With its majestic octagonal tower and inspiring stained-glass windows, St. Rose Proto-Priory and Church has served Springfield for 200 years. Established in 1806, the proto-priory remains the oldest Dominican religious house in the country. Its Tudor-Gothic church, built the same year, is the oldest standing structure west of the Alleghenies still in use as a church. Named in honor of the Third Order Dominican Saint Rose of Lima, it began as a sister parish of St. Ann. After St. Ann closed several decades later, St. Rose became the area’s only Catholic church.
The first leader of the newly-formed Dominican province of St. Joseph, Father Edward Fenwick, O.P. (eventually bishop of Cincinnati), organized the Dominican venture at St. Rose and purchased the property for the parish. Father Samuel Thomas Wilson, O.P., was the first pastor.
The Dominican friars founded a college—the first Catholic educational institution west of the Alleghenies—for boys and young men in 1808 or 1809. Dedicated to Saint Thomas Aquinas, it flourished for several decades. Among its distinguished alumni was Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.
The growing Catholic population needed a larger church. Dedicated in 1855, the new church was an expansion of the original building, which now comprises the sanctuary, between the tabernacle and the new altar. A larger priory was constructed in 1867 to accommodate the addition of a seminary. The old priory remained intact until both priory buildings were demolished in 1978 and replaced by an eight-bedroom priory. Until 1956, when the seminary moved, seminarians worked the 600-acre farm on the complex. The farm ceased operation in 1978.
A parish school operated from 1951 until 1968. The school building is still used for many purposes, including a Head Start program, wedding receptions and family reunions, and the annual autumn turkey supper, which serves about 3,100 people. Today 650 parishioners count St. Rose as their spiritual home
The History of Saint Rose Priory
The story of Saint Rose Priory begins with Father Edward Dominic Fenwick. His father was a wealthy member of the Maryland Colonial Convention who became a patriot of the American Revolution. Their large house overlooked the Patuxent River in Saint Mary’s County. After the war, the Fenwicks sent their son to Holy Cross College in Bornem, Belgium. There in 1788, he followed in the footsteps of his uncle John Ceslas Fenwick by joining the Order of Friars Preachers.
Four friars set out, to establish a boarding school for boys in Maryland, but the Sulpicians were already in Baltimore and the Jesuits in Georgetown. So, Bishop John Carroll recommended Kentucky. The other three distinguished Dominican priests who joined Fenwick in the venture were: Samuel Thomas Wilson, a Master of Sacred Theology, and Robert Antoninus Angier, a Lectorate in Sacred Theology and Preacher General, and finally William Raymond Tuite, another Lectorate in Sacred Theology. As of June 22, 1805, Edward Dominic Fenwick was named the superior. The Master of the Order, Pius Joseph Gaddi, named the new province after his patron, Saint Joseph.
At that time, the only priest in Kentucky was Father Stephen Theodore Badin. Fenwick rode out to Kentucky first and then returned to liquidate his 800 acre inheritance. Wilson and Tuite made the journey in a wagon, but suffered injury and delay in the mountains. Bishop Carroll, however, kept Father John Fenwick in Maryland.
In Washington County, the friars found many of the faithful living along Cartwright Creek. At first, Father Wilson lived in a log cabin known as Saint Ann’s, and soon began teaching. The site today is merely a hilltop at the junction of three farms, two miles down the road from the present priory, in Cisselville. Father Tuite went to Bardstown. When Fenwick returned in July 1806, he used his inheritance to buy a farm of about 500 acres with a gristmill, sawmill, and a two-story brick house from John Waller. Wilson and his pupils, as well as Tuite, then moved to what is now Saint Rose, named after the first American saint.
Construction of a priory and church began almost immediately, but on higher ground. The priory was inhabited by December 1806 but not completed until the next year.
