W. J. (William J.) Howlett.

Historical tribute to St. Thomas' Seminary at Poplar Neck, near Bardstown, Kentucky online

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of descent into its very bowels, where hidden wonders
of God's creation might be seen and studied. Unbroken
forests were there still, as before the day of civilized
man, and their solitudes seemed to push away the
little things of earth and draw God's immensity
nearer. The presence of God could be felt and seen
in everything; the birds unconsciously sang His praises;
the sighing of the wind through the trees was the
murmur of nature's prayer to Him ; the song of the
brooks was the voice He had given them, and the slow
movement of the river through its deeps, and its danc-
ing over the shallows, was the action of the life He
had imparted to it. All these, as everything else,


could Speak of God, from the silence that now breathed
down the valleys to the thunder that again rolled over
the summits of the hills, and from the vine that clung
to the oak for support to that oak itself which stood
upright defjnng the strength of the hurricane. All
could speak of His power, of His care, and of His love
for man to whom He gave command over the world,
and in whose hands He placed all its riches. " Son,,
thovi art always with me, and all I have is thine. "

This was the book that the pioneers used to sup-
plement the poverty of their libraries, and it is a book-
that may yet be read with profit, or otherwise, as the
disposition of the reader may direct.

I am reminded here of what I once heard in con-
nection with that celebrated painting by Francois
Millet, called " The Angelus. " It will illustrate the
foregoing. The picture shows two peasants — a man
and a woman — toiling in the fields and loading a bar-
row with the fruits of their labor. In the distance is
a church, the spire of which is gilded by the rays of
the setting sun. Suddenly the angelus bell rings out,
and at the sound of its tones, they reverently bow^ their
heads, and with clasped hands, recite the prayer. A
man looking at the picture was once asked what he
saw in it. He replid: " I see a man and a woman
digging potatoes. " Another came; he stopped to
look, and smiled. Asked w^hat he saw, he answered;
" I see two persons making love. " A third came —
almost a child — and gazing at the picture seemed lost
in thought. To the same question the answer was
returned: " I see God. "

The sportsman saw in the surroundings of St,
Thomas' a field for his favorite amusement, and the


deep baying of the foxhound was often heard in the
woods. The pot-hunter saw in them the prospect of
a savory dish, and the sharp crack of his rifle told of
the death of a squirrel or an opossum. Father Abell
could find in them a book teeming with instruction
and inspiration.

The Seminary buildings at old St. Thomas' re-
mained unoccupied for some time after the departure
of the students, except as portions of them were used
by the pastor of the congregation and the workmen in
charge of the farm. But little care was taken of them,
and they soon began to show the effects of time. In
January, 1872, the Brothers gave up the care of the
orphans at St. Thomas' Asylum, and the Sisters of
Nazareth again took charge of them. The old Semi-
nar}' presented better accommodations than the Asylum
buildings, and it was fitted up for the Sisters and their
little charges. This arrangement lasted until the
.spring ot 1880, when the buildings were pronounced
unsafe, and the little orphans were again moved back
into the old Asylum. By an accident, in Ma3^ 1889,
the orphanage took fire and was burned to the ground.
At this time the College of St. Joseph had become
vacant, and the orphans were transferred to Bards-
town, and since that time, that once famous seat of
learning has been an orphan as34um. The old build-
ings at St. Thomas' graduall}^ went to decay and
tumbled down. The very material disappeared, so
that at this time there are but few positive indications,
outside of tradition, that there ever existed at St.
Thomas' a Convent, an Orphan Asylum and a Seminary.

A few months ago while in the vicinit\-, I took ad-
vantage of the opportunity' to visit the old place, and

m iP*


later, I gave an account of my visit in The Record,
of Louisville. The descriptive portion of that article
is pertinent here and with it I close this chapter, and
the histor}^ proper of Old St. Thomas' Seminar^^

My way led out from Bardstown, and who of the old
students does not remember the drive — or walk — along
the pike from Bardstown to St. Thomas'? Trees shaded
its windings to the Beech Fork, and beyond were the
familiar spots, such as the toll-gate, Wilson's Grove,
Jacktown, the mulberry tree, and various other points
of interest. One looks in vain for most of them now.
From Bardstown to the Beech Fork the once beautiful
road is hedged with distilleries, with their accompany-
ing dirty fattening pens for hogs and cattle. The rest
of the road has lost its charm and become common-

