The History of Saint Agnes Church

     In 1871 a parish was informally organized to serve the few families scattered south and east of the city limits.  The Sisters of Mercy, in 1873, began an academy for girls, called Mount St. Mary, on Newburg Road near the present Passionist monastery.  Soon, services for the fledgling parish were held in the chapel of Mt. St. Mary’s Academy with a priest from St. Thomas Seminary.

     In 1879, Mt. St. Mary’s was closed by Bishop McCloskey.  But in the following year he changed his mind and reopened the academy under the title of Mt. St. Agnes.  In 1885 St. Agnes was given parochial status.  The Passionists had bought one of the mansions north of Mt. St. Agnes.  They began to assist the small group of Catholics going to the Mt. St. Agnes Chapel.  On May 15, 1892, Bishop McCloskey granted the Passionists parochial rights to St. Agnes Parish.  Around the turn of the century, the wooden chapel was moved closer to the monastery.  In 1906, when the present monastery was built, a public chapel was placed in the north wing.  Construction of the current church began in 1927.

     The Boston firm of A. P. Mardine designed and furnished many of the interior decorations for St. Agnes.  The marble high altar and the two side altars were made in Italy.  Also from Italy came the five large Della Robbias on the sanctuary wall, the communion rail (now Baptismal font), the statues of Mary, Joseph, Sts. Paul of the Cross and Gabriel.  The frieze on the facing of the choir loft was made and shipped from Italy.

     The high altar is made from Carrara and Brescia marble.  Each of the six columns surrounding the altar is from a solid piece of marble.  The mosaic of St. Agnes, in the canopy over the altar, was made by artists in Florence, as was the bas-relief sculpture at the base of the alter.

     Michael Bertoli carved the decorations on the confessionals and above the archways.  He also designed the capitals above the twelve pillars in the nave of the church.  Mr. VanVooren, from Belgium, made the pillars by a process known as Scaloglia-Caen cement plaster, that is silk screened to resemble marble.

     The stations of the cross were made in the U.S. by the DePrato Statuary Company of Chicago.  The pews were made in Louisville.  The hanging light fixtures were designed to resemble the hat formerly worn by popes before Vatican II.  The walls of the church are plaster; lines were grooved into the plaster to give the appearance of large blocks.  This gave the church the look that was popular in European churches.

Our Patroness, Saint Agnes

     The patroness of our parish is St. Agnes. It is an interesting story how she was chosen for this parish.  It seems that it was by way of inheritance.

     In 1871, a parish was informally organized to serve the few families scattered south and east of the city limits.  The Sisters of Mercy, in 1873, began an academy for girls, called Mount St. Mary, on Newburg Road near the present Passionist monastery.  Soon, services for the fledgling parish were held in the chapel of Mt. St. Mary’s Academy with a priest from St. Thomas Seminary.

     In 1879, Mount St. Mary’s was closed by Bishop McCloskey.  But in the following year he changed his mind and reopened the academy under the title of Mount St. Agnes.  In 1885, St. Agnes was given parochial status.  The Passionists had bought one of the mansions north of Mount St. Agnes.  They began to assist the small group of Catholics going to Mount St. Agnes Chapel.  On May 15, 1892, Bishop McCloskey granted the Passionists parochial rights to St. Agnes Parish.  Around the turn of the century, the wooden chapel was moved closer to the monastery.  In 1906, when the present monastery was built, a public chapel was placed in the north wing.  An arch that can still be seen on the second and third floors is the only remnant of the second chapel that served the St. Agnes parish community.

     Although there is little known about St. Agnes, virgin and martyr, she was one of the most famous of the early Roman martyrs.  According to legend, Agnes was very beautiful.  When she refused a proposal of marriage from a pagan, it was reported to the emperor that she was a Christian.  Agnes was a courageous young woman, only thirteen years old, when she was executed.  Her death made a great impact on the Christian community of Rome.

The Cemetery

     You may have noticed a small cemetery as you walked to the main entrance of the church.  It is not a parish cemetery, but for members o the Passionist Community.  The tombstones give us little information, the dates of birth and death.  The first to be buried was a seminarian, Walter Cassels, who was only 19 years old when he died in 1897; that was 30 years before the present church was built.

     Most of those buried in the cemetery were natives of Louisville or the local area.  Others had spent a large part of their lives here and asked to be buried next to St. Agnes Church.  I will mention only a few who had a close connection with the parish.

