Bullitt County History

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church History

by Charles Hartley
First published in The Pioneer News in May 2023.

While St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was the first such structure in Bullitt County, the longest in existence within the county is St. Francis Xavier in Mt. Washington which was dedicated in 1846.

Regarding St. John's, it was constructed by Joseph Aud who, along with his wife Ann, brought their four children to Kentucky sometime prior to 1810, and settled in far eastern Bullitt County. Here Joseph purchased about 300 acres of land along Rocky Run from Henry Crist and his wife Rachel.

The Auds were Catholics, and had journeyed from Maryland to be near cousins who lived in and around Fairfield and Bardstown, early centers of the Catholic faith in Kentucky. Here they planned to rear their four children, three girls (Elizabeth Jane, Ann, and Mary Eliza) and a son, Ignatius.

Joseph Aud's ambition was to construct a church next to his property, so that the faith might be extended into Bullitt County, and his family might have a local place to attend, and sacred ground for a cemetery. It appears that he began construction in 1811, and in May 1814, he deeded a ten acre tract of land to the Reverend Benedict Joseph Flaget, then Bishop of Bardstown, for a church and cemetery. It sat on a little rise above the creek that he called Assumption Hill.

Joseph Aud barely lived long enough to see his ambition a reality. He died in 1815, and is likely the first to be buried in the new cemetery.

The small chapel at St. John's continued to serve its local congregation until 1851 when St. Gregory's at Samuels, Kentucky was constructed. Because St. John's was in a remote and isolated place, most of its early members left for St. Gregory's. Today, only the limestone foundation remains along with the nearby cemetery.

Meanwhile other Catholic families settled in and near the new town of Mt. Washington. According to the research of Betty Darnell who generously allowed me to quote from her 1996 booklet on the 150th anniversary of St. Francis Xavier Parish, "In 1830, Father James Elliott, pastor of St. Michael's Church at Fairfield, organized a parish at Mount Washington. That same year, Rt. Rev. John England ... preached at various locations in Louisville, and also at Mount Washington, at the home of a convert."

Occasional Masses continued to be held in private homes. Meanwhile the first step toward a church building occurred when Lewis Snapp Sr. purchased town lot #60 from Payton Burditt in 1833. It adjoined other lots held by Snapp at the time. Then, six years later in 1839, Snapp and his wife Louisa sold four adjoining lots including #60 to their son-in-law and daughter, William and Bertha Smith, and six years after that in 1845, the Smiths sold part of lot #60 to Benedict Joseph Flaget, now Bishop of Louisville, for "building or erecting a house by the Roman Catholics of Mt. Washington and vicinity exclusively for the occupancy and worship of God."

The lot was to be used for a church building as well as a Catholic cemetery. According to Betty Darnell's research, "The earliest burials in the church cemetery are those of Catherine E. Stephens, born in 1813, died in 1844, wife of W. D. Stephens, and Charles R. Snapp, died in 1847, son of Louis Snapp."

Meanwhile, on October 4, 1846, the new church was dedicated and named for St. Francis Xavier. It was described as "a neat frame edifice of dimensions amply adequate to meet the wants of the congregation.” We’ve included a picture of it with this article.

St. Francis and Cemetery

St. Francis Interior

It remained a mission of the Fairfield Parish and Father Elliott came from Fairfield to celebrate Mass at the new church on every fifth Sunday. Additionally, other priests from St. Louis Cathedral in Louisville made visits and recorded baptisms. They included Farther Martin John Spalding who baptized Mary Edward, son of Alexis and Josephine de Laureal, on April 2, 1848, and the twin sons James Hardin and Charles Lewis of William and Bertha Ann Smith the next day. Then on August 4th, Father Benedict Joseph Spalding baptized Anna Elizabeth, infant daughter of William and Ellen (Thompson) Hardman. These, along with Mary Catherine, also a daughter of the Hardmans, and Edward Hugh, son of John and Bridget Anastasia Kernan, were the first baptisms recorded for the church.

In 1857, the Smiths sold the remainder of lot #60 to John C. and Ellen Dent, "reserving that portion of lot #60 that is now occupied by the graveyard and also that which has been deeded for the use of the Catholic Church."

Burials continued to be made in the expanding cemetery, and in 1903 the Dents deeded "a parcel of land known now as part of the Catholic Church lot to be used as a graveyard beginning at a point corner to the Catholic Church lot, running easterly 173 feet, thence north 87 feet, thence west 152 ½ feet, thence south 84 feet to the beginning, excluding a small parcel of land known as the Snapp graveyard."

