W. J. (William J.) Howlett.

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

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Online LibraryW. J. (William J.) HowlettHistorical tribute to St. Thomas' Seminary at Poplar Neck, near Bardstown, Kentucky → online text (page 3 of 13)
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Saints and ^reat men of the past in history and
biography. These, with Bishop Flaget, Father David
and the other priests who visited them, left them no
time to waste in vain longings for impossible things.
They adapts themselves to their surroundings, and
applied themselves to the work of their preparation as
earnestly^ and perhaps as profitablj', as if they w^ere
at the center of Christendom,

St. Stephen's w^as the first location of the seminary
only because it was the one place in Kentucky pre-
pared to receive Bishop Flaget and his students. Its
permanent home was to be on the Howard farm at
Poplar Neck, about three miles from Bardstown,
Distances, in the early times, were computed b}' the
-shortest trails. By the present roads we almost in-
variably find them longer than as given by the early



Edward Howard was the leader of a colony of Cath-
olic emigrants who came from Maryland to Kentuck}^
in 1787. His son, Thomas, was of the party, and they
settled at Poplar Neck on the Beech Fork, which was
a tributary of Salt River. With them came the Rev.
Charles Whelan, an Irish Capuchin, who was the
first priest to exercise the ministry in Kentucky.
There are unauthenticated traditions that a priest
from Ste. Genevieve, or the Kaskaskias, visted Ken-
tucky previous to this time, and even that Marquette
descended the Mississippi as far as Kentucky, but
these traditions are too vague for anything more
than mere mention. In any case, their rumored pres-
ence in Kentucky was only that of travelers, so that
it is almost certain that the first Mass ever offered up
in Kentucky was by Father Whelan, and ver>^ prob-
able that it was in the house of Edward Howard,
which afterwards became the Seminary of St. Thomas.
In later years. Father Badin and the other missiona-
ries made the Howard house the regular station for
mass in the Poplar Neck .settlement, and about thirty
families attended the .services.

The death of Edward Howard left his son in full
possession of the Howard property. Thomas Howard
had no children, and, being of a religious tempera-
ment, he desired that his property should go to the
Church. This property, Father Nerinckx tells us,
consisted of 400 acres of land, valued at $5000.

In a manner, then, that provided for his widow,
he willed the place to Father Badin, so that the
Church in Kentucky .should have the title and
usufruct forever, but not the power to transfer, under
pain of reversion to the collateral heirs. Of this prop-


erty Father Badin says: — '*One month before his death
Mr. Thomas Howard made me his sole heir, and it
was only at my request, that two others were associated
with me in such a manner that, if I were the survivor,
I necessarily became the sole and rightful possessor.
At his death I gave my bond and obligation for a
pretty large sum of money to secure that property to
the Church, and I assumed other obligations, besides
the interests etc, . ' ' Later, some dispute arose between
Father Badin and Bishop Flaget in regard to the
transfer of the property to the diocese, but that was
satisfactorily arranged, and the title finally vested in
the Ordinary of the dioces*^ in accordance with the
idea of the testator. The name of St. Thomas had
already been given to the station during Mr. Howard's
life, in honor of his patron saint, and when the semi-
nary was located there, it took, and ever afterwards
retained the name of St. Thomas' Seminary.

Buildings were made ready at St. Thomas' for the
students and Father David moved thither with them
in November. Bishop Flaget, however, retained his
residence at St. Stephen's although he spent much
of the interval at the Seminar}-, until the following
year when he transferred all his belongings to St.
Thomas' in order to be with his seminarians and
near his episcopal city of Bardstown, which, as j-et,
had no church or chapel. The nearest to it was the
old church of St. Joseph, built about 1798, on the
land that w^as afterwards, and is still, the burying
ground for the Catholics of Bardstown.

The accommodations at St. Thomas' were not
much better than those they had left at St. Stephen's,
A little cabin of rough logs, used as a storehouse for


farming tools, was pointed out to us more than fifty
years later as "The Episcopal Palace," but Bishop
Flaget could have lived in this but a short while, if
he ever did occupy it at any time. Another log
building, 18x24, which, in later days did service as
a laundry, was the house of the seminarians. In the
loft of this the students slept, and it is related that,
after stormy nights in winter time, they often found
their beds in the morning covered with snow that had
sifted through the crevices.

