The Boone family were among the first Catholic settlers of Maryland, and upon the strength of this fact it has been contended that Daniel Boone was a Catholic. Nothing, however, that is recorded of the life of this famous Kentucky pioneer seems to support this contention. In all probability, Dr. George Hart and William Coombes, who accompanied John Harrod, and settled at Harrodsburg in 1774, were the first Catholic settlers. Dr. Hart, if not the first, was certainly one of the first physicians to settle in Kentucky. He practised his profession at Harrodsburg until about the year 1786, when he moved to the vicinity of Bardstown, in what is now Nelson County, in order to join his co-religionists who had recently emigrated from Maryland.
The first distinctively Catholic body of immigrants came from Maryland in the year 1785. A league of sixty families, mostly from St. Mary’s County in that state, was formed for the purpose of emigrating to Kentucky, and in the same year twenty-five of these families, under the leadership of Basil Hayden, arrived in Kentucky and settled near the present site of Bardstown (Nelson County). In the following year, a second settlement, about ten miles distant from the first, but on better lands, was begun by Edward and Charles Beaven. Between this date and 1795 five separate bodies of Catholic immigrants settled in the vicinity of these earlier settlements, and a thriving Catholic colony was begun. In 1786 one of the companies of immigrants, while on its way to join the first settlers in Nelson County, attracted by the beauty and fertility of the country through which they were passing, decided to go no farther, and settled in what is now Scott County, near the centre of the famous Blue-Grass Region. By 1796 it is estimated that there were 300 Catholic families in Kentucky.
The first missionary priest to reach Kentucky was the Rev. M. Whelan, who came in the year 1787 with a band of immigrants under the leadership of Edward Howard. In 1790 Father Whelan returned to Maryland. Six months later the Rev. Wm. De Rohan arrived, but without faculties and unaccredited to Kentucky. He performed such service as he could, but the settlements were without full priestly attention until 1793, at which time the Rev. Stephen Theodore Badin and the Rev. M. Barriêres were sent to Kentucky by the Bishop of Baltimore. Father Barriêres remained but four months, but Father Badin laboured in the mission for about twenty-six years. After the departure of Father Barriêres, for three years Father Badin was the only priest in the whole of Kentucky. In 1797 the Rev. M.J.C. Fournier and, in 1799, the Rev. Anthony Salmon joined Father Badin, but the latter of these two companions of Father Badin was killed by a fall from a horse nine months after his arrival, and Father Fournier died in 1803. Again Father Badin was alone in Kentucky until 1805, when the Rev. Charles Nerinckx, a native of Belgium, joined him. Father Nerinckx laboured in the state for nineteen years, sharing with his associate all the hardships of this most trying mission, and by his wonderful zeal and great piety materially promoting the progress and prosperity of the Church. A French colony under the leadership John A. and Louis Tarascon arrived at Louisville in the year 1806 and settled near the Falls of the Ohio, to engage in the milling business, utilizing the falls for power. These colonists were, or at least should have been, Catholics, but the early missionaries do not appear to have considered them very faithful children of the Church. However, when the first church was built, in 1811, the name of J.A. Tarascon appears on the list of trustees for the new parish. Father Badin was the first pastor, and continued as such until 1817, when he was succeeded by the Rev. G.I. Chabrat, like him, a Frenchman, who was in turn succeeded by the Rev. Philip Horstman, a native American.
In 1808 the Diocese of Bardstown was erected, to include in its jurisdiction the whole of Kentucky as well as Tennessee (see DIOCESE OF LOUISVILLE). In 1841 the see was transferred to Louisville, and in 1853 the establishment of the Diocese of Covington brought into existence the present ecclesiastical division of the State of Kentucky into the two dioceses of Louisville and Covington.
Kentucky enjoys the distinction of having been the first great nursery of the Faith in the United States west of the Alleghenies. Closely connected with this fact (which will be more especially dealt with in the article DIOCESE OF LOUISVILLE) was a remarkably early development of new religious congregations in the old Diocese of Bardstown. In Marion County, the Sisterhood of Loretto, founded in 1812 as “Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross”, and, in Nelson County, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, founded in the same year, were almost, if not quite, the earliest religious institutes to originate in the United States (see SISTERS OF LORETTO; SISTERS OF CHARITY OF NAZARETH). Of the older institutes of women, the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic have been established in Kentucky since 1822; the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, since 1842; Ursuline Nuns, since 1858; Benedictine Nuns, since 1859; Sister of the Poor of St. Francis, since 1860; Visitandines, since 1864; Sisters of Mercy, since 1867; Little Sisters of the Poor, since 1869; The Sisters of Notre Dame and others have come into the state more recently.
Among the religious orders of men, the Order of Preachers found their first home in the United States near Springfield, Washington County, Kentucky (St. Rose of Lima, 1806), where they are still flourishing; the Trappists founded their famous Abbey of Gethsemani, in Nelson County, in 1848; the Franciscans took charge of the parish of St. Boniface, Louisville, in 1849; the Benedictines came to Covington in 1858. Other male religious orders and congregations in Kentucky are the Passionists, Xaverian Brothers, Brothers of Mary, and Fathers of the Resurrection. The total Catholic Population of the state is estimated at 189,854, about three-fourths of that number (which includes upwards of 4000 coloured Catholics) being in the Diocese of Louisville.