January 1, 2023 | Archives
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Pictured is Polly “Old Pol” the Parrot. COURTESY OF ARCHIVES

Why is Mount Saint Joseph home to a stuffed South American parrot?

BY EDWARD WILSON, ARCHIVES

In my August article I mentioned some of the more peculiar items that were uncovered while the archives was undertaking several large projects. I noted that some of the items would be featured in upcoming articles. This month’s article will feature one of those items, Polly the Parrot.

My favorite figure in the history of our diocese, even before we were separated from the diocese of Louisville, is Fr. Paul Joseph Volk (1841-1919). A short description of Fr. Volk is that he was a German missionary priest who served western and central Kentucky and later South America. Perhaps his greatest gift to the diocese was the founding and construction of Mount Saint Joseph. He is responsible for the construction of over 20 churches. In our diocese alone, he is responsible for the reconstruction of St. Alphonsus Parish, Daviess County; organizing St. Joseph Parish, Owensboro; and the construction of St. Benedict Parish and St. Sebastian Parish in McLean County. He later went on to serve the very poor, and indigenous people of South America. Towards the end of his life, he returned to Kentucky where he continued to serve until he spent his final days at MSJ, where he is now buried. So what does this saintly priest have to do with Polly, the stuffed parrot?

Tradition has it that while Fr. Volk was missioning in South America, he acquired a pet macaw that he named Polly. This would have been a delightfully exotic animal for a German around the turn of the century. When Fr. Volk returned to Kentucky, he brought Polly (later called Old Pol) back with him. Being that macaws live an average of 40 years, Fr. Volk was outlived by his little feathered friend and the aging parrot was left in the loving care of the Ursuline Sisters.

The responsibility of Polly was taken up by Sr. Johanna Froeba, OSU. The two became dear friends. Sr. Johanna would feed Polly after the sisters ate. When Polly saw his friend Sr. Johanna coming, he would happily jump onto the broomstick which was used for his feedings. After Sr. Johanna died, Polly refused to eat and followed shortly after.

After the parrot passed, the question of what to do with him arose. Nearly anything that the holy priest, Fr. Volk, had touched was preserved by the Ursuline Sisters, his spiritual daughters. So as logic would have it, they had the exotic bird taxidermized. When the Mount’s museum was established, it seemed the obvious home for him.

For years, Old Pol was a premier attraction at the MSJ Museum. The story of his origin, arrival to the United States, friendship with Sr. Johanna and subsequent death was told and retold. He was often mentioned by students writing letters of appreciation to the museum. One teacher, Ms. Halie Medkiff, even wrote “The story about the parrot was heart-breaking to some (especially to me.)” The stories of his adventures and friendships continued to win hearts long after his had stopped beating.

A viewer may look at this bird and his surroundings and wonder why in the world is there an exotic stuffed parrot in a convent in western Kentucky. Well, this may be a time where the truth is stranger than fiction. Old Pol is a true example that even the most unassuming can be grand adventurers.

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 edward.wilson@pastoral.org.


Originally printed in the January 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
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