When I turned from the pike into the lane leading
to old St. Thomas' I found myself on familiar ground.
There were less of the stately beeches on the right,
but nevertheless, it was the same old lane, and patches
of the rough stone paving of long ago were still visible
in the road where Father Ghambige had made the
muddy spots more easily passable. The fences — a
combination of wood, stone and hedge — bore their
age well, and appeared neither older nor newer than
they were as I remembered them. A group ot black-
ened trees stood out in the distance where I looked
for the well-remembered roofs, — their dead branches
reaching upward like skeleton fingers, — and I thought
of the fire-swept tamarack swamps of Michigan in my
pioneer days. I did not remember that there was
anything of that kind near St. Thomas', but then, my
memory might fail me in some things, so I turned to
the view of nearer objects.


The large brick building, once used as an asylum
for orphan boys, had disappeared — a victim of fire
years ago. On its site stood a frame residence appar-
ently unconscious of its crying need of paint and

The last turn in the lane opened upon a view that
was familiar. The thornbush hedge on- the right had
grown until its branches joined the spreading beeches
from the grove on the left. The main portion of that
grove, however, had been cleared of the trees where
we used to recline sud tegtnine fagi and was being pre-
pared for a crop of tobacco. Still the view was familiar,
for it was the same old lane, and at the lower end of
it through the arching trees could be seen the fence,
and the gate opening upon the walk that led to the
Seminary door.

At the gate itself, how different was the prospect I
There was absolutely no Seminary in sight. The old
Church still stood ; the Sisters' House was there, but the
rest was a scene of desolation. The grounds were
strewn with fallen trees, while the remainder of those
stately elms that were yet standing were dead, and it
was their rotting trunks and broken branches that had
attracted my attention while coming down the lane.
Grass, weeds, brush and logs were in a tangle over
w^hat was once the beautiful lawn. The foundations
of the buildings could scarcely be traced, but the ex-
cavations for cellar and basement were visible, and
trees large enough for fence-posts were growing in the
very place where we regularly assembled for our daily
meals. There was no study-hall, no chapel, no re-
fectory, no bake-house, no play-house, and little that
could be recognized as the old play-grounds.


The silvery bell, whose sweet tones we did not al-
ways appreciate, seemed to be the only thing saved
from the wreck, and it stands on a little covered plat-
form and calls the people to mavSS. The well in which
the old oaken bucket once hung, is still there, and the
curb remains, upon which we poised the moss-covered
treasure inclined to our lips, but the bucket is gone,
and, indeed, it would be useless if it were there, for the
well has gone dry.

The Sisters' House, once the home of the" saintly
Bishop Flaget, and the cradle of Nazareth, seems
not to have changed very much, and serves as a
comfortable residence for Father Ryan, the zealous
pastor of the congregation. The old wash-house —
the primeval Seminary — is gone. I traced its outlines
in the grass from the stone upon which rested its
spacious fireplace and outside chimney. A little while
and all knowledge will be lost of the spot upon which
stood the humble 18x24 log cabin which sheltered the
first aspirants for the priesthood west of the Alle-
ghanies. The old spring-house — who does not remem-
ber the old spring-house, with its date of 1818 on the
outside and its supply of rich milk on the inside ?
Well, the old spring-house still stands, and the same
streams of cool water bubble forth within it and flow
out through a pipe into a trough as formerly, and
thence down the ravine to meet the stream from the
spout spring. Of the orchard only a few trees are left,
and a kitchen garden takes the place of the treasured
spot where Father Chambige planted, cultivated, ca-
ressed, and actually conversed with his flowers.

The old barn may be said to stand yet, but it is
tottering and must soon go the way of destiny in the


wake of the other buildings, of which not a relic re-
mains. The place reminds one of what Jerusalem
must have been after the fulfillment of the prophecy
that not a stone upon a stone would remain. The
traveler from New Zealand might stand there but he
would find only one ruin to sketch — that of the dear
old Church. That stands, not ill-appearing from a
distance, but its cross has tumbled down. The bricks
which old Father Abell (Uncle Bob) carried are as
bright and firm as ever, but the walls are cracked in
front and rear, and the light shines in through the
openings. The interior has the old-time look — the
same altar, the same little pulpit, the pews, the stations,
the pictures, the same little melodeon responding yet
when its keys are struck, the same tablet set in the
wall to the memory of Thomas Howard and wife,
those earl}^ benefactors of the Diocese of Bardstown.

