Collections › MESDA Collection › (View of) Little Loretto, Kentucky, United States

(View of) Little Loretto, Kentucky, United States

Place Made:
Malines, Belgium Malines Belgium
Date Made:
ink on paper
WOA: 16 3/8”; HOA: 11 7/8”
Accession Number:
This important cartographic view depicts the early convent and academy of the Sisters of Loretto, The Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, in present day Mercer County, Kentucky. They were only the second Roman Catholic religious order established in America, and the first in the Trans-Appalachian west. Printed in Belgium in 1816, and probably intended as a tool for fundraising, this image is one of the earliest printed views of Kentucky. The Sisters of Loretto were founded in 1812 under the guidance of Father Charles Nerinckx (1761-1824), a Belgian-born priest who immigrated to America following the French Revolution. Assigned to Kentucky by Bishop John Caroll (1735-1815) of Baltimore, Nerinckx wrote home to Belgium that “the field is everywhere full of weeds,” but that with help he might nourish the “good seeds” of Catholicism in Kentucky and the formerly French Louisiana Territory. In words of one late nineteenth century biographer, Father Nerinckx believed that “Kentucky would become a focus of Catholicity, an oasis in the desert, adorned with noble churches.”

Nerinckx first settled The Sisters of Loretto in a pair of cabins “built of wood… very poorly furnished… erected on one side of an oblong enclosure, in the center of which was a large wooden cross.” According to Nerinckx’s biographer, shortly afterward he “made the plan of the buildings, and staked out the place where each was to be erected.” The majority of the buildings were log on stone foundations, chinked with mud on the outside and plastered on the inside. To set it apart from the other buildings, “the logs intended for the wall of the chapel and house connected with it were hewed.”6

In 1816 Father Nerinckx sailed for Europe to seek the Pope’s blessing for the Sisters of Loretto, to build support for his work in Kentucky, and to inspire other priests to serve Kentucky parishes. He also sought to answer critics who were spreading, “an unfavorable rumor… that the subscription (towards his work in Kentucky) had failed.” While in Europe he received the Pope’s approval for the Loretto order and published a pamphlet in Flemish urging the support of missionary work among the Catholics of America, particularly those in Kentucky. He singled out the sisters of “our new little convent of Loretto…. (as) the choicest of our religion” and worthy of support. This print was likely meant to augment Nerinckx’s plea and prove his critics wrong. This print view fits into a long tradition of prints-as-proof for missionary fundraising that includes images like the 1748 view of The Orphan House in Georgia, a copy of which is in the Thomas A. Gray Library and Rare Book Collection.

A key in Dutch, French, and English identifies the buildings of the convent and academy in the print and underscores the international nature of Nerinckx’s audiences. For many of its viewers, this print was probably their first view of Kentucky. However, even European viewers would probably have been aware of the mythology of frontier Kentucky. By 1785 French readers could enjoy John Filson’s account of “du colonel Boon” and by 1788 Boone’s frontier exploits were available in Dutch as well. The forbidding mountains in the distance, the hewn log cabins, and the split rail fence all played into notions of Kentucky as a wild and forbidding frontier being hewn from the forests by men like Daniel Boone and Father Charles Nerinckx.

Nerinckx’s view is both ichnographic and iconographic. In general, the plan of the site and the finish of the buildings is consistent with period accounts, though the engraver undoubtedly took some liberties in his depiction. In 1824, following Father Nerinckx’s death, the order moved to a new site and “unwilling to have old Loretto desecrated… for worldly purposes, the sisters set fire to the convent and chapel.” The sisters spared Father Nerinckx’s cabin and in 1895
moved one half of the dogtrot cabin to the site of their new Motherhouse.

Though the buildings and their placement may have been more or less accurate, they sit in an iconographic landscape that little resembles Mercer County, Kentucky. Father Nerinckx and the engraver situated the convent and academy in an Edenic landscape. A snake slithers out of a tropical palm, perhaps signifying that earthly delights, pleasure, and sin are here being held at bay by the split rail fence. Inside the enclosure the Sisters of Loretto, the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, are shown doing exactly that: being the friends of Mary at the foot of the cross.

This print reminds us of the importance of Catholicism in early Kentucky and the former Louisiana Territory. Protestantism and Catholicism lived and thrived side by side in the Trans-Appalachian west. In 1812 Father Nerinckx wrote that, “the school is forming fast of every denomination… (and receiving the) approbation of parents and thinking judges of other denominations…” Priests like Father Nerinckx and sisters like those at Loretto cultivated the seeds of Catholicism left behind by the French and Spanish along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and built institutions of charity and learning that survive to this day.

Credit Line:
Cartographic Arts Fund