Of these two buildings nothing now remains, but
there is a third, w^hich, if not in existence then, must
have been built immediately by Bishop Flaget and
his seminarians. It was a log house of the better
class, 20x32, in the upper part of which Bishop
Flaget lived, and the lower portion was divided into
rooms, one of which was used as a chapel until the
completion of St. Thomas' Church in 1816.

Bishop Rosati of St. Louis, at a later date de-
scribes this building and the .seminary building as he
found them in 1816, thus: — "He (Father David) had
then under his guidance twenty young ecclesiastics.
They all resided together in a house constructed of
logs, the crevices of which were filled wath clay,
which, in drying, became as hard as stone. The
upper part, roofed wdth rough boards, served as their
common dormitor3\ Not far from the seminary was
the episcopal residence, also constructed of logs, but
somewhat better put together. It was divided into
two stories and a basement (cellar); the first floor
contained three rooms, the largest of which served as
a schoolroom and refectory. Fathers De Andreis and
Rosati were located in the other two. The Bishop


had his room in the upper story, and near it was a
small cabinet used as a library, and which he ^ave
up to one of our band. "

This house was afterwards covered with clap-
boards, and for years it served as the home of the
Sisters who had charge of the domestic arrangements
of the Seminary. It is still in use as the residence of
the priest who serves the parish of vSt. Thomas, and
is in a good state of preservation.

This building is of historic interest for another
reason, for in its chapel on December 12, 1812,
Teresa Carrico and Elizabeth Wells made the offering
that constituted the first step in the founding of the
Society of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Bishop
Flaget allowed them one-half of this house for a home,
and an adjoining cabin served for further accommoda-
tion. They began their work by making, and caring
for the clothing of those connected with thevSeminary.
In a few weeks, they were joined by Miss Catherine
Spalding, and still later b}- others, so that in June
1813, they numbered six, and were regularly organ-
ized with Sister Catherine Spalding as first Mother

A new log house was built for them, with the
assistance of the seminarians, at the distance of about
half a mile from the Seminary. Another was put up
the following year, and a school for girls was begun.
In 1815, the Sisters opened their first boarding school,
and soon afterwards, enlarged their establishment by
the addition of two more buildings, one of brick and
the other of stone. They still kept up their work for
the Seminary, at least until 1822, when they remo\-ed
to their present location at Nazareth.


There was always a kindly feeling between St.
Thomas' and Nazareth — a sort of feeling of kinship,
strengthened by the presence of the Sisters during
most of the time that St. Thomas' existed. The
seminarians, even to the last, cherished as one of
their special privileges a visit to Nazareth at Christ-
mas, or at the time of the annual exhibitions. Be-
tween the students of the two institutions, however,
there never was any communication, nor was there
ever shown an}^ disposition to get upon speaking

It is almost certain that no young men joined the
little band while at St. Stephen's, but they were not
long at St Thomas' before the increase began. The
first of Kentucky's sons to enter the Seminary was,
in all probability, the young Robert A. Abell. This
first student merits a short notice, both on account of
his ancestr>^ and his own sterling qualities, manifest-
ed through a life of more than eighty years.

His grandfather was Samuel Abell, a Protestant,
who was high sheriff of St. Mary's county, Maryland.
Samuel Abell married Ellen O'Brien, who was a
Catholic. The mother was allowed to bring up her
daughters in her own religion, but the father would
not permit that his sons' religion should be any but
his own. When his oldest son, Philip, had grown to
manhood, Samuel Abell took him to Leonardstown to
have him sworn in as deputv sheriff. When young-
Philip was offered the test oath, which was equivalent
to a renunciation of the Catholic faith, he refused to
take it, saying that it would choke him. The father
was furious, but suppressing his rage and chagrin, he
returned home, and meeting his wife, he burst out:


''Ellen Abell, you have deceived me. In defiance of
my known will, you have made Phil a Catholic. He
has to-day brought disgrace upon me, and shown
contempt for the law of the land and the religion of
the State by refusing to take the oath of office. It is
to you, deceiving and deceitful woman, that I am in-
debted for the shame that has this day come upon
me." Turning towards him fearlessl}^ but with
tears in her eyes, Mrs. Abell replied: — "Samuel
AbeU, I have never deceived you. Not once, since
you took me for a wife, have I disobeyed you. If
Phil has learned to respect the religion of his mother,
it is to God s grace, and not to that mother's instruc-
tions, that both son and mother are indebted for a
result that I have indeed hoped for, and prayed for
since the hour of his birth," and, falling upon her
knees, she raised her e3^es and hands to Heaven and
prayed: "I thank Thee, oh ni}' God, that Thou hast
remembered me in mercy. From a full heart I give
Thee thanks that Thou hast led the son Thou gavest
me to render obedience to Thy law rather than to
that which Thy erring creatures have set up in the
land." Samuel Abell died a Catholic.