In a drizzle of a rain that made the day in keeping
with the gloom of the surroundings, I visited the ceme-
tery and found there the same desolation. Several
priests and seminarians lie there in forgotten graves,
and I thought of the blessed knowledge of the souls,
which, at the last day, will not need our markers to
enable them to locate the bodies that once were theirs.
One single exception I noticed of a well-kept grave,
where flowers covered the mound, and an upright
stone told the fact that underneath were the ashes of
Margaret Abell, the mother of the late venerable Father
Abell. This little ray of brightness is due to the
thoughtful care and loving remembrance of the present
Father Abell, of St. John, Ky,

The material portion of old St. Thomas' has gone,
but the material portion was never very much. It


was humble, unpretentious, and always primitive. It
had no spacious halls, gymnasium or lecture rooms.
Its necessary accommodations were poor, its luxuries
nil. In this it gave the poor boy a chance, and a poor
boy may have a real vocation. Its students made up
their own beds, and washed from a tin basin placed
on a convenient stump or a log of a woodpile. Zero
weather made little difference in this regard. They
cut the wood and made the fires that warmed them in
winter. Their food left no germ of gout in them, but
proved the Kentuckians entitled to the name of Corn-
crackers, Their clothing was not such as most peo-
ple wear when " walking down Broadway, " and their
everyday manneis would not look well in Louisville
on Sunday.

Some of the students were thought to lack in polish,
and outwardly there may have been some foundation
for the judgment, for there was no special course of
training there for diplomats and courtiers. There was
a training, however, that made the Vjest feel that he
would be honored if onl}^ allowed to work for God and
dear life in the poorest mission of Kentucky. Yet,
Old St. Thomas' did not repress men. It offered de-
velopment to every manly characteristic. It made
men self-reliant servants of themselves. It pampered
no one, and the influence of the surroundings, both
physical and moral, was not favorable to the fostering
of any but apostolic ambitions. A very short sojourn
at St. Thomas' brought a presuming young man down
from his pedestal, or convinced him that his peace of
mind would be better preserved elsewhere. The for-
mer was generally the result, and there are a few of
us alive vet who are illustrations of it.


The absolutely democratic spirit of old St. Thomas'
wove itself, with all the rest, into the lives of the stu-
dents and made them individual parts of one iinited
family that was not broken up by the dispersion of its
members. The result was, that St. Thomas' turned out
a body of plain, honest, sturdy and unselfish clerg}^
thoroughly devoted to one another, and peculiarly
adapted for religious work in the West, where work
counts and place is indifferent. This may explain the
mystery of the spirit of old St. Thomas' , which lost
much of its vigor and bloom in the transplantation.
It was the spirit of a Flaget and a David, transmitted
down through a line of worthy successors, comprising
suchmenas Abell, Aud, Coomes, Hutchins, Chambige,
Durbin, Elliott, and many other pioneer priests, as
well as those who did the work of the transition period,
and whom God has called to their eternal reward.
The generality of these, notwithstanding their rural
training, passed muster in the best society, and some
of them even did' honor to the purple.

Of the living I shall not speak further than to say,
that to them, the passing of old St. Thomas' is like
the loss of an old friend. Its material body has disap-
peared, but its spirit is not dead. That still animates
the survivors among its children, and makes them a
body of priests as unselfish, as apostolic, and as united
as any that ever honored an alma mater. The ma-
terial St. Thomas' is dead, but the spiritual St. Thomas'
will live as long as there shall be a single one of the
old students remaining to relate the history of old times.