     Fr. Denis Callagee, C.P, was pastor from 1893-1899; Fr. Henry Miller, C.P, from 1906-1908; Fr. Cletus Brady, C.P, from 1911-1917.  Fr. Jerome Reuterman was the provincial of Holy Cross Province in 1924 when an agreement was made with Bishop Floersh of Louisville whereby St. Agnes became a diocesan parish under the care of the Passionists.

     Fr. Aloysius Dowling, C.P, was pastor longer than anyone, from 1923 to 1946.  In 1924, the annual two day Carnival was begun that continued until 1963.  The cornerstone of the present church was laid on April 29, 1927; the Mass of Dedication was celebrated on February 19, 1928.

     Fr. Kent Pieper, C.P, became pastor in 1964.  He brought the parish through the changes initiated by Vatican II.  Prior to 1970, the pastor and associates lived in the monastery.  A parish house with living quarters and offices was built.  The stained glass rose window (1973) and sanctuary windows (1976) were installed.  Fr. Kent, C.P, was pastor until 1979.  He returned to assist the parish in 1993 shortly before his death the following year.

     Among the many associates a few are buried in the St. Agnes cemetery.  Fr. Cormac Lynch, C.Pserved from 1944 to 1950.  Fr. Benet Keiran, C.P, from 1957 to 1960.  Fr. Steven Mudd, C.P, was a pastoral intern, 1975-1976.  The priest who loved flowers, Fr. Herbert Tillman, C.P, came to St. Agnes in 1970.  He celebrated the Eucharist on the Sunday before he died July 14, 1992.

     Some of the tombstones are weatherworn and the inscriptions difficult to read.  But the parishioners who remember their names recall the stories of devoted service to the People of God at St. Agnes Parish.

The Singing Boys

     As you walk towards the back of St. Agnes Church, look up to the organ loft. Stretching across from one side of the church to the other, you are greeted by a frieze of singing boys. Some are singing, others are playing musical instruments. There are about 125 figures that populate the sculpture.

     Across the top and bottom of this scene of exultation are words in Latin. The first set of words are: “Laudate pueri Dominum – Children, praise the Lord.” Then follows Psalm 150: “Praise the Name of the Lord; praise him in his sanctuary. Praise him in the firmament of his strength; praise him for his mighty deeds. Praise him with strings and pipe; praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with clanging cymbals.” Finally, we have: “omnes spiritus laudet Dominum – Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”

The Building of Saint Agnes church

     Cesare Bartoli was 19 years old in 1927 when construction of St. Agnes church began.  His father, Michael, was a sculptor.  What follows is a summary of Cesare’s memories of those days.

     The Boston firm of A.P. Mardine designed and furnished many of the interior decorations for St. Agnes.  The marble high alter and the two side alters were made in Italy.  Also from Italy came the five large Della Robbias on thesanctuary wall, the communion rail, and the statues of Mary, Joseph, Sts. Paul of the Cross and Gabriel.  The frieze on the facing of the choir loft was made and shipped from Italy.

     The high alter is made from Carrara and Brescia marble. Each of the six columns surrounding the altar is from a solid piece of marble.  The mosaic of St. Agnes, in the canopy over the altar, was made by artists in Florence, as was the bas-relief sculpture at the base of the altar.

     Michael Bertoli carved the decorations on the confessionals and above the archways.  He also designed the capitals above the twelve pillars in the nave of the church.  Mr. VanVooren, from Belgium, made the pillars by a process known as Scaloglia-Caen cement plaster, that is silk screened to resemble marble.

     The stations of the cross were made in the U.S. by the DaPrato Statuary Company of Chicago.  The pews were made in Louisville.  The hanging light fixtures were designed to resemble the hat formerly worn by popes before Vatican II.  The walls of the church are plaster; lines were grooved into the plaster to give the appearance of large blocks.  This gave the church the look that was popular in European churches.

The Baptismal Font

     As you enter through the center doors of the church, what you see first is the Baptismal font.  The water is flowing, a biblical symbol of “living waters,” a sign of divine life and grace.  This is an instant reminder that through Baptism we entered the Church, the Body of Christ.

     The construction of the Baptismal font took nine months and was ready for the baptisms of the Easter Vigil of 1999.  The water comes up a small circular space (for infant baptism) and then flows into a much larger space (for baptism by immersion).  The rails around the font, with parts of the former Communion rail, make the new Baptismal font harmonize with the rest of the church.

