St. Robert’s Gate made its appearance in 2013. Bellar-mine’s face to Newburg Road and the city was impressively changed. Now, as the Centro project springs to life, an even more dramatic transformation gets underway. The heavy construction equipment will begin its work practically at once. This Highlands hill will never be the same.
And this is one very special hill. We can trace its history as far back as the 18th century. It was part of a land-grant tract granted by George III – yes, that George III, who lost his colonies – to one James McCorkle for his services in the French and Indian War. Later, after the Revolution began, the land had to be re-titled as American property. This was done by no less than Mr. Thomas Jefferson, Governor of Virginia, of which Kentucky was then a part. In the antebellum years, this vast tract, which had originally extended as far as today’s Preston Street on the west, began to be subdivided.
By the 1850s, this particular hill was a plantation owned by the Griffin family. They built a stately mansion on it that stood almost exactly at the southern end of our Horrigan Hall. During the Civil War, the Louisville area had about 20 military hospitals, and the Griffin house was one of them. There are reports that during the hostilities, both Union and Confederate troops had camped in small groups at different times here in the valley below us.
In 1869, this parcel of land was purchased by Louisville Catholic Bishop William George McCloskey, who used the mansion for his residence. He was a man who was fastidious in his clothing, and was once called the Lord Chesterfield of the American Catholic Church. It was he who had a building added to the mansion going to the north, pretty much where the lines of Horrigan Hall run today. That structure would be used under the title of Preston Park, a major seminary off-and-on until it finally closed in 1909, when McCloskey died in the old estate house on Sept. 17. Note that date. Oddly enough, after St. Robert Bellarmine was canonized, that very date would eventually be selected as his feast day. It has frequently been so observed on the campus.
In the 1890s, when the seminary was closed for a time, the building was used for a Catholic girls’ orphanage, St. Vincent’s. The little girls moved out eventually, and the little boys moved in, and thus we had St. Thomas Orphanage on our hill from 1910 to 1938. The main entrance then was from the Norris, or east, side, since the electric streetcars ran on urbanized Bardstown Road and Newburg remained a rural lane for the most part.
The property was still owned by the archdiocese, but it sat largely vacant after the orphanage moved, except for the annual Corpus Christi procession that wound from where we are now up to St. Agnes’ grounds to our west. The procession would be transferred to Churchill Downs in the early 1940s. In addition, the church leased much of this land out for light farming.
On Nov. 17, 1949, Archbishop John A. Floersh announced the founding of a new venture in Catholic higher education, to be named Bellarmine College. In later years, our founding president, Fr. Alfred Horrigan, and founding vice-president, Raymond J. Treece, would report that when they first came out to look at the property that autumn, cows were grazing where the baseball field sits below us. And the foundation stones were still in place from the mansion that had been razed.
Construction began on New Year’s Eve of, 1949, and the first building, now Pasteur Hall, opened on Oct. 4, 1950. In case you weren’t keeping count, the old archbishop gave our two clerical gentlemen founders almost exactly 12 months to start a college from scratch. Bellarmine had begun. And so we continue. Another big step today. In veritatis amore.
Fr. Clyde F. Crews | firstname.lastname@example.org
The above is a modified version of remarks made by our regular columnist, Fr. Clyde Crews, at the groundbreaking for Bellarmine Centro on Nov. 25, 2014. Centro is a three-story building in front of Horrigan Hall that is scheduled to open in fall 2016. -Editor