Sister Athanasius and the Spirited Wathens
Sometime around 1960, Sister Jean Paul Steube, a Loretto novice, wrote a colorful biography of Sister Mary Athanasius Wathen. In that piece, she shared many delightful stories of Sister Athanasius’s long life. For example, in her last days and weeks, at the age of almost 99, Sister was still receiving guests daily, even though she had been unable to leave her bed for more than seven years. Then there was the story of her many decades as caretaker of Father Nerinckx’s cabin. Sister Athanasius would explain to visitors that there was always a vigil lamp burning in the cabin and that the lamp they were seeing was the very last one she had. Thus, her supply of vigil lamps was always well stocked at no cost to the Congregation.
Another story was of Sister’s first mission assignment, which found her on her way to Saint Joseph Convent in Owensboro, Ky. It was New Year’s Day, 1864, when she and her companion boarded a river boat on the icy Ohio River at Louisville. It was her first boat ride and she hoped her last. She held her breath lest she tip the boat, and when night came she found the life preservers and took one to bed with her, just in case. She spent three days like that and was surprised to find that being on a boat was so smooth you didn’t even know you were moving. In truth, the Gray Eagle hadn’t moved; it was frozen in the ice. She was almost worn out with three whole days of brevery and they hadn’t even started.
But, for all of the stories that Sister Jean Paul shared, she left out the one about the bourbon. For when Isabelle Zarelda Wathen first entered Loretto on Nov. 1, 1861, she brought with her more than a willing spirit and more than a devotion to the Holy Spirit; she also brought her family connection to the founding of Kentucky’s bourbon industry.
Untangling the twisted branches of Sister Athanasius’s family tree is challenging at best. Her father, Henry Hudson Wathen, was a shoemaker, according to census records, and the fourth of four consecutive generations of Henry Hudson Wathens. Dates don’t always match, places don’t always align; yet, each leaf of her tree is tantalizingly related just enough that there must be a good story in it somewhere!
The Wathens were good Maryland Catholics going back several generations. They were among the second or third group of families from St. Mary’s County to settle the area in what is now Marion County, Ky. The journey was not an easy one: traveling overland from St. Mary’s to Pittsburgh; boarding a boat to take them down the Ohio River to Maysville, Ky.; traveling overland again from Maysville to Goodwin’s Station, which was near Boston, Ky. From Goodwin’s Station, the settlers went in different directions. Sister Athanasius’s branch of the family settled near Rolling Fork Station, near Calvary. According to The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky, written by the Honorable Ben J. Webb and published in Louisville in 1884, these hardy souls, in addition to founding and building several Catholic churches once they arrived, brought to the frontier the traditional skill of distilling.
One of the earliest distilleries set up in the area was that of another Henry Hudson Wathen, probably Sister Athanasius’s grandfather. He and others had figured out that the limestone that is the bedrock of Kentucky blesses the area with startlingly clear water and rich soil. They also discovered that a fine bourbon could be made from this water and corn grown in this soil, rather than the rye they customarily used in Maryland. While this Henry Hudson Wathen got things going in the later 1700s, it was his son and grandson who built a distillery that saw greater success. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, Wathen brothers and cousins continued building distilleries, sometimes together, sometimes in competition with each other, sometimes resulting in lawsuits with other distillers. Yet, in a stroke of genius, one of the Wathens actually saved his business, and perhaps a good part of the industry as a whole, during Prohibition when he formed the American Medicinal Spirits Company. (He later sold that company to National Distillers.) The Wathen family, through their Medley family descendants, still make bourbon today at their distillery in, ironically enough, Owensboro, Ky.
So, while our dear Sister Athanasius was ensuring that the spirit of Father Nerinckx was honored with a constantly burning vigil lamp, her extended family was ensuring that another type of spirit was being honored with some of the first — and some of the finest — bourbon ever produced in Kentucky.