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Kentucky welcomes 27 new U.S. citizens in a unique ceremony hundreds of feet underground in Mammoth Cave

The unique ceremony was held a quarter of a mile into the world's largest cave system, which spans more than 600 miles underground in western Kentucky
Jacob Martin
WKU Public Radio
The naturalization ceremony was held a quarter of a mile into the world's largest cave system, which spans more than 600 miles underground in western Kentucky

Twenty-seven Kentuckians from 20 different countries across the world officially became U.S. citizens in a special ceremony hundreds of feet below ground, inside Mammoth Cave National Park.

The annual ceremony is a partnership between the National Park Service and U.S. Immigration Services to welcome and expose new citizens to their state's National Parks system.

U.S. District Court Judge Greg Stivers presided over Thursday's ceremony, which took place in an area of the cave known as "The Methodist Church", providing a remarkable backdrop for the visitors.

In his address to the citizens, Stivers said America’s rich history is interwoven with immigrants from across the world.

“Over the nearly 250 years since our nation was founded it’s been a great strength of our country that it's drawn people from all over the world and that continues today,” Stivers said. “Today we officially welcome you into our nation's rich fabric.”

Wahlen Kanyandekwe was part of the naturalization ceremony. He arrived in the United States from the west African nation of Togo eleven years ago. He said he has been a permanent citizen for several years but becoming a U.S. citizen provides him with a great deal of happiness and relief.

“There is this sort of burden you feel when you know that at any moment you could get deported,” Kanyandekwe said. “There is just some uncertainty that comes from just being a permanent resident that goes away the moment you become a citizen. It’s pretty exhilarating.”

Friends and family joined the new citizens and trekked a quarter mile into that historic cave system, which spans over 600 miles of underground passages, lakes, and rivers, making it the largest cave system in the world.

Paul Wolf attended the naturalization ceremony to watch his wife pledge the Oath of Allegiance and complete the citizenship process. He said he was surprised when he learned the ceremony would be taking place in the cave.

“When she called and told us that we were supposed to be here for the ceremony I was thinking, ‘What's going on? Where is it? In a cave!’” Wolf said. “I’ve never heard that it’s going to happen in a cave, it should be in a courthouse. But it's just amazing.”

Wolf and his wife are from Belarus and both recently became citizens. He said they are excited to be able to take advantage of the opportunities the U.S. offers.

“I’m so happy because we have been waiting for this moment for six years, Wolf said. “We are new citizens of the United States, and it's going to be better for all of us and for our kids and we just have a huge opportunity in this country.”

Becoming a citizen requires a ten-step naturalization process that includes written applications, tests, and personal interviews. Each individual must meet eligibility requirements and the process is voluntary.

Molly Schroer, Public Affairs officer for Mammoth Cave, said the event is a special way to commemorate the experience and process the new citizens have gone through.

“It is very special and unique to be able to offer this wonderful event,” Schroer said. “It’s something we love to do because it’s a great way to showcase the park and a wonderful backdrop of this very special moment in their lives that connects them to the history and culture of our nation.”

Jacob Martin is a Reporter at WKU Public Radio. He joined the newsroom from Kansas City, where he covered the city’s underserved communities and general assignments at NPR member station, KCUR. A Louisville native, he spent seven years living in Brooklyn, New York before moving back to Kentucky. Email him at