The Tudor Gothic church was dedicated on Christmas Day 1809. That church is the sanctuary of the present church. Although pupils lived with the friars from the beginning, Saint Thomas of Aquin College was added to the priory. In the early years, the faculty included laymen. On September 21, 1816, four friars were ordained to the priesthood, including Richard Pius Miles who eventually became the first Bishop of Nashville.
The year 1822 would prove to be monumental. On January 13 in Saint Rose Church, Edward Dominic Fenwick was consecrated as the first Bishop of Cincinnati. Later that year, John Thomas Hynes was ordained to the priesthood. He would later become a titular bishop and Vicar Apostolic of British Guiana.
One Sunday around this same time, Wilson appealed to the women of the parish to dedicate themselves to religious life. Of the nine who responded immediately, four were formally received, and by August six more joined the sisterhood. Their leader, Mariah Sansbury, became Sister Angela. A log house was built for them on the property across the creek which they called Bethany.
Soon they moved to the Sansbury farm, however, and turned the stillhouse into Saint Mary Magdalen Academy for girls. This in time grew into Saint Catharine College, and a network of Dominican convents across the country.
By 1828, Saint Thomas of Aquin College closed, because there were other schools, and because the prior, Raphael Munos, turned the friars away from secular education. Saint Rose, however, continued to be a novitiate and seminary.
There were several other bishops who came from Saint Rose, but perhaps the most distinguished person to have lived and studied there was Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli (1806-64). After his ordination by Fenwick in Cincinnati on September 5, 1830, he was sent at first as Missionary Apostolic to Mackinac in Michigan. So fruitful was his widespread apostolate, especially among the Indians, that today his cause for beatification is well underway.
The Dominican friars built Saint Dominic’s Church in downtown Springfield in 1844, and cared for its people for 40 years. Many other Churches were established and maintained until diocesan priests came. At Saint Rose in 1855, the present church building was added to the front of the old church. Its stained-glass windows, which are almost the same as those of Saint Louis Bertrand’s in Louisville, were installed years later.
During the Civil War, soldiers from both sides came to Saint Rose. They sometimes begged for food or stole a horse. One priest had his horse taken from him by Morgan’s Raiders while on his way to give the Blessed Sacrament to a dying person, but Captain John Hunt Morgan, ordered that the horse be returned. The friars frequently ministered to the Federals at their barracks in Lebanon, in Marion County.
In 1867, Father Constantine Louis Egan built the large red brick building that would serve primarily as a Dominican novitiate and seminary. His successor, Father Joseph Henry Slinger (1869-72) then had the old college wing demolished. A fire destroyed nearby Saint Catharine’s Academy on January 3, 1904. To provide bricks for the sisters, the end of the old priory was shortened. In 1905, Dominican novices went to Somerset, Ohio, and student brothers went to Washington, D.C. while Saint Rose was reduced to a retirement home. An increase in vocations, however, required a renovation. After 1917, newly professed brothers went to Kentucky to study philosophy before going to Washington for theology. In 1925, philosophy students went to River Forest, Illinois, and Saint Rose became the novitiate again. Father Lorenz Pius Johannsen then began a record 17 year term as the novice master. The novitiate for laybrothers, meanwhile, alternated among each of these four priories.
Father James Aldridge, during his two terms as prior (1927-33), transformed the old part of the church into the priory chapel because the chapel in the brick building had to be used to accommodate novices. So, he connected the buildings with a passageway. Between 1929-30, Aldridge also built Holy Rosary Church in Springfield for Catholics of African descent. Saint Rose continued to be the school for the first year of philosophy until 1956. Throughout its history, the farm and dairy employed several laymen. A grammar school was built in 1951, but it operated only until 1968. It is now used for the Head Start program and parochial functions.
In 1978, realizing that Saint Rose would henceforth be primarily a parish, the first Dominican priory in the country was torn down, as well as the old novitiate, in order to erect a small priory. Most of the land was sold, leaving less than 100 acres. Dominican brothers and sisters now visit Saint Rose on occasion, either to recollect the old days, or to pay homage to our forefathers who made this a sacred place.