Architecture was the last thing I expected to impress me in Kentucky. Bluegrass? Yes. Horse culture? For sure. Bourbon? Indeed. But buildings? Not so much. Yet, from Old Louisville (one of the most beautiful historic districts in the United States) to the state capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky continually delighted me with unexpected treasures. Particularly noteworthy are some of the more than 5,000 churches to be found throughout the state. These are my favorites.
#1 St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption (Covington)
A few things brought me to the city of Covington, situated on the Ohio River, directly across from Cincinnati: the wonderful floodwall murals depicting key events in Kentucky’s history; the Main Strasse Village area, settled by early German immigrants; and just across the Licking River, in Newport, the Newport Aquarium, one of the world’s best aquariums. Not to be missed, of course, were two magnificent churches.
The first, the Gothic-style St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, could rival any contemporary in Europe. Indeed, Paris’ Notre-Dame served as the inspiration for the exterior of this minor basilica, one of only 85 in the United States. Construction began in 1894 and was mostly completed by 1910. The result is spectacular. The front façade is clearly divided into nine sections, three on each of three levels. At the entrance, three staircases lead to three arched entry portals, the central tympanum being the most flamboyant. A rose window dominates the middle level, as it should—it measures 26’ across. The top story features a stretch of columns and Gothic arches. The very top is oh-so Hunchback of Notre-Dame, with 32 gargoyles and 26 chimeras to, respectively, divert rainwater from the building and stand guard against evil spirits.
An exceptionally friendly tour guide greeted me as I entered the light and warm interior, inviting me to explore at my leisure. France’s St. Denis was the inspiration for the inside—a Gothic masterpiece measuring 180’ long, 144’ wide, and 81’ high, and covering more than 14,000 square feet of floorspace. The verticality of the structure struck me first—soaring cluster columns rising up to fine arches, a clerestory, and the groin-vault ceiling with bosses. As I made my way further in, the size and painstaking details of the fantastic stained-glass windows—all 82 of them—amazed me. Made in Munich and installed between 1908 and 1923, they depict the life of Jesus as a child on the south nave and as an adult on the north. The windows of the clerestory portray apostles, saints, and the Church’s early doctors. The real attention-grabber is one of the largest stained-glass windows in the world. Measuring 67’ in height and 24’ wide, it presents Mary as the Queen of Heaven, and, below her, saints who were noted for the Marian studies and devotion.
There’s plenty more to beguile you. The baldachin, carved from Appalachian oak, features saints and seraphim and is topped by Our Lady of the Assumption. There are shrines and chapels; two organs (the larger of which boasts 3,863 pipes); a pair of murals, one of which depicts a Crucifixion scene where God watches over his crucified son, whose only mourner is Mary Magdalene; fine woodwork everywhere—the pews, the cathedra, the pulpit, the apse; and a gold-plated tabernacle inlaid with semi-precious stones. A beautiful Baptismal mosaic pool features a marble font with Adam and Eve and flowing water that represents life and sacramental cleansing. The raised sanctuary at the crossing of the nave, apse, and transepts glistens in shiny marble and polished brass. Of particular note, and one of the assets that most engrossed me, are the large mosaic Stations of the Cross along the nave and transept walls. Based on Bavarian paintings, these 14 scenes, created by a Venetian mosaicist in 1917–18, employ up to 80,000 pieces of enamel glass, with gold and mother-of-pearl highlights, each.
#2 Mother of God Church (Covington)
The other church in Covington that I had to see was Mother of God Church, a fantastic structure from 1871, built in the Italian Renaissance style for a German congregation. (“Mutter Gottes Kirche” is still etched into simple panels above the three arches at the front entrance.) The tallest building in Kentucky until 1910 (and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973), it beckons visitors with a trio of crosses on the pitched roof, between the wonderful dome and the pair of soaring 200’ bell towers with clocks. It also appeared closed when I arrived. I passed by the stone statues of saints Peter and Paul and the pair of mythological lions in front of the church, all created by an art institute in Munich, and rang a doorbell in hopeful anticipation. A man walking by asked if I was waiting for someone, and when I explained my purpose, he stopped what he was doing, reversed direction, showed me another entry, and told me to go through the gate and up the ramp and ring another bell at a door where I’d be admitted. This was his parish church, he explained, and said it was very beautiful, the most beautiful he’s ever seen, and told me to enjoy it. Sure enough, the door was soon opened to me by the floor sweeper, who promptly welcomed me in and handed me some guides. The pedestrian’s brief encomium wasn’t just bluster; he was absolutely correct: This church is very beautiful.
An organ installed in 1875 occupies the airy bowed loft. Tiled main and side aisles were laid a little later on, in 1921, the same year the church received Carrara marble angels with holy water bowls. A carved wood communion table and pulpit, and decorative frescoes with German-language titles, add to the church’s appeal, as do the large stained-glass windows imported from Munich that depict the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. I was most impressed by the talents of local artists and artisans employed in the ornamentation of the church: A Covington glass studio executed five windows (commissioned to match the style of the existing Bavarian windows); a parish member painted five murals illustrating the joyful mysteries of the rosary in 1890; a Covington sculptor created the large crucifix behind the main altar; and a local artist made the Stations of the Cross, installed in 1872 during, appropriately enough, Lent.
