Bishop John J. McRaith and Fr. Pike Powell enjoy some barbeque at Mount Saint Joseph’s picnic on Sept. 8, 1985. COURTESY OF MOUNT SAINT JOSEPH ARCHIVES
Our Catholic church picnics: The sacred and the savory
BY EDWARD WILSON, ARCHIVES
It has been a long time coming, but after the hiatus last year, picnic season is back. Men’s groups, cooking teams, and Knights of Columbus will start striking up the grills and boiling the burgoo. Though these events have gotten smaller over the years, they have deep cultural roots that undergird many parishes. For many families, picnics largely consist of buying a gallon of burgoo and a chicken to take home. However, in the not-so-distant past, these events consisted of games, new-car raffles, cake wheels, and hundreds of feet of standing picnic tables with all you can eat barbeque and slices of white bread for soaking up burgoo. Though these events have gotten smaller, the distinct culture and community has been present and developing throughout.It should come as no surprise that many of the beloved staples of our picnics have remained the same for decades. Our mutton is so intertwined with our picnics that local tradition has it that St. Mary of the Woods’ picnic began in 1846 after a sheep was open-pit barbecued for workers. The event was so enjoyable they committed to celebrate with a picnic every year thereafter. Though the thousands and thousands of pounds of mutton cooked up at the Fancy Farm picnic may seem like a feat only achievable at the “world’s biggest picnic,” in 1971, Mount Saint Joseph ordered 4,500 pounds of sheep for their picnic. That was served alongside over a half ton of another cultural staple, burgoo. Documents show that the Mount’s picnic was dishing out burgoo even in the 1920s. Both mutton and burgoo are regional dishes that have been staples of Catholic picnics for decades. Combined with homemade ice-cream, it is clear to see why Western-Kentuckians waited all year to indulge on those beautiful summer days.
Alongside our cultural traditions is the community these events helped build. These picnics were held and attended to help grow our beloved Catholic Church and its institutions. The proceeds from those Mount Saint Joseph Labor Day picnics went to support the retired sisters who had dedicated their life to the service of the Church. The workers that were rewarded for their labor at that first St. Mary of the Woods barbecue were there to help construct the first log church. In 1927, when Fr. Hugh O’Sullivan wrote from Whitesville to Bishop John Floersh in Louisville requesting permission to have a picnic, it was to raise money for the church’s school. This was also the case for St. Alphonsus in St. Joseph, the year before, in 1926.
These picnics have given so many of us our most cherished memories of our communities. They are more than just good times and full bellies. They build community, friendships, and continue a culture that is truly unique, beautiful and all our own. They help build our places of worship and education. They help teach our Catholic youth and patron our religious. So, this year when you stick that gallon of burgoo in the freezer so you can treat yourself over the coming weeks, know that it is so much more than just a few tasty bowls of stew.
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 August 2021 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.