We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. —Hebrews 12:1
One of the most fascinating events I have ever participated in took place on the hot summer afternoon of July 26, 2015, when a statue of Mother Catherine Spalding was dedicated on public property in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption.
As a former pastor of that sacred place, it hit me more than once that I had served the Church and the people of downtown Louisville, on the same holy ground where she and her Sisters had served. I have always been proud of the fact that I had been taught by her community from 1950–1958 down in St. Theresa Academy and later St. Theresa School in Rhodelia, Kentucky, but I found myself additionally proud that I had served in the very same place where Mother Catherine had served. I felt connected to her in a very special way that day.
Catherine Spalding was born in 1793. At the age of four, shortly after moving to Nelson County, Kentucky, her mother died. She was raised in several different homes before she was 10 years old, including one home with 14 children. In these formative years, she learned independence, the value of hard work, an enduring spirit, and the vital importance of education, especially for young women and girls.
It truly seems unbelievable in today’s times, but in 1812 at the age of 19, Catherine was elected by her peers to lead the formation the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. By the time of her death, the order extended to over 100 members in 16 convents. Today the community has almost 600 members worldwide.
During the dedication, as I sat there thinking of Mother Catherine and her Sisters, I realized that since ordination I have been “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.” I was honored to be pastor of Holy Name of Mary Church in Calvary, Kentucky, the home parish of Martin John Spalding who went on to be the fourth bishop of Louisville and later archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland.
In Louisville, I was successor to Stephen Badin, first priest ordained in the United States, who was pastor of the city’s first parish, St. Louis, which later evolved into the Cathedral parish. I was successor as well to Ignatius Reynolds who became bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, John McGill who became bishop of Richmond, Virginia, and John Lancaster Spalding who became bishop of Peoria, Illinois. Bishop Medley of Owensboro, Kentucky, had been my associate pastor.
I remembered Bishop Flaget, whose undercroft tomb I had visited hundreds of times and the fact that he had lived and preached on the same property as I had. I remembered Archbishop Kelly, with whom I had lived for 14 years in the same house where famous cardinals, bishops, priests and dignitaries had lived or visited.
As my mind reviewed the history of that sacred place, I felt connected to Mother Catherine. After all, we had both served the parishioners and prayed there, each in our own time.