Following Father Elliott's death in 1871, Father Eugene O'Callaghan was named pastor of the Fairfield Church and its mission at Mt. Washington. Betty Darnell wrote that around 1880, "Mass was usually celebrated at St. Francis Xavier every three weeks. Often the priest would travel by horseback on Saturday evening, stay overnight with the Dent family, and celebrate Mass at the church the following day."

While St. Francis Xavier continued to be served as a mission of the Fairfield Church, a small but growing congregation was beginning to develop in Shepherdsville around the turn of the century.

According to a writing by Mrs. Ivy McBride from the 1960's, Mass had been held in Mrs. John Buckman's home, at a skating rink owned by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hatzell across from the railroad depot, and after it burned in 1903, at the county court house.

Then in 1910, Father Eugene Bertello, pastor of several small congregations including St. Margaret at Pitts Point, St. Eugene's at Bardstown Junction, and Church of the Holy Redeemer at Chapeze, received a lot in Shepherdsville. It was a gift from Henry Clay Bowman, father of Emma Maraman, an early active parishioner. On this lot was built a little church named St. Aloysius that was dedicated on Sept. 1, 1912, by Rt. Rev. Bishop O'Donaghue.

Mrs. McBride wrote, "Under Father Bertello's kindly, devoted direction, the parish grew steadily, but after 1918, due to the exodus of many Catholic families from the Pitts Point and Camp Knox area into the Shepherdsville town and surrounding farms, the parish grew rapidly in numbers."

Bertello was one of the victims in the December 1917 train wreck in Shepherdsville, cutting short what had been an effective ministry.

St. Aloysius continued to grow and prosper.

In November, 1948, Rev. Bernard W. Knoer was named as the first resident priest of St. Aloysius parish and was empowered to take over the building operations of the parish. He was also given the responsibility of pastoring St. Francis Xavier in Mt. Washington as a mission church.

Knoer personally took over the job of tearing down the old Lindsey Ridgway home in Nov 1948. His Shepherdsville rectory was completed within a year, and on June 18, 1950, the beautiful new Bedford stone St. Aloysius church was dedicated.

Rev. Adolph J. Schwabenton and Rev. Clarence C. Nord followed Knoer as pastors of both churches. Then in 1961, Oscar and Lucille Ploetner sold 8.28 acres, located southwest of the intersection of Highway 44 and Stringer Lane in Mt. Washington to Louisville Bishop Floersch.

Father Nord, in a letter to Floersch, wrote that St. Francis Xavier included 46 families, 81 adults and 66 children under 18. He asked permission to build a new church on this site, stating, "the present church is in very bad condition and much too small to handle the number of people wishing to attend Mass."

And on May 2, 1965, a groundbreaking ceremony was held. They were in a hurry, and the new church building was open for services on Christmas Day. All work was completed by May 1966 when the new building was dedicated.

I understand that the first wedding in the new church was that of Sharon Suzanne Taber to Lonnie Joseph Dawson the following August.

Then that same month, Father Henry G. Vessels was named administrator of the church, and on October 27, 1966, St. Francis Xavier Church became a parish with Father Vessels as pastor.

The old mission church was razed and the ground added to the cemetery.

In 1983, an educational building was added with eight classrooms.

A double 50th wedding anniversary celebration took place in July 1989, when Hazel and Earl Bass, and Elizabeth "Tootie" and Vernon Travis celebrated this anniversary together at the church. The couples had been close friends even before their marriages.

In 2000, the church pastor, Father Scott Wimsett announced the establishment of a school, beginning with kindergarten and first grade, the first Catholic school in the town.

In 2010, St. Francis Xavier dedicated their beautiful new 750+ seat church. Then in 2022, they dedicated their new Xavier Center, an 11,000 square foot multipurpose building that holds an industrial kitchen, meeting rooms and a gymnasium striped for multiple sports.

St. Francis Xavier is now under the leadership of Father Dale Cieslik. Like many other local churches, it has a long history with humble beginnings, and with what looks like a promising future, not only within its own walls, but throughout its community as well.

If you, the reader, have an interest in any particular part of our county history, and wish to contribute to this effort, use the form on our Contact Us page to send us your comments about this, or any Bullitt County History page. We welcome your comments and suggestions. If you feel that we have misspoken at any point, please feel free to point this out to us.

The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Saturday appointments are available by calling 502-921-0161 during our regular weekday hours. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 12 Jan 2024 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/stfrancishistory.html