Chapter XVII L

Going to St. Thomas'. — First Impressions, — The

South. The Seminary. Father Chambige. — The

Prefect.— The Students.— The Professors.— Some Hu-
man Traits. — Death and Grave of Father Chambige. —
The Debating Society. — Recreations. — Food, — Spirit-
ualities. — Pranks. — Excursions. — The Servants. — The
Sisters. — St. Thomas' not Preternatural,

My own entrance into the Seminary was simple
enough. I should have entered with the class in Sep-
tember, 1867, but at that time I was upon my back
with an attack of typhoid fever. When sufficiently
recovered to undertake the journey from Denver to St.
Thomas' I set out, armed with a letter from the Very
Rev. J. P. Machebeuf to Father Chambige, his old
friend and fellow-countryman from the same neighbor-
hood in France.

My reasons for going to St. Thomas' were, that
there was no seminary near my home, and a journey
of a few miles more or less made but little difference.
St. Thomas' was a preparatory seminary, and the
general expense was within my means. Then, my
pastor was a personal friend of Father Chambige, and
was pleased that I should begin my studies under him.
Advertising, also, sometimes helps. I got my fir. t
knowledge and desire of St. Thomas' from the Pros-
pectus published in the Catholic Directory.

Traveling was not as cheap and comfortable, nor as
rapid, in those days as it is at present. The first stage
of my journe}^ was to Kansas City, and the fare was
$75. One half of the distance was by coach through
a country infested by hostile Indians There were
but three passengers in the coach, but we were well

164 ST. Thomas' seminary.

armed and determined to make a good running fight
if attacked. lyUckily, we were not molested, else, very
likely, I would not now be telling this little stor>\ At
Hays City, Kansas, we reached the western end of the
Union Pacific railroad then in course of construction.
It was in mid-December, but the days were like Indian
summer, and tj^picalof western weather for that season.
The greatest inconvenience we had suffered was fatigue,
and we welcomed the sight of a train waiting upon
the track. The train was a mixed affair of freight and
gravel cars, with an accommodation passenger coach
attached, that would not be tolerated today on any
train as a "Jim Crow" car, yet the thought of the ride
in that car wnth its bate boards for seats, upon one of
which I lay down to sleep after fift3^-eight hours of
constant travel in the coach, comes back to me now
with a remembrance of a feeing of rest and satisfaction
that no vestibuled Pullman sleeping car has ever
brought to me. Twenty hours more brought me to
Kansas City. Now, the entire journey is made in
seventeen hours, for seventeen dollars, — just one dol-
lar an hour, wdiich was about the price of my traveling
in 1867.

From Kansas City the trip was w^ithout incident.
It was night when I arrived at Bardstown, and I went
to a hotel called the Murph}^ House, where I was
served with my first dish of Southern hominy.

The next morning I hired a conveyance and was
driven out to St. Thomas' through a cold, winter rain.
The country was strange to me, and a strange feeling
came over me. It was a feeling of paFsiveness that
fitted me to meet any scene or event without astonish-
ment, and to wait in conscious and careless ignorance


for the next. I had known the South only from read-
ing Uncle Tom's Cabin and the papers during the late
war, and it would not have surprised me to have met
old Uncle Tom himself, or a troop of butternut Ku-
Kluxes. In fact, I rather expected something of the
sort, but felt no painful disappointment when nothing
of the kind happened.

In my state of mind, the first view of the Seminar^^
was not liable to impress me over-much, but I saw in
it a welcome shelter from the cold and rain. A stu-
dent, who happened to be on the outside, politelj^
conducted me to the door of Father Chambige'sroom,
and, in answer to my knock, a voice told me to enter.
I did so, and, standing at a desk with a pen in his
hand, I first saw Father Chambige.

Something more than twenty years later I was
present w^hen one of the old students of that day was
consecrated a bishop. He was not noted for his beaut}^
in fact, the consecrating prelate, in a speech that was
a virtual introduction of the new^ bishop to his clergy,
thought it proper to warn them against any hastily
formed judgment, assuring them that, " In this case,
first impressions are the worst ! ' '

That was exactly my case with Father Chambige.
He was slightly above medium height, straight and
well-proportioned. He had snow-white hair standing
well out from his head, piercing eyes, fair complexion
and features bordering on the stern. His mouth was
apparently devoid of teeth, with a single exception,
and his dress was a cassock that had seen its best days
long before. Thus I remember Father Chambige,
but then, he was my pastor's friend and must be good.
And he was good, and his goodness grew^ upon me


and won ni}- warmest respect, but never dissipated a
certain degree of reverential and salutary fear.