A single incident will show the mettle that was in
young Abell. The country school that he attended
was to close one of its sessions with a debate. Cham-
pions for both sides were appointed, and preparation
was going on for weeks. Young Robert was not one
of the appointed debaters, but he studied the subject,
thinking that he might get a chance tosaj- something
at the close, when remarks would be asked for from
others. It so happened that the meal bin was empty
on the very day of the debate, and his mother sent


him with a grist to the mill. So mail}' vvere before
him at the mill, that it was growing late when he got
his sack of meal. If he went home with his load, and
changed his well-worn clothes for more presentable
ones, he would miss the debate, so putting his sack
upon the horse, he started for home by the way of the
school-house. The debate w^as in progress when he
rode up, but, tying his horse, he edged himself inside
and waited near the door until, at the close of the
regular arguments, the chairman asked for volunteer
remarks. A laugh went through the audience as
this fifteen-year-old boy, his old clothes well dusted
wath cornmeal, came forward and mounted the
rostrum. He began by excusing himself for coming
in a garb befitting only a beggar, but he had to come
as he was, or not at all. With this introduction he
entered upon his subject. His hearers forgot his
appearance in the flow^ of his argument, which gained
for him, not only hearty and prolonged applause, but
the decision of the debate. The chairman w^as so im-
pressed with the talents of young Robert that he went
to see Mrs. Abell and tried to induce her to send him
to some college in Maryland. Her means would not
permit this; the best she could do was to send him to
the Dominican school at St. Rose's, and to St,
Thomas' four years later.

More than sixty years after this incident, it w^as
my pleasure to know Father Abell, and listen to his
interesting talks upon subjects connected with the
labors of the early missionaries. He never spoke in
any l>oastful spirit of his own deeds. The experience
of otliers was wonderful indeed, but his own works
were made out only ordinary, and l)ut natural for a
descendant of Ellen O'Brien.

ST. Thomas' skaitxarv. 41

About the same time that Robert Abell entered
the seminary, or within a vShort.time afterwards, came
Charles Coomes, Wm. B3Tne, Elisha J. Durbin,
Robert Bj^rne, Ignatius Reynolds, Philip Hosten, and
others, until, in 1817, this singularly founded semi-
nar}' numbered fifteen students, after having given
several priests to the active ministr}^. Two of these — -
Fathers Abell and Durbin — outlived their Alma
Mater, and died in peace laden with honor and good

Chapter V.

Student Life. — Manual Labor and Study. — Work,
not a New Condition. — The Necessaries of Life.—
Clothing of the Karly Settlers. —Their Furniture.
— Homes. — Food. — Father Nerinckx's "Nays." — His
Mistakes. — His Surprise. — His Philosophy. — Age of
Tin and Homespun. — Scarcit}^ of Money. — Thankful
for Necessaries. — Pioneer Longevity.

To those familiar with student life in these days,
the manner of life led by the early students at St.
Thomas' will seem exceedingly strange and unusually
harsh. It is true, that in no section of the country
would the same rule be necessary at the present time,
but conditions were such in Kentucky at that time
that regular college life, if it were then possible, could
not have been otherwise than far different from it as it
exists to-day. This becomes more especially true,
when w^e compare life at our modern seminaries with
life at the struggling, little domestic seminary among
the pioneers of Kentuck}- a hundred 3'ears ago. All
conditions were then so primitive that anj^thing Hke
our modern institutions was less than a dream. What
existed then was just what circumstances permitted.
It was the best that could exist, and the work done
then is the foundation upon which our present pros-
perity rests.

