As any Flannery O'Connor fan knows, the Catholic in the South occupies a peculiar terrain in which the incense-and-holy-water traditions of Rome cohabit uneasily with their Bible-thumping New World offspring. Nowhere is that contrast more apparent than in the countryside south of Louisville. Travelers from distant parts usually find themselves here for some horse-related reason--touring the horse farms of the Bluegrass or betting the races at Churchill Downs, where, on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby draws thousands of julep-sipping fans.
But the region also offers rewards for those seeking another kind of journey. On a scenic overnight tour, that traveler will encounter what's best and what's left of two very different versions of old-time religion. Locals, given to hyperbole (they are Southerners, after all), call this countryside the "holy land of the South" because of its concentration of 19th-Century Catholic abbeys, convents, priories and parishes.
In the space of a few miles, the spiritual landscape shifts from the plain clapboard churches of the Bible Belt to statues of the Virgin sheltered by inverted bathtubs half-buried in the earth and painted pale blue. The fundamentalists' plain wooden cross gives way to the flamboyantly bloodied Christ of the Roman crucifix.
English-heritage Catholics fleeing discriminatory taxation in western Maryland settled here in 1785. Through the labor of Father Stephen Badin (the first Roman Catholic priest ordained in America and a founder of Notre Dame University) and the French bishop Joseph Flaget, the area developed into a headquarters for the grooming of a religious hierarchy to serve America's growing Catholic population.
In these hinterlands, the high road--in this case, U.S. 31E--acts as an artery joining the countryside to the outside world, coursing with the contemporary, here-and-now blood of travelers and commerce. Visitors who venture off the well-beaten path remove themselves from the flow of time, stripping away one decade after another until, in places like Holy Cross or Howardstown, they find little blood, little commerce, no travelers. From these churchyards, they may look a long time before finding evidence of the 20th Century.
Sixty miles south of Louisville, in Hodgenville, a granite-and-marble temple enshrines the log cabin traditionally identified as that in which Abraham Lincoln was born. In his letters, Lincoln mentioned the surrounding hills as the landscape of his earliest memories. A walk or drive through them offers a particularly evocative homage to America's secular saint, born to compromise on this border state.
Hodgenville epitomizes the small villages of the Protestant South: the Southern Baptist church crowns the town's highest point and the sale of alcohol is forbidden. But journey north a few miles and across the Rolling Fork River and suddenly liquor is legal, preachers are priests and living takes on a more boisterous edge. The idyllically pastoral countryside, with its limestone cliffs, placid rivers and forested hills, evokes a less civilized version of western New England.
If time is really of no importance--which is to say, if you have taken to heart what it means to be a Southerner--the children in the schoolyard of St. Ann's Church (founded 1787) in Howardstown, about nine miles from Hodgenville, will give directions to the gravel road that leads to the now-abandoned Gaddy's Ford Bridge. Along the road, a spectacular display of native wildflowers blooms in abundance, from the Dutchman's breeches and pure white trilliums of early spring to carpets of flecked orange jewelweed and brilliant purple ironweed in late summer.
Just past Howardstown, following the Rolling Fork north on KY 247, a small gravel road off to the right leads into the St. Ann cemetery, whose crest offers a sweeping view of the winding river, the cliffs and the small village below. Farther down the road the casual driver once caught above the trees a heart-stopping glimpse of the steeple at the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane near New Haven, where Thomas Merton wrote "The Seven Storey Mountain" as well as other books that became beacons for legions of contemplatives in both Western and Eastern religious traditions.
Forty-fiveTrappist monks arrived from France in 1848 to found this monastery. A century later some of their more rambunctious brothers crept from the enclosure to cross the hills to my parents' back yard, to drink beer and smoke cigarettes and watch football games on television. The steeple is gone now (victim of a renovation), and age and modernism have decimated the monastery census--today the monks' average age hovers around 65. But they still file into the austere abbey church to sing the canonical hours, beginning with matins at 3 a.m. through to the best-attended and most elaborate vespers near sunset.
Women can visit the church but are not allowed inside the cloister walls, and persons of either gender and any religious background can come here for retreats.
