegheny Mountains, founded by Baptist minister Elijah Craig in 1788 as an academy offering a classical education. Today this small liberal arts college has a beautiful campus, antebellum buildings and three art galleries that are open to the public and offer a variety of artwork from around the world.
Yuko-En on the Elkhorn is the official Kentucky-Japan Friendship Garden and is the perfect place for meditating and quiet reflection among the sculptures, waterfalls and native Kentucky plants found here. This Yuko-en, Japanese for friendship garden, was created based on the Japanese gardening principles of working in harmony with nature, using symbolism, creating a miniature world and connecting the garden to the world beyond its gates.
Other Georgetown Options
Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm: More than 20,000 people visit this retirement farm each year to see the nearly 200 former racehorses living here. Get up close and personal with such stars of the turf as Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners Silver Charm and War Emblem, three-time Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude and Popcorn Deelites, the star of the movie, "Seabiscuit." Daily tours are available, and reservations are required.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky: Join the one million annual visitors who hop on the tram for a complimentary tour of the world’s largest Toyota manufacturing plant. Groups get a fascinating look at a working plant and see how more than 2,000 cars are made each day at this location.
For more information on Springfield, email McMillin or go to visitspringfieldky.com. To find out more about Georgetown, reach out to Lori Saunders of the Georgetown/Scott County Tourism & Convention Commission or go to georgetownky.com.
Top photo: Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm
Photo by Old Friends Equine