Saint-Laurent Catholic Church celebrates its 200th anniversary

As the oldest Catholic church in Daviess County, St. Lawrence in Knottsville celebrates its bicentennial today. The celebration will begin with a noon Mass presided by the Reverend Bishop William Medley, followed by a barbecue lunch and music on the church picnic grounds.

In 1822, Father Charles Nerinckx offered the county’s first Catholic Mass for parish members at Ezekiel and Elizabeth Henning’s. Prior to 1822, early settlers depended on traveling missionaries who traveled the country to offer mass and the sacraments.

Often referred to as the patriarch of the frontier, Father Elicia Durbin was assigned to the area in 1824, serving settlers from Nelson County in eastern Illinois. He had a lean-to structure built to provide the community with a place where he could say mass and rest his head.

Four years later the community erected a log church off present-day KY 144 when William Griffith and Benjamin Field donated 200 acres to the church and 160 to the Diocese of Bardstown. Griffith and Field were from Yellowbanks, now called Owensboro.

Under the direction of the first full-time pastor, Father John Wathen, the parish raised the first brick church in 1833. The bishop visited a few years later and experienced firsthand the exponential growth; expansion was imminent.

By the 1870s the structure began to deteriorate and Wathen and company decided it was time to erect a new facility. They completed the current church at a cost of $10,000 and offered the first debt-free mass on February 11, 1872.

The parish also built a presbytery, using the first floor as accommodation for the priest and the top floor as a boarding school for boys. Documentation shows that families often paid for school fees with tangible items like beef, vegetables, and even candlesticks.

While schools sometimes struggled to stay open, education remained a priority for St. Lawrence, opening a new school in 1881. Without money to support the Franciscan nuns who were teaching, the school closed a decade later.

The 1920s saw the parish open a parochial school, and in 1925 many local public schools closed due to the influx of students attending Catholic schools. Many nuns and community members gave their time and effort to keep the school afloat.

A fire took over the school in 1960, forcing students to attend St. Williams a few miles down the road. In 1966, St. Mary of the Woods in Whitesville and St. Williams and St. Lawrence in Knottsville merged to form Trinity High School which still operates today.

St. Lawrence continues to fund Mary Carrico, which provides Catholic education in Knottsville for students in kindergarten through 8th grade.

The current church structure has undergone four major renovations, including the addition of a parish hall in 1980.

Stories passed down through the generations detail a long history of church picnics and the introduction of mutton and burgoo by Irish settlers. Worshipers say the first picnic documented in the local newspaper dates back to 1883. Newspaper records from the 1930s indicate that people traveled by the thousands via a bus schedule from surrounding communities to attend picnics.

“It’s a historic church, and we have many families who help maintain it,” archivist and event organizer Pam Higdon said. “Many generations of families have been part of the parish since its conception.”

Father Shijo Vadakumkara is the current priest and will accompany the bishop to the ceremonies. August 10 was St. Lawrence Day, so organizers designated August 14 as the perfect day for homecoming and bicentennial festivities.

Jerry B. Hatch