“The Catholic Settlement: A History of St. Jerome Catholic Church 1836-2011,” edited by Cynthia Pierce Elder, 407 pages. $22.95. (paperback)
While it’s not clear why missionary priest Elisha Durbin called the parish he established in western Kentucky in 1836 St. Jerome, unless it was his special interest in the Bible, which Jerome had rendered into Latin in the fourth century, it is clear how the town in which it was located got its name.
Local farmer John Peebles, who took great pride in the appearance of his house and farm, was an applicant to be the local postmaster. In 1843, while hosting a visiting postal inspector, the latter was so impressed with his farm that he proposed “Fancy Farm” as a compliment to his host. The development of Kentucky’s most famous political happening, the annual Fancy Farm Picnic, began quite simply as a barn dance, picnic and gander pulling on the first Thursday of August 1880, down by the creek where the water was clean and the trees gave abundant shade.
Cynthia Elder, the editor of this intriguing local history, is a native of Louisville and attended Western Kentucky University where she majored in communications and studied photography. She married Jimmy Elder of Fancy Farm and moved there in 1992. With the approach of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the parish, she was asked by parish clergy to prepare a commemorative volume. After retrieving 43 boxes of research notes collected by Father Leo Willett, then in St. Louis, which he had gathered for the 150th anniversary, she took a year to read those files, supplemented it with new research, and asked parishioners who had influenced them in their journey of faith.
The history is divided into six chapters that describe the Kentucky Pioneers, the Religious Presence at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Fancy Farm, Catholic Schools in Fancy Farm, St. Jerome Parish, the Fancy Farm Picnic and families.
Samuel Willett is said to be the first Catholic to locate in Graves County, moving from Washington County after marrying Elizabeth Hobbs in 1828. Attracted by generous state grants that offered 160 acres of land for $50, many other Catholic families followed. Their spiritual needs were initially ministered to by Father Durbin, who in 1836 bought a tract of land and arranged for the building of a log church. Over the next 60 years, Father Durbin, who went by horseback with the sacred vessels and vestments for Mass in his saddle bags, traveled about 500,000 miles across several states.
The construction of a railroad in the 1850s, the expansion of tobacco cultivation and the construction of woolen mills swelled the county’s population. The town was incorporated in 1880, the same year the first picnic is recorded as being held. The first school and convent were built in 1881. Established by the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton, Iowa, in 1892, they were replaced by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth from Bardstown, who would be instrumental in the education of local residents until 1975. At the 150th anniversary gathering in 1986, 64 sisters, 25 of whom were natives of Fancy Farm, returned for the celebration.
The log church was replaced by a brick church in 1854, and the third church was constructed in 1893. A rectory was added in 1912, the building was stuccoed in 1923, and electric lighting was introduced in 1929. Fancy Farm High School was built by the church in 1948 and the church was renovated first in 1986 and again in 2009 when the original Kilgen organ was restored.
In 1911, a reporter for the Mayfield Daily Messenger wrote Aug. 26 that the Catholic Church at Fancy Farm was one of the finest in the state. Repaired, renovated and repainted, with its beautiful stations of the cross around the sanctuary as viewed in our summer 2014 visit, we would have to agree.
The Fancy Farm Picnic moved to the school grounds in 1912 and was held the last Wednesday of July, just before the primary elections in early August.
Candidates for county and state offices began to come and speak to the large crowds in a “last-ditch effort” before the elections.
These early affairs included homemade ice cream, cold strawberry, peach and lemon sodas, along with the barbecued meats. By 1986, 14,000 pounds of meat were cooked and 1,200 pounds of chicken fried.
Now held the first Saturday of August, the event has become an annual homecoming for relatives working in cities and is attended by virtually all Kentucky gubernatorial and senatorial candidates and many other state and local office seekers. Presidential candidates have even stopped by.
Almost 700 local residents are involved, and many family booths have been passed on for generations.
In recent years, the picnic has grossed over $100,000 with less than half of its net profit used for the upkeep of parish buildings and other parish affairs. It includes a Friday night fish fry, square dance and fun run.
The Saturday picnic begins at 11 a.m. and ends at 8 p.m., followed by a car raffle. In 1984, it entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest picnic in the world.
As the editor wrote in her FancyFarm.net blog recently, a week after this year’s affair, which drew huge crowds to see candidates for Kentucky’s hotly contested senatorial race, national and international media: “We’re Tired, there isn’t anyone that you talk to in the last couple of days that isn’t tired. We are worn out. Done. And we don’t know when we’ll get rested!”
But they’ll be back again next year, and that’s the story of this remarkable parish and community.
— Reviewed by Brian E. Coutts, professor and head, Department of Library Public Services, Western Kentucky University.