Corpus Christi ceremony at Mount Saint Joseph on May 30, 1948. COURTESY OF MOUNT SAINT JOSEPH ARCHIVES
‘Our Eucharistic Lord’
The historical roots of the Corpus Christi procession in the Diocese of Owensboro
BY EDWARD WILSON, ARCHIVES
Thousands of onlookers stand reverently on rain-sodden ground. Lining the streets under cloud-darkened skies, they gaze upon the Lord as he passes through their midst. This is not a scene of Christ entering Jerusalem, nor is it of his arduous trek to Golgotha; this is St. John the Evangelist Church, in McCracken County, Kentucky in 1938.
The Feast of Corpus Christi is a celebration that is over 750 years old. Awe-inspiring, it is rich with pious veneration for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The liturgy, reverently constructed by one of our most prolific saints, St. Thomas Aquinas, is renowned as one of the most beautiful in the entirety of the Church. The most recognized aspect of the feast is the procession.
The first Corpus Christi procession in the newly-established Diocese of Owensboro, following the partition of the Diocese of Louisville, took place on June 19, 1938 at St. John, in McCracken County. It consisted of over 1,000 men and boys. It was recorded that “despite threatening clouds and even rain in the morning” around 1,500 attended to witness the ceremony.
Following this, the Corpus Christi processions continued to grow larger each year. Two main processions began to be promoted by the diocese, one in “The Purchase” areas of either Paducah or Fancy Farm, varying by year, and one at Mount Saint Joseph, where it had been held prior to 1938. In 1939, approximately 6,000 attended the procession at the Mount. So many non-Catholics started to attend the event that the priests began to give “short sermons” to get those who were unfamiliar acquainted with the faith. As the processions and the onlookers grew, the displays became all the more impressive. The participants marched four abreast. Each parish represented, marched together under a banner baring the parish’s name and location. The proceedings actually became so substantial that some clergy began to voice concerns about them becoming too large. Some began fearing that the vast numbers of people, many of whom were just there for the show, might be contorting the reverent ritual into a spectacle.
These issues would soon be of much less concern, as in 1941 America enter the Second World War. Following the conclusion of the war, much to the joy of the clergy and laity, the processions once again became a time to celebrate in a world at peace.
Even after the celebration of Corpus Christi moved to the Owensboro Sportscenter, in the post-Vatican II initiative to adapt to a changing world, it still continued to be a monumental occasion. The diocese even joyously welcomed Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen to give a homily at one such event in 1970!
Though the Church has seen many changes over the years, the eternal truth of Christ present in the Eucharist is still guiding Her. Let us love relentlessly this beautiful gift bestowed upon us by, as Bishop Francis R. Cotton put it, “Our Eucharistic Lord.”
Edward Wilson is the director of the Diocese of Owensboro’s Archives and the Archives of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Comments and questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.