James Beauregard Beam, founder of the bourbon company that bears his name, was a Baptist. But his grandson, F. Booker Noe II, for 40 years the legendary master distiller of the same company, was an active Roman Catholic.
We twice stayed in a bed and breakfast on Fourth Street in Bardstown, Ky., right across the street from the handsome home first occupied by Col. Beam and later by his grandson until the latter's death in 2004 at the age of 74. According to our hostess, Col. Beam endowed the Bardstown Baptist Church on the same street. Booker, on the other hand, worshiped regularly at the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral.
This last fact was confirmed for us last week by our guide on a tour of the pro-cathedral, a church worth visiting by anyone who has even a passing interest in American and/or Catholic history.
The former Diocese of Bardstown was created in 1808 at the same time as the dioceses of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Up to then there had been only one diocese in the United States -- Baltimore. The territory of the Bardstown diocese was vast, far bigger than the other U.S. dioceses, including parts or all of 10 states.
The first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains, St. Joseph was built between 1816 and 1819. Among its treasures are paintings donated by Pope Leo XII and Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies.
Eventually the Diocese of Bardstown was divided into 44 dioceses and archdioceses, beginning with the then-Diocese of Cincinnati in 1821. When the episcopal see in central Kentucky was moved from Bardstown to the fast-growing city of Louisville in 1841, St. Joseph lost its status as the bishop's seat and became a proto-cathedral.
In 2001, however, this great church was elevated to the status of a minor basilica by Pope John Paul II in recognition of its historic importance. Tours are available on a regular basis April through October and by reservation the rest of the year. It's not always open to visitors, though, because sometimes more important things are going on there -- weddings, baptisms, funerals and daily Mass. It's a thriving parish church of almost 5,000 members, not just a historical artifact, which is what took Booker Noe there on a regular basis.