The following day was the regular weekly holiday,
and Father Chambige suggested that I rest, and meet
the students in the da^^'s recreation before beginniug
my studies. He took me to the prefect's room and
left me with the prefect who was off dut}' for that

This particular prefect was a tall, lank Kentuckian,
with high cheek bones that would have done honor to
a descendant of Pocahontas. I must have been a
nuisance to him that da}^ in his attempts to prepare his
lessons, but he never held it against me. If he lost
that da}^ he made up for it many times afterwards, for
he became a zealous and successful pastor and apostolic

My fellow-students, not knowing of my recent ill-
ness, attributed my pale color and delicate appearance
to constitutional weakness, and predicted, as I learned
afterward, that I would not long stand the diet and
regime of St. Thomas'. But I had led the life of a
farmer's boy for seventeen years, and in addition, had
spent two years on the frontiers of civilization where
there is a rough edge even upon the smooth things of
life. When I went to St. Thomas', I went there to
stay. An}' alternative was not in the plan, nor was
it necessary^, for, although there were many things at
St. Thomas' that one would wish to see improved
upon, there were many things that might have been
worse. I had been in worse places before, and many
times since have I been in situations, compared to
which St. Thomas' would appear in a very favorable
light. The regime there left no weak spots in my







physical make-up. The principal attacks of sickness
that I have had since then were seasickness and small-
pox, and surely, I contracted no predisposition towards
them at old St. Thomas'.

The students were uniformly kind and obliging,
with no superior or patronizing airs, no repelling ways
or holding aloof manners, but a natural and easy
familiarity that set one at ease and gave a home feeling
to the new-comer. I have no recollection of any
quarrel or serious dispute between any of them during
the y^ars of my stay there. There was no uniform
prescribed, so every one wore .such clothing as he
might bring from home. All were comfortably dressed ,
but without extravagance, and I noticed that the Ken-
tuckians in their general choice of material favored
the ' ' jeans. ' '

The professors were gentlemen alwa3's. They min-
gled freely with the students, particularly in their
games, and were ready at all times to help them ii:
their difficulties. Tome, Father Russell was especially
kind, and helped me to regain the ground I had lost
through my lateness in arriving, so that at the end of
the year my standing in my classes was not below the

Father Crane was the teacher of our classical studies,
and of our English composition. He never had very
much to say in class, but he had a way of drawing out
his pupil, and making him use his own resources until
the lesson almost stood out clear before him. He
made u^^ think and reason out things, and thus, each
one of his lessons was an exercise that helped for the
preparation of the next. Socially, he was equal to the
best of the boys, and every game and social gathering


was more complete if Father Crane was in it. The old
saying, that red-haired people are quick-tempered, did
not seem to be borne out in his case. Many times I
saw him laugh, smile, and even look serious, but I
never saw him display the least anger. His hair was
white when I last saw him.

He could appreciate a joke, or see a ludicrous point
as quickly as anyone. I shall never forget his burst
of laughter one day in the composition class. The
subject that had been given for our not very facile pens
was, " On a Pin. " The most o*f us had been racking
our few brains for a week at odd times, trying to put
together some sort of a lengthy dissertation, and it was
no easy task with so small a subject. In class we read
our labored productions, and Father Eugene made his
criticisms and commendations upon them as he thought
they merited. In the course of the class he called
upon one of the students who was familiarly called
" Pud. " He is a worthy priest now, and has charge
of a flourishing parish in one of our large cities.
*'Pud" was somewhat of a poet, but he suffered
almost continually from headache. Only at the last
moment had ' ' Pud ' ' been able to pull himself together
and begin to w^ite, so that, as class was called, he had
only a few lines on a sheet of paper. He was the
oldest and most serious member of the class, and when
called he began solemnly :

'■' When the stitches in your breeches
Do begin to rip,
Jnst take a pin, and stick it in, —
'Twill hold it with a grip. "

There was just one more verse in the same style,
but I have forgotten part of it, and hence omit the

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Online LibraryW. J. (William J.) HowlettHistorical tribute to St. Thomas' Seminary at Poplar Neck, near Bardstown, Kentucky → online text (page 11 of 13)