Across the road from the monastery's waterworks, a trail leads through pastures and forest to a simple but poignant grouping of statues--the disciples Peter, James and John asleep in the garden of Gethsemane while nearby Jesus mourns his fate. A plaque identifies the tableau as a memorial to religious workers killed in the turmoil of the 1960s civil-rights demonstrations in the South.
From Gethsemane, winding country roads lead to Holy Cross, the loveliest of the many early-19th-Century churches in and around the Rolling Fork River valley. Holy Cross sits on a slight knoll above the surrounding fields, on the site of the first Catholic church east of the Appalachians, built in 1787. About 40 years later, parishioners replaced that first, wooden structure with the present church built of red brick fired from clay mined from neighboring hills.
Unlike most American churches (but like many European village churches), Holy Cross sits in the middle of its graveyard. It's decorated only by the curving lines of brick laid into the masonry facade, curves echoed in the lines of the wooden bell tower, painted white and sheathed with green shingles. The effect is that of a kind of American primitive architecture, created by people who had no formal architectural training but who were first-rate craftsmen and who, in their simple way, took time and patience to create something beautiful and in absolute harmony with its surroundings.
Standing in the middle of this churchyard, it's easy to understand the wisdom of routing a community past its dead ancestors en route to the church, symbol of spiritual life. Our city lives are empty of these reminders of where we've come from and where we're headed. On my last visit to the Holy Cross churchyard, I asked myself this: How might we think differently about AIDS, or breast cancer, if several times a week we walked past the gravestones of those who have died? How might our attitudes toward life change if--like so many cultures, like this rural culture--we routinely acknowledged and honored our dead?
Other Catholic parishes line these roads, too many to describe. Each holds at its heart a church going on two centuries old; each has played a role in the scattering of Catholicism across America. Bardstown, the local tourist center, includes St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral (circa 1816-19), first seat of an archdiocese incorporating all of America west of the Appalachians and north of New Orleans. Nearby are two lavishly restored 19th-Century mansions, Wickland and the Rowan residence (more popularly known as My Old Kentucky Home). Both offer excursions into the life of uppercrust families of the antebellum South. On the courthouse square, the Old Talbott Tavern (circa 1779) bills itself as the "oldest stagecoach stop of Western America," with a guest list that includes notables from Lincoln through Gen. George Patton.
BETWEEN VISITS TO CHURCH, THE LOCALS ADHERE TO A NUMBER OF MORE secular religions, chief among them whiskey; most of America's bourbon is manufactured by Nelson and Marion County Catholics. In a state where most rural counties still forbid the sale of alcohol, the sprouting of "First Chance/Last Chance" taverns and liquor stores is a sure indicator of Catholicism, and the traveler seeking a break from all that holiness will find plenty of opportunities.
More than blood ties lead me to single out the Sherwood Inn, the social heart of New Haven, three miles from the Abbey at Gethsemane. Founded in the 1870s by my great-grandfather Thomas Hardin Johnson, the Sherwood has become something of a legend among seekers of the authentic small-town tavern. Look for Tom Hardin in his Union uniform--presiding from the oval photograph that hangs above the splendid oak bar.
Draft beers arrive with local history and lore; visitors should be prepared to cock their feet on the brass rail and listen--to owner Errol P. on Prohibition days, when the Sherwood was notorious for all-night poker games among leading politicians and big-city gangsters, or to Jerry Burks, the quintessential handlebar-mustached Southern gentleman, on the local exploits of Confederate Capt. John Morgan and his famous Raiders. In summer they'll see outside the windows the vintage cars and engines of the Kentucky Railway Museum, which runs Rolling Fork valley tours starting from the Sherwood Inn.
Maker's Mark distillery, a few miles from Holy Cross, turns out what many here regard as the best widely available bourbon. Four generations into whiskey making, the Samuels family undertook to restore the once-decrepit buildings into a kind of bourbon shrine, now registered as a National Historic Landmark. Tours interesting as much for the clean lines of the buildings and the low-tech indutrial aesthetic of the distilling process are available throughout the year.
