Pictured is a commemorative funerary card for Bishop Francis R. Cotton, who died in 1960. COURTESY OF ARCHIVES
Letter addresses and dispels perhaps the oldest rumor in the history of our diocese
BY EDWARD WILSON, ARCHIVES
September is a month that holds great significance for our diocese; most focally, as it pertains to our first bishop, His Excellency Francis Ridgley Cotton. We celebrate both of his birthdays during this time, his birth to earthly life as well as his birth to eternal life. So, as a gift to our first bishop, this article will address and dispel a misconception that began in his time and still circulates to this day.
Occasionally, when Bishop Cotton comes up in conversation, people will mention that he was a convert from Protestantism. However, this is actually not true. This is something that has been believed for a very longtime. Fr. Ben Luther even mentioned the strange phenomenon in a series of articles that he wrote of the late bishop for The Western Kentucky Catholic in 2006. In one of these articles, Fr. Luther wrote, “For years, I heard the rumor that ‘Bishop Cotton was a convert.’ Not so, for he was baptized Catholic almost immediately after birth.” Fr. Luther believed that this rumor was the result of the bishop’s father’s, Charles Cotton, late-life conversion. Charles was baptized and entered the Church in 1935, two years prior to his son becoming the first bishop of Owensboro. The news was published with great joy in Louisville’s diocesan newspaper, The Record. Fr. Luther believed that this was where the misunderstanding originated from.
A correspondence from 1954 illustrates that the rumor was indeed circulating during Bishop Cotton’s life and also that he had addressed and dispelled it. On Jan. 17, 1954, a man wrote to Bishop Cotton. Among other subjects, he addressed the conversion rumor stating, “I was told by someone that you were converted to the faith many years ago.” Four days later, Bishop Cotton replied, “I do not know how the report got about that I was a convert to the church. I was born in Bardstown, Kentucky, and baptized in (sic) raised in the faith.” His reply that he did “not know how the report got about” infers that he had likely encountered it before. Also, the man writing him was located in New York City. So, the rumor is not only old but was widespread.
The bishop was prompt and cordial with his response but there is little doubt that this rumor upset him. Bishop Cotton was renowned for his scrupulousness. He was very proud of his family’s Maryland to Kentucky pioneer Catholic roots. His great-grandfather is mentioned in the seminal work of Catholic Kentucky history, Ben. J. Webb’s “The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky.” Bishop Cotton received a Catholic education during his childhood and entered pre-seminary studies for the priesthood at the age of 13. There are few that could bolster a more prestigious Catholic pedigree. In short, he was Catholic to his very core.
So, to celebrate Bishop Cotton this month, let us honor and more fervently pray for our religious, those currently with us as well as those enjoying their eternal reward.
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 September 2021 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.