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Merlene Davis: St. Peter Catholic Church celebrates 200 years

A special Mass, to be conducted by Lexington Bishop  Ronald W. Gainer, will be held  Saturday at St. Peter  Catholic Church in  downtown Lexington to celebrate its  bicentennial. Opulent arches and stained glass windows adorn the sanctuary, left, and ornate door pulls, above left, welcome parishioners.
A special Mass, to be conducted by Lexington Bishop Ronald W. Gainer, will be held Saturday at St. Peter Catholic Church in downtown Lexington to celebrate its bicentennial. Opulent arches and stained glass windows adorn the sanctuary, left, and ornate door pulls, above left, welcome parishioners. Herald-Leader

Recent years have been a struggle for many churches, what with financial worries and dwindling numbers of people in the pews. Some churches have found it too expensive to keep open the doors to buildings that had been touchstones of peace for our parents and grandparents, who usually lived nearby.

That's why St. Peter Catholic Church's celebration of its bicentennial is so special.

Despite periods of financial woes and challenges to the faith of its congregants, St. Peter has operated as a center of Catholicism in downtown Lexington for 200 years.

On Saturday, Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington will hold a special Mass in recognition of the church's historic achievement. A reception will be held afterward in the cafeteria, and a film presentation of the church's history will be shown and be available for sale on DVD. There also will be a self-guided tour packet of the building, constructed in 1929.

Church historian William Karutz, who compiled the history and narrates the DVD, has been anticipating this weekend for several years.

"I have just been waiting for this day," he said.

Catholics and others are welcome to participate in the celebration of the dedication that took place May 19, 1812, he said. That's when a small brick chapel on Winchester Street, now known as East Third Street, opened its doors to a congregation of about a dozen families and was named Catholic Chapel of St. Peter.

The number of Catholics in Lexington had been growing steadily since the first ones are thought to have arrived in Kentucky in the 1780s. The first Catholic services in Lexington are thought to have been held in a private home on Dec. 1, 1793, on the first day of Advent.

In 1800, a small log cabin on the northeast corner of Main and Felix streets, became the meeting place for Catholic services. It was simply known as The Chapel.

As the congregation continued to grow, a church was built on Limestone between Constitution and Third streets, with seed money raised in New Orleans. That church was dedicated Dec. 3, 1837.

Eventually another church was needed, so St. Paul Catholic Church was built on Short Street and dedicated on Oct. 18, 1868.

According to the history, "St. Peter at that time fell into general disuse," becoming a mission church, with Mass attended by the nuns of St. Catherine's and some parishioners.

In 1909, the decision was made to reawaken St. Peter by dividing St. Paul's congregation. New boundaries were drawn, with 291 families and 122 individuals going to St. Peter Church, and 511 families and 186 individuals staying at St. Paul Church.

Through families giving an extra 25 cents a week and other fund-raising efforts, the current St. Peter Church building was constructed debt-free and dedicated April 7, 1929.

Lexington now has seven other Catholic churches, but "St. Peter is the foundation of Catholicism in this area," Karutz said. "We were the first ones, and everyone else sprang from us. We are the vine."

Considering how difficult it has become for houses of worship to remain open, this bicentennial is worth celebrating.

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