This magnificent structure began with the laying of its cornerstone in July 1816. Five years of hard work by its Bishop, Benedict Joseph Flaget, to raise enough money to begin the building had preceded this historical day in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral is the first west of the Allegheny Mountains and is listed by the U.S. Library of Congress as a national landmark possessing exceptional interest and worthy of careful preservation. Having been sufficiently completed in 1819 for services to be held, it rose in the Kentucky wilderness as a monument to the faith, toil, and zeal, of the French priest, Benedict Joseph Flaget, who became the Bishop of the Diocese of Bardstown, and the families of the area both Catholic and Protestant. It truly became a work of human hands! This historic edifice contains fine paintings and other gifts from Europe donated by Pope Leo XII, Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies, and King Louis Phillippe of France, just to name of few.
In 1775, Catholic settlers, mostly of English and Irish descent, began emigrating chiefly from Maryland to Kentucky, an outpost of the crown colony of Virginia. The first missionaries came around 1787. In 1808 the four new Catholic dioceses, created at the request of Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, included Bardstown along with Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The new diocese of Bardstown covered almost the entire Northwest Territory, south to New Orleans and as far north as Detroit.
In 1811, three years after he was appointed, Bishop Flaget arrived at Bardstown, traveling down the Ohio River by flatboat and overland from Louisville by wagon, accompanied by a group of seminarians. Bishop Flaget was able to build a small brick church near Bardstown, named St. Thomas. Soon he was consumed with the idea of erecting a cathedral of majestic proportions. Since most of the settlers were very poor, people contributed their materials and their labor as carpenters and masons to build the cathedral.
Architect and builder of the cathedral was John Rogers of Baltimore. Bricks were baked on the grounds, and solid tree trunks cut from the wilderness were lathed in a circular pattern to form the stately columns supporting the building.
The Cathedral was consecrated in 1819, though the interior was not fully completed until 1823. When the Episcopal See was moved forty miles away to the fast growing city of Louisville in 1841, St. Joseph's became a parish church, hence, the title "proto-cathedral." In 1995 Bardstown was named a titular see by the Vatican for its contributions to Catholic Church heritage in America. Once again, Bardstown, only one of three titular dioceses in the U.S., has a bishop, though in an honorary capacity.
St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral complex, which includes Spalding Hall and Flaget Hall of what was originally St. Joseph College, is on the National Historic Register.