What is the oldest Catholic college in the northeastern United States? Give yourself a star if you could answer that it was Fordham in New York City, founded in 1841. But give yourself a galaxy of stars if you realized that 20 years earlier, Benedict Joseph Flaget, first Bishop of the West, had overseen the establishment of two colleges on the Kentucky frontier: St. Joseph’s at Bardstown, begun in 1820 (profiled in our last issue); and St. Mary’s near Lebanon in Marion County, established in 1821. The third and next time the Kentucky diocese went to the trouble of opening a college, it would be Bellarmine in 1950. The first two would be Jesuit-run for a time, and the last would bear a famous Jesuit’s name.
Among its other distinctions, St. Mary’s claimed an abandoned distillery as its original property, and empty kegs and barrels are said to have served for its first schoolroom desks. Protestant and Jewish students were welcome, with “moral rectitude” the only requirement. Fr. William Byrne, the college’s first president, was described, not flatteringly, as a “raw-boned…ascetic who seldom smiled and never laughed.” Perhaps for good reason: During his presidency, St. Mary’s suffered two devastating fires. In the summer of 1833, Byrne died of cholera that he contracted while bringing solace to a dying victim of the epidemic. On Dec. 20 of that same year, another fire ravaged campus, this one set by two students.
By that time, the school had, at Flaget’s invitation, come under the control of French Jesuit Fathers. One of the Jesuit faculty most beloved by the students was the frail, diminutive Fr. Thomas Legouais, a former lawyer. He came from a noble French family and had been born in prison during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.
Given the curriculum the young men followed at St. Mary’s, it’s a good thing they had some popular teachers around. In their final year, they took classes in logic, ontology, physics and trigonometry. They had to read Homer in Greek and Virgil in Latin.
The rising hour was 5 at the largely residential facility, and washing-up took place out in the morning air. The equivalent of a cold shower didn’t always quieten the boys; at one point, the president was called upon to separate two armed gangs of students.
In 1846, the Jesuits departed from St. Mary’s, having accepted an invitation to move to New York to take over the fledgling Fordham, which had gone through four presidents in five years. After the move, one Jesuit later allowed that the Kentucky students could be rowdy at times but were “gentlemen sons of families of standing.” By contrast, he lamented, the New York students “did not possess the remotest instinct of gentlemen.”
One of the Jesuits attached to St. Mary’s would be particularly missed in Louisville society. Fr. John Larkin, a 300-pound presence, excelled in oratory and was much in demand for civic functions. From 1842-45 he had valiantly, but vainly, attempted to start yet another Jesuit college, St. Ignatius Literary Institute, in Louisville at the corner of Seventh and Walnut (Muhammad Ali).
After the Jesuits departed, control of the school reverted to the priests of the diocese. St. Mary’s, unlike its neighbor St. Joseph’s in Bardstown, managed to stay open during the Civil War. In 1871 the Resurrectionist Fathers from Canada agreed to manage St. Mary’s, and continued that work until the closing. Today the property is occupied by a corrections facility, the Marion Adjustment Center.
During the 1920s, perhaps largely because of its rural location, St. Mary’s saw diminishing enrollment and began to explore an urban campus in Louisville. Fund-raising began and land was purchased off Cannons Lane.
The official St. Mary’s history speaks darkly of “much inconsistency on the part of those contracted to raise the money.” In any event, the effort fell apart. St. Mary’s closed as a general lay college in 1929 but remained open as a seminary until 1976. In those later years, one of its legendary professors was the revered layman “Prof Al” Lesousky, who received an honorary doctorate from Bellarmine in 1961.
During its long history, St. Mary’s alumni included U.S. Attorney General Augustus Hill Garland; Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, a founder of the Catholic University of America; at least two governors; four congressmen; and two Civil War generals, one with the Union and one with the Confederacy. Not to mention Paul Derringer, famed pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1930s.
It remains to the historical imagination to figure what would have happened had St. Mary’s College for men been successful in Louisville in the 1920s. There almost certainly would never have been a Bellarmine University in that case. Nor would there be a Bellarmine Magazine today. Surely, some historical contingencies are just too painful to consider.
Fr. Clyde F. Crews