December 1, 2021 | Archives
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

A snow-covered Locust Street and St. Stephen in Owensboro in 1933. COURTESY OF ARCHIVES

The first Christmas in the Diocese of Owensboro


The Diocese of Owensboro’s first Christmas really does have all the makings of a classic Christmas tale. Through the final cold days of a hard year, parishioners remain prayerful, and faith-filled and are given a blessing that renews the spirit of hope and joy.

With December arriving and the year ending, for many 1937 was another year of hardship and struggle. The country was still gripped by the economic depression it had been dealing with for years. To make matters worse, earlier in the year, one of the worst natural disasters to hit Kentucky in modern times, the 1937 flood, struck, and had some still picking up the pieces. The western Kentucky territory had around 57 orphans in its care that it struggled to provide for. The population was so burdened, they could not successfully fully support the orphans solely through the traditional means of local alms.

Through the hardship, the faith of the area remained strong. Although this Christmas would be another of financial difficulty, on December 9, God gave his faithful people a very special Christmas gift.

On December 9, 1937, Pope Pius XI created the Diocese of Owensboro out of the western part of the Diocese of Louisville. Few things, if any, could have caused such a joyous uproar. Rumors abounded about possible bishops and which church would be elevated to the status of cathedral. Although the cathedral was announced, in Latin, in the Papal Bull creating the diocese, letters from several, including clergy, indicate that it was not public knowledge until the following year. The creation of the diocese became a favorite subject among news outlets and gossip throughout the area. That year, the western Kentucky territory celebrated its first Christmas together as the Diocese of Owensboro.

On that first Christmas, even when there was nothing to give, western Kentucky parishioners scraped to give what they could. This is evident by the numerous $0.05 and $0.10 donations in so many parish logs. That year, the Christmas collection at St. Anthony, in Axtel, amounted to $24.51. The average offering was roughly $0.49. Only two individuals were able to offer more than a dollar, with several unable to offer anything at all. For context, St. Stephen in Owensboro, a much larger, non-rural, and much wealthier church, could only amass roughly $1.03 per household. Rural or not, all gave whatever they could muster. The giving spirit of the diocese made one observer comment to Bishop Cotton, years later, that though a small diocese like Owensboro “cannot boast of having many wealthy Catholics” they would out contribute “better situated Dioceses and even one or the other Archdiocese.” The newly established diocese gave still more than money when it happily sent 22 young men to seminaries and colleges for the priesthood its first fall. On that first Christmas as a diocese, though the Depression’s end was not quite in sight, the faithful of western Kentucky were renewed with hope to carry on the fight.

How beautiful it is to think that we celebrate the birth of our diocese the same month that we celebrate the birth of our Savior. It is almost as if our little Catholic piece of western Kentucky was lovingly wrapped and presented to the Christ Child for his birthday. Let us not forget, this season, the faithful, giving, and hopeful spirit of those who established the foundation of that which we now enjoy.

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 [email protected].

Originally printed in the December 2021 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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