The much-anticipated 134th Fancy Farm Picnic has come and gone, setting an attendance record in the process, according to organizers. But while the caustic stump speeches get national media attention, many forget its original purpose: raising funds for St. Jerome Catholic Church.
It’s just before 7 a.m. Friday morning - the day before the Fancy Farm Picnic - and more than a hundred people have found their way to the bingo pavilion at St. Jerome Parish’s picnic grounds. But they’re not here for the bingo, or even the funnel cake. They’re here for mass.
This was Father Darrell Venters’ sixth Fancy Farm Picnic as St. Jerome’s pastor. He told his congregation this year’s event, fueled by the Kentucky U.S. Senate race, created an unusually large amount of media exposure for the church - not all of it totally accurate.
“It’s been interesting to read about what they say this picnic is," Venters said. "It's ranged from all things. One that I read this morning said that it was a loud political event that was held in an open-sided barn shed."
"Open-sided barn shed" or not, the Fancy Farm Picnic is, at least partially, a loud political event. But is the often hateful, almost-always negative timbre of the political speaking congruous with the prayers that precede it? Father Venters says it doesn’t have to be.
“You know, part of the loudness and the going-on and the yelling back and forth and stuff like that is part of the tradition of old-time politics," Venters said.
Venters and the picnic’s organizers did make an effort this year to tamp down the organized crowd chanting so that the politicians could be heard. The speeches, Venters says, are never malicious. A debatable assessment, but the politicians don’t seem to mind either way.
Paul Patton was on the receiving end of coordinated attacks from onstage and the crowd during his two terms as governor of Kentucky. He says the literal and figurative heat of the Fancy Farm Picnic is a necessary trial for a Kentucky politician.
“Frankly, that’s a part of ‘Can a candidate handle that?”. Can a candidate maintain their composure in an extremely hostile environment?" Patton said.
The politicians encourage the tone. The church says it’s tradition. So, of course, the 20,000 spectators have to be okay with seeing their elected officials tear each other down for a couple hours. Brent McKim traveled from Louisville for Saturday’s event.
“I think it has come to be viewed as political theater and gradually over time more and more has become permissible," McKim said. "I think there have been moments where there is a sense that people have gone too far. One year, I think a candidate used a four-letter word.”
That candidate was Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway in 2009 and if you want to get technical, it was a five-letter word. 2009 was Venters’ first year on the job. He said Monday morning, he was overwhelmed with media calls wanting his reaction to Conway’s profanity.
“I summed it up by saying the whole attitude toward the candidates probably was, in my opinion, not a good example to show our young people, in the overall picture," Venters said.
Since then, profanity has been where the line has been drawn onstage at Fancy Farm, which this year was even attended by Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who Venters invited after he was elected as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Kurtz told Venters it would be “too much fun to miss.”