An interesting 1827 letter written by Benedict Joseph Flaget to then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay was recently discovered while processing the papers of Francis J. Whitaker, a monk who lived at St. Maur’s Priory (South Union, Kentucky) from 1954 to 1988. Flaget was the first Roman Catholic bishop of Bardstown; his authority stretched from Michigan south to Tennessee and from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. Among his numerous responsibilities, Flaget planned and oversaw construction of the St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown. Actually, the 1827 letter relates to that building’s construction.
In the letter Flaget asks Clay to use his power to waive the duty fees on a number of items being sent from Europe to adorn the new cathedral, since they “are not and cannot be objects of commerce.” The items in question were chiefly gifts of the Prince of Naples and consisted of five “large candlesticks the whole of brass sumptously gilt, & executed by the Artists in his kingdom” as well as “fine paintings and many other vestments & ornaments for divine service.” Flaget appealed to Clay’s friendship and his local attachments, pleading: “For God’s sake, give me another proof of your generous friendship, & in favour of a town where I have been told, you have partly trained up.” The bishop ends the epistle by stating his tender feelings for the United States: “My zeal for the country which I have freely and deliberately adopted is unrelenting; & thanks be to God the good effects of it are sensibly felt not only in Kentucky, but in all the Western country.”
This fascinating letter’s route to St. Maur’s makes it even more unusual. In letters to a number of Catholic historians, Brother Whitaker noted that the missive had been used as a bookmark in a tome which had been donated to St. Maur’s library. Several scholars who corresponded with Whitaker mentioned that Flaget had several instances of “difficulty with the government in reference to exemption from duty on imports of a religious and education nature.”
To see a finding aid for the Whitaker collection click here. Click TopSCHOLAR to search for other church and religious records housed in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives division of WKU’s Special Collections Library.