     Each time someone enters the church, they bless themselves with water from the Baptismal font.  This reminds them of their own Baptism when they became a member of their parish community.

Unnoticed Art Pieces

     There are two artistic pieces that few people ever see.

     The first is a white marble frieze across what used to be the “high altar,” where the tabernacle is located.  The frieze is 108 inches long, 20 inches high.  There are eight scenes from the life of Jesus flowing from one into the next.  Starting from the left, we have the Nativity, with the adoration of the shepherds.  Next, there are the Magi with their gifts for the divine infant.  Then, we see Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple.  There is a jump to the last hours of Jesus.  Near the middle we have the Last Supper, with the institution of the Eucharist.  Next there is the Prayer in the Garden, followed by the Scourging at the Pillar and the Way of the Cross.  Finally there is the Death of Jesus on the Cross.

     The second artistic piece is located in what used to be a chapel off the sanctuary.  There is a frieze, in the Della Robbia style, 216 inches long and 44 inches high.  Depicted are the Prophets of the old Testament.  From the left are Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, Hosea, Amos, Nahum, Ezechiel, Daniel and Elijah.  In the middle is Moses.  Then Joshua, Jeremiah, Jonah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Micah, Hggai, Malachi and finally Zechariah.

The Stations of the Cross

     The Stations of the Cross in St. Agnes church are unique because they are large and beautiful.  I have seen larger outdoor stations.  The stations in most churches are smaller and often are pictures; sometimes, only 14 small crosses.  The stations in St. Agnes are also altars.  Before concelebration, if many Masses were celebrated at the same time, the station altars were used.

     There are two features I would like to point out.

     First, on the top of each station is the Passionist “Sign.”  It is the badge or emblem that embodies the spirit of the Passionist Community.  The badge includes a heart, surmounted by a cross. Within the heart are the words: JESU XPI PASSIO.  The first word is Jesus, in Latin.  The XPI are Greek letters: X is “chi,” ch in English; P is “rho,” r, I is “iota,” i.  So we have CHRI, a shortened form of Christ.  Finally PASSIO is Latin for Passion or Suffering.  What the emblem says is: “May the passion of Jesus Christ be in our hearts.”

     The other feature is that the two vertical borders of each station are filled with carved “passionflowers.”  The passionflower is a tropical woody tendrilled climbing vine with showy flowers.  It is called “passionflower” because of the fancied resemblance of the parts of the flower to the instruments of Christ’s crucifixion, especially the three nails and the crown of thorns.

The Eucharistic Table

     The first written account of “the Lord’s Supper” appears in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  “Liturgy” is a Greek word which means “public worship;” it has been used from the beginning in the Eastern Churches.

     Because of the persecutions, the early Christian communities had no church buildings.  They celebrated the Eucharist in private homes.  When the persecutions came to an end, Christians were offered public assembly buildings, called basilicas.  Formerly basilicas often had been places of pagan worship and had altars.

     The Table of the Eucharist is the real center of the church. Separated from all else, it is the focus of our worship.  Through the liturgical reforms of Vatican II the “Lord’s Table” is so located that a real interaction can occur between the celebrant, or presider, and a participating assembly of the faithful.

     The beautiful “Table of the Eucharist” in St. Agnes church manifests much of the simplicity and meaning of the Lord’s Supper.  The tremendous paradox of the Liturgy, whether celebrated in a grand style or very humbly, is that Christ Jesus, the son of God, becomes present in the simple elements of bread and wine on the Table of the Eucharist.

The Choir Stalls

     The word “choir” usually refers to a group of singers who perform during a religious function.  In the past, “choir” meant the place in the church where they sang.  If they were priests or religious, they were located directly behind, or to the side of the altar, or between the altar and the nave. Sometimes the choir was hidden from view by elaborately ornamented screens.  This can be seen in cathedrals, metropolitan churches, or churches attached to monasteries.  This is especially true in Europe.  When the choir was located between the altar and the nave, the congregation was put at some distance from the celebrant.  Later, a balcony in the rear of the church served as the choir, especially for lay men and women.  Moving the choir closer to the altar began after the promulgation of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” by Vatican II.

     In our church of St. Agnes, the monastic choir is located in the semicircle behind and to the sides of the altar.  The choir stalls can easily be missed because they blend into the dark wood behind them. The platform on which the choir stalls rest is seven inches above the sanctuary floor.  The stalls themselves rise another 33 inches.  In each stall there is a closet for books.  The flat wooden seats swing upward to give more space because the singing of Gregorian chant was performed standing.  Each half of the semicircle has placed for 15 choir members.

