“A small spot of land …” (Part 1)
By Betty Lyn Parker
The Heritage Center has a beautifully conserved print of Little Loretto, the original home of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. My second encounter with this engraving began around 2014 at my previous job, when the image of a hand-colored version was contributed to the Kentucky Online Arts Resource (KOAR, at http://www.koar.org/), part of my work at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. Several years earlier as a docent, I had seen the museum’s own print but kind of shrugged it off as just another group of log cabins that dotted the landscape of Kentucky history, not fully realizing its significance as one of the earliest published views of the commonwealth’s frontier settlements. This time I was intrigued, however: why exactly was this place, then totally unfamiliar to me, so important? I was always on the lookout for stories to tell on the KOAR blog and it seemed quite curious that a tiny religious settlement in Kentucky would be the subject of an engraving made in Belgium.
Little is known about the artist, Courtois of Malines, beyond his name and where he worked. The Flemish (now Belgian) city of Mechelen is known in French as Malines and in English as Mechlin. This is where Father Nerinckx entered the theological seminary in 1781 and, after his ordination in 1785, became vicar at the cathedral. In 1794 Nerinckx became pastor at Everberg-Meerbeke and rebuilt the parish church there, experience that came in handy for constructing more than a dozen church buildings throughout his many years in Kentucky, along with the first community for Catholic women religious founded on American soil, The Little Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross.
The site, as described by Father Nerinckx himself, was “A small spot of land, of about 50 acres unmeasured, indifferent for natural conveniences, bought by Sister Anna Rhodes for $75 for the SOCIETY, about the Chapel of St. Charles, on Hardin’s creek, County of Washington, Kentucky, United States of America, called LITTLE LORETTO, was begun the 25th of April, 1812.” When the chapel was finished, it was blessed and given the name “Little Loretto” in honor of Our Lady of Loreto, for whom Nerinckx had a particular devotion; loreto is from the Latin lauretum, a grove of laurel. And Little Loretto was the name by which the entire settlement became known.
Father Nerinckx wanted to appeal in person to his family and friends to raise money for the convent, as well as obtain religious supplies and recruit more priests for the Kentucky missions. When he visited Mechlin during his first return to Europe in the autumn of 1815, Nerinckx commissioned two works of art. One was this engraving of Little Loretto, which has at bottom a key in Dutch, French, and English that identifies the function of each building by letter captions. But it likely was the European engraver, unfamiliar with Kentucky terrain, who on his own embellished the landscape with fanciful botanical and topographical elements such as palm trees and tropical flora, rocky mountain peaks, and a sizable waterfall. At center the sisters surround a vision of Mary and the Crucifixion beneath Her protective cloak, with two banners bearing the words “O Suffering Jesus! O Sorrowful Mary!” carried by angels above them. This print illustrating Little Loretto probably became part of Father Nerinckx’s fundraising and recruitment campaign.
Through the winter and following year, collecting holy vessels, vestments, ornaments, and other articles useful for the Kentucky missions went on briskly. Many items were donated, while others gave money for purchases. Dozens of paintings, some quite valuable, from churches that had been wrecked and sacked by the French were secured through the help of an old friend, Mr. Peemans of Louvain. When people under the impression that cheap or worn items were good enough for the frontier asked Father Nerinckx what he intended to do with all these fine things, he replied, “Christ, the King of Glory, is worthy of our best tokens of adoration, and will delight in them as much in the wilds of America as in the cathedrals of Belgium.” Nerinckx brought about 8,000 pounds of goods back to Kentucky from his trip!
Although I learned a lot of facts to satisfy my curiosity four years ago, a small portion of which is included here, now that I am becoming absorbed in the history of the Loretto experience I realize how much more there is to your story. My next post will focus on the second artwork Father Nerinckx commissioned from Courtois of Malines during his first trip back to Europe in 1815. And in the coming weeks I look forward to sharing with you many other bits and pieces of the fascinating lore that artifacts can tell.