A Time-Honored Homecoming: St. Joseph Orphans’ Picnic Unites Old And New Of Louisville

Frances Paalz.

Frances Paalz.

Life was considerably different at the St. Joseph Children’s Home back in the day. But one tradition carried on by the orphanage has remained much the same over the course of its 163-year existence.

Established in 1850, a year after the organization was founded, the St. Joseph Orphans’ Picnic began as a small gathering, run primarily by a group of Ursuline nuns, raising funds for the children in their care. Now drawing an average crowd of 55-60,000 people, the picnic will return this Saturday, Aug. 11, from 11 a.m. to midnight at 2823 Frankfort Ave., where much of Louisville will reconvene while enjoying delicious food – such as the picnic’s famous chicken dinner – games of chance and raffles.

But for those who grew up in the establishment, like Frances Paalz, the Louisville treasure is a chance to reminisce over childhood memories while reuniting with former class- and house-mates. “It’s homecoming day for the people that (were) raised there,” said Paalz, who lived in the orphanage from 1940-43 and now serves as a member of the picnic committee, Alumni Association and St. Joe’s board member. In the 72 years she’s been familiar with the picnic, Paalz has missed just one to date.

“It’s a day that we never forget,” Paalz said. “And we can remember as children being at the picnic and how they would line us up and give each of us a shiny quarter and that was our spending money for the day. And that went quite far back in the day because everything was like a nickel.”

A nickel won’t get you very far at the picnic – or anywhere for that matter – these days. And you likely won’t find any Ursuline Sisters heading the campus, as they did when Paalz was younger, nor a uniform requirement for children living at the home.

Today, St. Joseph’s continues, as always, to place emphasis on helping children during times of family crisis and providing a loving environment in which to learn. But the center is now divided into three entities on its 40 acres of land: The Child Development Center, Residential Treatment Program for ages 6 through 14, and the Therapeutic Foster Care and Adoption Program for children newborn to age 21.

The revenue from the annual Orphans’ Picnic provides enough money to cover roughly five percent of the organization’s annual budget. Thousands of people, including Bob Hillebrand, a 63-year volunteer, come together each year to help make the fundraiser possible and give back to the esteemed organization.

“The volunteers are always friendly … they put a lot of time and effort into their specialties,” said Hillebrand. “There’s like 3000 volunteer workers, and my booth is all volunteers.”

The picnic will include many of the same features as it has in the past, with an average of 63 booths offering everything from games to raffles, food and beverages. Attendees also have the opportunity to enter to win the capital prize, a fine dining raffle or new car. “I think part of the appeal with the picnic is that it’s so traditional and rooted in its heritage,” said Andrea Pridham, the development director at St. Joseph’s. “(People) count on that fish sandwich, they count on the chicken dinner, they count on the booths being there.”

Josh Schank, Tia Simpson, Madelyn Brown, and Brian Sterrett at the 2011 Picnic.

Josh Schank, Tia Simpson, Madelyn Brown, and Brian Sterrett at the 2011 Picnic.

One new tradition, however, is Friday Night Live, a music-driven event with adult games held the night before Saturday’s picnic on Aug. 10, from 5 to 10 p.m. The Epics and MidLife Crisis will perform at this year’s installment. “Friday Night Live sort of evolved out of the need for some folks to have more of a kind of quiet, lower-key environment,” Pridham said. “The real appeal is: No. 1, the crowd is so much smaller and more of an intimate low-key environment and (No.2), the live music is becoming a big draw.”

Regardless of what day you attend, the event is certain to please. You’ll not only feel a heart-felt connection to the community, but also a sense of nostalgia as you mingle with the crowd. And, most importantly, you’ll help make a difference in the lives of the children living at the home, who will one day look back on the picnic with the same type of fond memories Paalz now cherishes, 72 years later.

“I think that St. Joe’s is special and unique because other church picnics are for various churches in general and our picnic is for the kids,” Pridham said. “And I think people bond to that. At the end of the day, (it’s about) the fact that it’s been around so long and the fact that it’s a really great picnic and family-friendly, and proceeds go back to the children who live here.”

For more information on St. Joseph’s, visit  sjkids.org/picnic_about.php.