The Limpias Crucifix

     In the left transept, between the shrine of Mary and that of St. Paul of the Cross, there stands a distinctive crucifix.  It is called the “Limpias” crucifix.  Limpias is a small town on the northern coast of Spain.  There is very little information about the origins of this crucifix.  The sculptor is unknown.  Originally, it was owned by a merchant of Cadiz.  The crucifix was transferred to Limpias in 1749.  In the early part of the 20th century, copies of the Limpias crucifix were placed in many of the monastery chapels and churches of the Passionist communities in our country.

     The figure of Jesus is six feet in height. The head of the Lord is thrown back.  There is no wound in his side.  Jesus is represented as still alive, enduring the agonies of crucifixion.  The significance of the “Limpias” crucifix is this: the Lord Jesus died on the Cross and rose on Easter.  Yet, Jesus is still alive in the Church, especially among those who suffer.  The redeeming power of Christ continues in our time.

Shrine of St. Paul of the Cross

     In the east transept is the shrine of St. Paul of the Cross.  The statue depicts Paul doing what he loved above all else, to preach about how much God loves us.

     Paul Francis Daneo was born Ovada, near Genoa, Italy, January 2, 1694.  When Paul was 26 years old, he made an intense spiritual retreat.  He was inspired to write a Rule, a way of life.  This was the beginning of the Passionist Community.

     Paul became a well-known spiritual director.  He wrote to popes, clergy, religious and laity.  In a time without computers and mail service was doubtful, more than two thousand letters have been preserved.  We have no way of knowing how many were lost.

     But Paul’s first love was to preach parish missions.  In 18th century Italy most of the people lived in small towns and in out-of-the-way villages.  Most were poor; wars were frequent.  Paul came to a people yearning for peace, hope and salvation.  Paul held up a suffering Jesus on a cross and proclaimed, “See how much God loves you.”

     Paul Daneo was 81 years old when he died on October 18, 1775.  He was canonized as St. Paul of the Cross in 1867.

Saint Gabriel

     In the west transept is the shrine of St. Gabriel, C.P.  The status depicts Gabriel as a young man; he died at the age of 24, February 28, 1862.

     Gabriel Possenti was born in Assisi, Italy, on March 1, 1838.  His family moved to Spoleto where Mr. Possenti became a prominent lawyer and governor.  Gabriel’s mother died when he was four years old.  In high school he was taught by the Christian Brothers, in college by the Jesuits. His family was well off, he was an excellent dancer, his college elected him their valedictorian.  A bright future lay ahead.

     However, at 18 years of age, Gabriel felt he was being called by God.  He joined the Passionist Community.  In six short years, with a straightforward determination, Gabriel lived the Gospel according to the Passionist way of life.  Because of civil war at the time, Gabriel and his community sought safety at Isola, near Gran Sasso, the highest peak of the Apennines.  Before he could be ordained, Gabriel died.

The Bell Tower

     St. Agnes Church was built on top of a hill.  Its bell tower, or campanile, can be seen and heard from a distance.  You can see it while driving north on Newburg Road, or from the windows of Audubon Hospital, or from Calvary cemetery.

     Since the church was built in the Italo-Romanesque style, the campanile is square except for the very top which is octagonal.  Like many continental churches the tower is separated from the main structure of the church.  The space between is occupied by what was a small chapel.  Above it was an area where the religious of the monastery could look down upon the altar.  This was a common practice for monastic churches.

     The three bells in the campanile were cast by the I.P. Verdin Co. of Cincinnati.  The bells were rung for the first time on June 24, 1934.  After 66 years of use, some of the parts of the mechanism began to deteriorate.  During the summer of 2000, repairs were made and the whole system is computerized.

     Daily, the bell tower peals out the “Angelus,” a call to prayer in the morning, at noon and at night.  This devotional prayer commemorates the Annunciation.  “Angelus,” is Latin for “angel,” the first word of the prayer: “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary …”  The bells ring out an invitation five minutes before the Sunday Masses and the weekday 10 o’clock Mass.  All the bells ring out to announce that the Sacrament of Matrimony is about to be celebrated or some other joyous occasion.

A History and Description

     The material on this page first appeared in the "St. Agnes Belltower," a bimonthly publication of St. Agnes Parish. The articles were modified to fit into a pamphlet by Fr. Albert Schwer, C.P. They were then copied and placed on this page.