Arts and Culture

Louisville has numerous public statues honoring historical figures—presidents, civic leaders, explorers and athletes are all immortalized in various ways.

By the measure of what they did to be commemorated, it’s a diverse group. But they have one thing in common—they’re all men.

That changes this weekend.

On Sunday, a statue of Mother Catherine Spalding (1793-1858) will be unveiled at the Cathedral of the Assumption—simultaneously commemorating a person who made an  impact on Louisville, and also giving the city its first public statue of a woman.

A Humble Grave

On a recent July afternoon, a symphony of cicadas and lawnmowers could be heard in the cemetery of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth campus just north of Bardstown.

It’s where a simple, fading headstone marks the final resting place of Mother Catherine Spalding, the co-founder of the Catholic order of nuns, and its first leader. The humble grave belies the impact Spalding and her still-thriving ministries have had on the world, more than 150 years after her death.

Mother Catherine SpaldingSubmitted

Mother Catherine Spalding

“When you think of education, health care and social service for children, none of which have flourished or been there really in any degree before her time and before she and the sisters initiated it,” said Sister Mary Ellen Doyle, a member of the Sisters of Charity and a biographer of Catherine Spalding.

Spalding’s contributions in Louisville were numerous, and it’s fitting that she’s the first woman to be honored with a public statue in the city, Doyle said.

“My impression was that she was deeply loved by the sisters and other people, too,” she said.

Under Spalding’s watch, the Sisters began tending to the practical and spiritual needs of settlers on the Kentucky frontier. They also established the Nazareth Academy for young women—now Spalding University.

That early work would lead them from Nelson County to the still-rugged river port of Louisville.

It was in Louisville that Spalding and the sisters established what would become Presentation Academy.

But Spalding also held a special bond with orphans. She herself was orphaned by age 9, following the death of her mother and her father’s abandonment of the family.

Spalding and her small band of nuns opened their Louisville living quarters to children who were either abandoned by parents who came to Louisville on riverboats, or were orphaned by a cholera outbreak in the 1830s.

“They took in the first orphans, and just put them in their own rooms along with them. And then they built an orphanage,” she said.

Much of the early work of Spalding and the sisters in Louisville took place in and around downtown’s St. Louis Cathedral, now called the Cathedral of the Assumption.

Spalding’s statue will stand out front, on a public sidewalk.

‘On These Grounds’

Louisville has many public statues, ranging from George Rogers Clark, the city’s founder, to  King Louis XVI of France, for whom the city is named.

Mary Margaret Mulvihill believed that Mother Catherine Spalding was deserving, too. She led to the effort to have a statue of Spalding publicly displayed in Louisville.

Details about the piece itself have been a closely guarded secret, but Mulvihill says local artist Raymond Graf captured Spalding as many would have seen her: whisking orphans to safety from the riverfront.

“She would bring them up here on Fifth Street, and she marched, and you can see that action in this sculpture,” Mulvihill said.

Cathedral of the Assumption Pastor Father Jeff Nicolas says Spalding long ago embodied the spirit of a compassionate city.

“The ground is hallowed ground for many, many reasons, but one of those reasons that we’re very proud of is that it’s hallowed because she walked these grounds,” Nicolas said.

“She tended to the care of the city on these grounds.”

Doyle said Catherine Spalding and the sisters would not have been able to carry out their Louisville ministries without help, and this event acknowledges that they had the support of many local business people, civic leaders and non-Catholics.

“In a very real way, this also honors the many Louisvillians who made it possible for her to work, and the sisters,” Doyle said.

The unveiling ceremony for the Catherine Spalding statue will be held Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Assumption in downtown Louisville. It’s open to the public. A reception will follow.

(Top image by J. Tyler Franklin)

Rick Howlett is WFPL's Broadcast Managing Editor and also produces feature and general assignment radio stories.