We get an idea of the life led by the early vStudents
of St. Thomas' from a few scattered remnants of
writings left by their superiors, and the recitals of
those of them who survived longest confirmed the
record. Even then, the true idea is reached, only
when we recall the general condition of the early



Of the early seminarians it is recorded, that they
" made the bricks, prepared the mortar, cut the tim-
ber, etc., to build the Church of St. Thomas, the
Seminary, and the Convent of Nazareth. The pov-
erty of our infant establishments compelled them to
spend their recreations in labor. Every day they
devoted three hours to labor, in the garden, in the
fields, or in the woods. Nothing could be more
frugal than their table, which was also that of the
two Bishops and at which, water was their customary
drink ; nothing, at the same time, could be more
simple than their dress." It is even said, that " one
half to study, and half to labor was the rule of the
Seminary at that day."

Such a rule, although impossible now, could not
well be otherwise then, for those men were not the
men to eat the bread of idleness, nor to drink the milk
of charity without making a return. They were
young men inured to labor from their earliest years,
and had done their share of the work that had raised
their own homes, not to any state of great prosperit}^
but to that condition where their further help could
be dispensed with. As they had not been drones in
the hive at home, they could scarcely allow them-
selves to be as burdens upon others when they could
become even more than self-supporting. Hard as
those conditions may vSeem to us, they did not frighten
the hardy j^oung Kentuckians, for Father David writes
that, " in 1817, there were at St. Thomas' fifteen
seminarians, of whom five were studying theology,
and of whom but two were able to pay annually the
sum of fifty dollars. The number might have been
doubled, if the means of the Bishop had allowed him
to receive all who had applied for admission."


Manual labor was not the only feature that marked
a difference between student lile at old St. Thomas'
and that at latter-day establishments. Of what insti-
tution could we to-day write, in the sense that it was
written of St, Thomas : " Notwithstanding the pov-
erty with which the infant iUvStitution had to struggle.
God watched over it, and His Providence did not
suffer its inmates to want for any of the necessaries of

How faintl}', at this day, do we get the force of
that expression, " the necessaries of life. " With us it
includes what, in other times, were rare luxuries, and
things then unheard of are now so essential that we
daily hear people say that they could not possibly get
along without them. I speak not here of the com-
forts of the rich, but of things common to every class.

What were the necessaries of life in the pioneer
times of Kentucky ? The early settlers had the neces-
saries of life, yet a writer says : " The men dressed
in homespun, moccasins and leather leggings for the
lower extremities, hats made of splinters rolled in
buffalo wool and sewed w^ith deer sinews or buckskin
whangs, shirts and hunting shirts of buckskin. A
few dressed in Indian costume and wore nothing what-
ever but breech-clouts.

Their necessary furniture is thus described : " The
furniture used in these primitive times, was all impro-
vised on the call of necessity. It consisted, ordin
arily, of a table fashioned after the pattern of a
])utcher's block ; bedsteads constructed of upright
and lateral sections of saplings, dove-tailed at the
corners ; wooden settles and three-legged stools.
W^ooden platters served thepur])ose to whicli earthen-


ware (?) ivS now devoted, and the easily cultivated
gourd made an admirable drinking cup." Of their
hoUvSes I have already spoken, and it is certain that
there was nothing about their homes that wa« not of
the strictest utility, and it is not probable that the
settlers had carried the 700 miles of their emigration
anything that their own handiwork could supply in
their new homes.

Father Nerinckx, in 1807, lamenting some of the
necessaries of life, as they were understood in Bel-
gium, wrote : "In a recent letter I described to you
the nays of this country, viz : — no cheese, little or no
vegetables, no wine, no beer, no oil, no turf, no bells,
no sparrows, few or no singing birds, no mosquitoes,
scarcely ever fresh meat, no stoves, no spices or fine
herbs, no peaches, no fruit, with the exception of the
wnld apple and pear trees, no hedges, no ditches, no
stone roads, no slate roofs, no floor or roof tiles."

