[A. Courtois.] “Het Kloosterken van Kleyn Loretten in Noord-America.” (“Little Loretto.”)
Mechelen, Belgium: P. J. Hanicq, 1818. 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 (image); 7 7/8 x 10 (sheet). Engraving. Original hand color. Very good condition. See Edgar Breitenbach, “Little Loretto, Kentucky,” in American Printmaking Before 1876: Fact, Fiction and Fantasy. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1972), and William C. Reese Company, New Haven, CT, Catalogue 304.
In 1804 a Belgian-born priest, Charles Nerinckx (1761-1824), came to the United States. After studying briefly with the Jesuits at Georgetown, he was assigned to join seven other priests on the Kentucky frontier. Nerinckx was instrumental in establishing the Sisters of Loretto (formally, “Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross”), a teaching order of Catholic Sisters that was the first such religious congregation founded in the United States. In order to raise funds for a projected convent and school in Marion County, Nerinckx travelled back home in 1806/07 and engaged an artist named Courtois of Malines, Belgium, to create a view of the proposed little settlement. What emerged was a blend of the architectural and the fanciful. The buildings appear to correspond to the community as it eventually took shape, but the setting includes an alpine range in the background and palm trees scattered about! A key to the intended use of the buildings was appended in Flemish, French and English. A second version of this earliest view of a Kentucky settlement was published about 1816.
At the time of Nerinckx’s final fund-raising visit home in 1818, a new plate was made for advertising purposes, and this print is from that plate. Courtois’ name was removed and the explanatory text telling of the history of the mission, appealing for donations, and providing a key to the buildings is only in the Flemish version of Dutch. The key explains the aspects of the locale this way: a: convent and chapel, the only two-story building (note graveyard behind); b: the school; c: the kitchen and refectory; d: the courtyard; e: house of the sisters' servant; f: guesthouse and hospital; g: priest’s house; h: house and kitchen of priest’s cook; i: stables; k: main gates. In the center of the group of buildings the Sisters are depicted on their knees facing Mary, whose heart is being pierced with a sword and whose expansive cloak is being held by angels so that it protectively envelops the Sisters. Mary stands at the foot of the cross bearing her bleeding son, while banners proclaiming “Jesus” and “Marie” float above the scene.
By 1824, Father Nerinckx had become exhausted from his work and his conflicts with both a younger priest, Father Chabrat, and with the bishop in Bardstown. He relocated to Missouri, dying that same year. Chabrat ordered the Sisters to relocate from their original settlement and destroyed his predecessor’s books and papers. The Sisters obeyed, but burned down all the buildings save for the priest’s house, to prevent the place being turned to a secular use. The Sisters continue to this day with the mission to “work for justice and act for peace because the Gospel urges us.”
This wonderful view is a rare example of early Kentucky history and of frontier America of the period generally.