A few miles east of Maker's Mark, the Catholic presence vanishes as suddenly as it appeared. The countryside becomes speckled with the upscale Protestant churches (Episcopalian, Presbyterian) of the prosperous Bluegrass region. Then east of Harrodsburg lies perhaps the quintessence of 19th-Century Protestantism, the Shaker colony at Pleasant Hill.
In December, 1806, Shaker converts signed the first covenant on this land, destined to become the third largest of American colonies of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, popularly known as Shakers for the marching, singing and religious convulsions that characterized their services.
At the peak of Pleasant Hill's activity, more than 500 Shakers lived and worked in a community composed of more than 250 buildings, all constructed with the precision, simplicity and care that remain hallmarks of Shaker design. The meeting house and other structures have been carefully restored and are home to craft-workers who demonstrate weaving, quilting and other Shaker industries. The restored buildings include overnight accommodations and a large restaurant serving excellent (if plain) Shaker fare.
IN THE CITIES OF THE WEST, WHERE WE'VE EXPENDED SUCH EFFORT AND money on shaping places in our image, it's easy to lose track of who's in charge. This is the reason for making this pilgrimage, the more so in spring. Find your way to the choir loft of the Abbey at Gethsemane. Lose yourself in the light filtering through Brother Lavrans' abstract stained-glass windows and in the resonant plainsong echoing from the starkly whitewashed walls. Then drive a few miles through the greening knobs, mottled with redbud and dogwood, to stand in the Shakers' poplar-floored meeting room, its plain-planked self a testimony to the gift of simplicity. Listen for the ghosts of their community, singing and fainting and ecstatic in the name of the spirit. Embrace these two ways of being in the course of a single day, and understand some small part of the infinite variety of humankind's ways of expressing all that is holy.
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GUIDEBOOK / Southern Comforts
Prices: Hotel prices are for a double room for one night. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.
Getting there: Most major national carriers have regular connecting flights from Los Angeles to Louisville. Note: Airline, car and hotel reservations fill quickly for the Kentucky Derby, held this year on Saturday, May 6.
Where to stay: The Sherwood Inn, 138 Main St., New Haven, (502) 549-3386. Rates: $55 with private bath, $45 with shared bath. Jailer's Inn, 111 W. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown, (502) 348-5551. This renovated 19th-Century jail has redone six rooms in different historical styles--and includes breakfast. Rates: $55-$95. Old Talbott Tavern, 107 W. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown, (502) 348-3494, fax (502) 348-0673. The oldest stagecoach stop west of the Appalachians offers rustic rooms upstairs and more across the street at the restored McLean House. Rates: $50-$69. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg, (606) 734-5411. Actual Shakers' rooms have been refurbished with reproduction Shaker furniture. Rates: $56-$100.
Where to eat: La Taberna, 112 North 5th St., Bardstown, (502) 348-3946, fax (502) 348-9002. Located behind the cathedral, in the restored residence halls of what was once St. Joseph's College, this American Italian restaurant serves weekly seafood pasta specials; $15-$30. My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, 602 North 3rd St., Bardstown, (502) 348-7500. Here you can dine while riding the rails of the old L & N spur line. Luncheons, dinners and Sunday brunches are offered on a varied schedule; $52-$60. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg, (606) 734-5411. Excellent "plain old country cookin,' " including a pie made with crystallized lemons that both puckers and pleases. No alcohol is served or permitted in the dining room, though guests may bring alcohol to their rooms. Summer hours 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, with a 5 p.m. closing the rest of year. Reservations advisable; $13-$20.
What to do: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Historic Site , 2995 Lincoln Farm Road, Hodgenville, (502) 358-3137, fax (502) 358-3874. Open 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Free. Kentucky Railway Museum, 136 S. Main St., New Haven, (502) 549-5470, fax (502) 549-5472. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1-5 p.m Sunday. Admission: $9-$14. My Old Kentucky Home, 501 E. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown, (502) 348-3502. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided tours, $2-$4. Maker's Mark Distillery, 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, (502) 865-2099. Open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Free.
For more information: Bardstown/Nelson County Tourist Commission, P.O. Box 867, Bardstown, Ky. 40004; (800) 638-4877. The Kentucky Department of Travel Development Visitor Information, (800) 225-8747, provides an indispensable road map.