Father Nerinckx was mistaken about some of the
things enumerated. It was an exceptional stroke of
good fortune for him that he had been two years in
the country without making the acquaintance of the
Kentucky mosquito. He was fortunate also, in being
fifteen years in Kentucky without meeting a polecat,
but fortune is a fickle dame, not alwa^^s to be relied
on. When, while traveling through the woods with
Father Chabrat, he saw one for the first time, he tells
us that they ' ' hastened to surprise it. " It is hardly
necessary to say that they were the surprised' party,
and the surprise was sensibly present with them for
two months. Yet, they could draw lessons from their
misadventure, and say, "This proves better than
musk the divisibility of matter. It also taught us not

46 ST. Thomas' seminary.

to interfere with unknown things, and to keep away
from them, even when their appearance charms us.
Lack of this precaution has filled many a region with
stench." Of such philosophic material were made
the first priests of Kentucky.

The founding of St. Thomas' Seminary was not
exactly in the days of the breech-clout, but shortly
afterwards, when Kentucky had entered upon the age
of the homespun. It is said of the Sisters of Naza-
reth, that they "spun and wove, and plied their
needles from morning till night fashioning the gar-
ments worn by the seminarians." As there is no
record of any particular dandy among the early stu-
dents, it is probable that the Sisters did not get their
patterns from Paris, London or New York.

Neither was it in the w^ooden age of table furni-
ture, but in the age of tin, when, of the same Sisters it
is written, that they took their "rye coffee served in
tin cups, and dinner dished up on tin plates." As
late as 1833, when St. Thomas' received secular stu-
dents, each was required to furnish his own " tin

"Food that was scanty, and consisted, for the
greater part, of bacon and corn-bread," was the fare
of the Sisters, to whom would be allowed the delica-
cies of the kitchen and larder. The men, certainly,
fared no better, but, as this seemed to be the ordinary
diet of the times, there was no need of making any
special mention of it in the case of strong, hearty
men. From this we can get an idea of the meaning
of the words of Father Badin, speaking of the semi-
narians : "Nothing could be more frugal than their
table, nothing more simple than their dress,"


It is Stated that the seminarians worked. It is
hard to understand how they could have lived with-
out working. It would seem that it was a case of
' ' work or starve. ' ' There was very little nione}^ in
circulation in Kentucky in those early times, and
Father David has already told us that only two of the
students were able to pay the sum of fifty dollars a
3'ear. Look at this from the records of St. Pius'
church, in Scott county: "We, the undersigned,
agree to advance whatever money and pork may be
needed to pay the workmen, — the same to be returned
to us in rent of pews : — each of us to pay one-tenth in
money and the remainder in pork." An interesting
document may yet be seen in the archives of the
Motherhouse of Loretto, of the date of October 2, 1812,
upon which, in response to a call for assistance by
Father Nerinckx, twenty-seven subscribers placed
their names, and recorded their donations, which run
from two bushels of corn to three of wheat, and from
seven dollars in trade to a hundred weight of pork,
and tivo dollars in money.

Probably a part of the tuition of some of the semi-
narians was paid in corn, and wheat, and pork, but
they had to work to produce the remainder, and to
build their houses and fashion a part of their furni-
ture. Fortunately, daintiness was not a characteristic
of the pioneer student, and, after his work, he could
sit down and relish his corn-bread and bacon, and rye
coffee. The forests held much of their game yet, and
the Beech Fork could be put under requisition for
Friday meals and Lenten fare.

Scarcity of money continued for a number of
years, and was aggravated by the action of many who,


even in those da3'S, considered themselves Captains of
Finance. They organized a multitude of small banks,
and issued their own paper money. A time of strin-
gency came when they could not meet their obliga-
tions, and they failed, leavingthe people holding their
depreciated or worthless notes. This added much to
the ordinary poverty of the people and made times
unusually hard until about 1820.

No, the seminarians did not want for the neces-
saries of life : neither did the firbt settlers, who gained
tliem by pluck, perseverance and hard work ; neither
did the Indians, who made that their hunting grounds
only a few years before. Think of this, ye denizens
of modern palaces, who stretch your limbs clothed in
creased broadcloth and patent leather, under mahog-
any tables garnished with china and silver, and
groaning under the weight of a modern market's
choicest profusion : you, who tread upon velvet car-
pets, and sleep upon beds of burnished brass : think
of it, and reason out, if you can, the motives that
prompted such labor and sacrifice. Think of it.
Priests of Kentucky, and bare your heads when you

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Online LibraryW. J. (William J.) HowlettHistorical tribute to St. Thomas' Seminary at Poplar Neck, near Bardstown, Kentucky → online text (page 3 of 13)