#3 Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral (Bardstown)
Downtown Bardstown is a typical American Main Street, home to one of my favorite bookstores that, unfortunately, has closed since my visit, and where I had a long chat with the owners, who told me they had an Italian priest from Brooklyn up the block who, when he got excited, seemed to speak a different language they couldn’t understand—heated Brooklynese, rather than passionate Italian. I walked by the Old Nelson County Jail, one of the world’s best jails to visit, used until 1988 when it morphed into a bed and breakfast, and still with stocks on the front lawn. I soon arrived at the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, a national landmark completed, inside and out, by 1823 as the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. Half a dozen gleaming white Ionic columns support an unadorned pediment with dentils. Above, a steeple with four clock faces tapers up to a grayish spire. The docent—the most rotund man I’ve ever seen—greeted me as I entered and proceeded to give me a full tour. From the sanctuary, now a striking section of Italian marble that replaced the original Kentucky wood, he started by pointing out the cathedral’s most cherished assets—the important paintings and interior decorations, down to candlesticks and vestments, donated to this church that was, at the time, built in the wilderness of Kentucky. King Louis-Philippe of France donated eight of the paintings, including three by Van Dyck and two by Van Eyck. Above the altar, The Crucifixion (1821), by Belgian painter Philippe-Jacques van Bree, was the only painting specifically commissioned for the church. Pope Leo XII also made contributions, as did King Francis I of the Two Sicilies, who offered The Flaying of St. Bartholomew, a striking painting created by Mattia Preti in Naples in 1650. But, as the docent explained to me, much of the church is the result of the poor parishioners who couldn’t contribute financially but who offered their talents. It was their skills as carpenters and masons and artists that built the church. A local artist painted the apostles and saints up toward the ceiling, employing friends and family members as models. The 950,000 bricks used for the walls, some nearly three feet thick, were baked from Kentucky clay on the grounds of the church itself. My favorite part? The pillars in the nave. Each pillar was crafted from a single local yellow poplar tree (resistant to termites) and set on a limestone base, then covered with spiral lathing, plastered, and perfectly painted to look like marble.
#4 St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church (Louisville)
St. Martin of Tours is the most eye-catching church in Louisville. Constructed in 1853 as a church for German immigrants, the church was expanded in the 1860s and remains one of the few antebellum public buildings still standing in the city. The stone facade, Gothic arches, and crenellated roofline resemble a formidable fortress, perhaps in a nod to its namesake, the 4th-century martyr who spent a large chunk of his life as a solider in the Roman army and whose likeness, cast in bronze, now occupies a niche above the front doors. The soaring steeple, in a very pale electric blue and sporting four clock faces, rises high above everything else nearby. Despite its rather sturdy exterior, the interior is pure refinement, what with its statues of the apostles lining the clerestory level, wonderful pulpit, and beautiful altarpiece. Toward the end of the 19th century, the church received its stained-glass windows and Stations of the Cross, all crafted in Germany, as well as a handsome new vaulted ceiling and fantastic pipe organ. Manufactured in Detroit with its pipes painted in pleasing shades of blue and brown, the organ is one of the few, and largest, remaining electric-action organs from that era in the world. It was this very organ that could be said to have saved the church from all the various forces seemingly intent on ruining it: Anti-German sentiment during the decades of the two world wars, shrinking numbers of German immigrants, suburban flight, fires, a tornado, and a flood all seemed to conspire against the church, decimating its Sunday Mass attendance levels to about 30 people by the 1970s. But one forward-looking priest began to use the organ to lure people back with classical and traditional church music, and by 1996, more than 1,000 households from 43 ZIP codes were among the church’s membership. While they’re enjoying the music, I’m sure they’re also drawn to the reason the church had become a pilgrimage destination of sorts back in 1901, when it acquired the full skeletal relics of saints Magnus and Bonosa, both 3rd-century martyrs, from a closing sanctuary of Cistercian nuns in Italy. They’re still on full display in glass reliquaries under two side altars.
#5 Cathedral of the Assumption (Louisville)
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed over hot-headed imbeciles back in the 1850s. Opened in 1852, the neo-Gothic Cathedral of the Assumption soon found itself threatened. In 1856, the editor of the Louisville Journal published his own article of more-than-dubious veracity, speculating on the takeover of the city by German and Irish immigrants, who were also accused of vote tampering and housing weaponry in the cathedral’s basement. Despite the murder of nearly two dozen German and Irish immigrants across the city in a single day, the church was spared from its intended burning by the city mayor, who brought some reason to the madness. Today, the crisply clean brick church is a highlight of downtown Louisville, marked by a central tower with small rose windows, four clock faces, louvers, and a spire topped by a gold cross. Rising 287’ above the city’s skyline, it was the tallest spire in North America when completed. It still houses bells made in the Netherlands and is one of only a few carillons in Kentucky. Inside, I was greeted by the baptistry, symbolically placed right at the entrance: Through Baptism, one enters the Church. Here, the full immersion pool, of red granite, bronze, and marble, supplements the traditional baptismal font. Past that, the seating startled me a bit. Unusual for a Roman Catholic church, there are no pews but rather individual, movable chairs, including kneelers, that could be rearranged for different occasions. As I walked through the nave, which can support 966 people for services, I looked up at the striking rib-vaulted ceiling painted a vibrant blue and speckled with little golden stars. Hand-carved mahogany encases the fairly new organ (1983), and above the altar, one of the oldest hand-painted stained-glass windows in the United States, the Coronation Window (1883), colorfully depicts the crowning of the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven. As the third oldest Catholic cathedral in continuous use in the United States, and the fourth oldest public building in Louisville, the Cathedral of the Assumption should definitely be placed on your list of must-sees when you’re exploring this wonderfully delightful state.
- Georgetown Baptist Church (Georgetown; 1842)
- Central Christian Church (Lexington; 1894)
- First Baptist Church (Frankfort; 1868)
- St. Peter Catholic Church (Lexington; 1929)
- First Christian Church (Paris; 1902)
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