Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Coadjunct Archbishop of San Francisco, George Thomas Montgomery, born in Daviess County (1847-1907). ​COURTESY OF MOUNT SAINT JOSEPH ARCHIVES

The first U.S.-born bishop of Los Angeles was born in Daviess County?


God has blessed western Kentucky with many holy souls who have been called to religious life. Some become priest, some brothers, some nuns, and some religious sisters. Many of these remain and serve God in the land upon which they were born. Some are called elsewhere. There have been many great stories of holy souls in our diocese that have been lost to history – but history whispers. If one listens closely enough, they can make out the words.

Very little seemed remarkable about George Thomas Montgomery on the day of his baptism, a January day in 1848. Cradled in his mother’s loving arms, beneath his father’s proud gaze, not even the holy pastor had any idea what a great plan God had in store for the little baby in St. Lawrence Catholic Church on the outskirts of Daviess County.

As George grew older, like many Kentucky boys of this time, he farmed. However, he felt a deeper calling. According to a family history, at age 19 he attended Cecilian College near Elizabethtown for three years. Deciding that the priesthood was his true vocation, he attended Charles College in Maryland, finishing his studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He spent about five years at each college and was ordained a priest at the age of 32 on Dec. 18, 1879. After this, Fr. Montgomery moved to California.

The California that Fr. Montgomery arrived in was the wild west and remained so for more than a decade. A good amount of people didn’t take too kindly to religion, especially Catholicism. Fr. Montgomery tried to act as a mediator between the people of California and the ritualistic Catholic faith. A publication of his survives in which he tries to make peace and explain the purpose of the 5:30 a.m. Angelus bell on Sunday. Many of the local people demanded an elimination of the custom, preferring to sleep off their Saturday night libations.

After several years of laboring for Christ, Fr. Montgomery was rewarded for his holy grit. In 1894 he became the coadjunct Bishop of Monterey-Los Angeles, succeeding in 1896. He continued to be an influential presence and in 1903 was given the position of coadjunct Archbishop of San Francisco. He won the hearts of many for his crucial work in helping lead the rebuilding efforts after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the deadliest earthquake in the country’s history which destroyed over 80% of the city. However, he died shortly after, in 1907, following an emergency surgery. “He was perfectly oblivious of himself when there was a question of service to others,” read one tribute after his passing; a perfect quality for a frontier priest.

This article was prompted by a single photograph in Mount Saint Joseph’s old museum. I didn’t recognize him or his name and wondered why his photograph was sitting behind a stack of others. God calls all of us to be great saints; even those of us from little western Kentucky. We have to keep these tales in our hearts to remind us of God’s call to a profoundly holy life. We cannot let these stories of our great legacy fall into oblivion. History will always remember, but it is up to us to never forget.

Note: The Archives would like to offer a word of appreciate for Connie Lemmons, the bookkeeper at St. Lawrence, for providing Archbishop Montgomery’s baptismal date.

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 March 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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