Joseph Payne was born on December 8, 1907 in Whitesville, Kentucky, to Ernest Payne and Rose Helena Boarman. Fr. Leon Boarman of the Southern Province was his first cousin.
His family were farmers and, while he was in grade school, they moved to another farm in Petersville, Iowa.
Joe, who was called "Elmo" (his middle name) by his family and sometimes signed himself that way, had early on decided that he would like to be a priest, but as he says, knew nothing of "missionary communities" and was sure he would be a secular priest.
This changed when Fr. Joseph Boyle, C.S.C. came to their parish to preach a mission. The two talked and Fr. Boyle, sure that the boy had a vocation, told him about Holy Cross and urged him to get in touch with Fr. Finnegan at Notre Dame about going to the seminary there.
Fr. Boyle himself wrote to Fr. Finnegan this introductory letter, a classic reference letter:
Here is a fine youngster who can husk corn or hunt bedbugs or anything else. He is ready for you next September. Write to him after Christmas and keep him on your books. His pastor is willing as is his mother.
This was the full extent of the letter but it began a long series of correspondence between Fr. Finnegan and Joe Payne.
In 1922 at the age of fourteen, Joe wrote to Fr. Finnegan that school was closed for two weeks for corn husking, "from early morning 'til late at night. I believe I prefer going to school than that kind of vacation."
On March 9, 1923 Joe wrote to Fr. Finnegan
Rev. Dear Father:
I received your letter this morning and was very pleased to hear from you.
I will answer your questions to the best of my ability. I am fifteen years of age. I have completed one half of my studies of the eight grade with an average of 83%. These I took in January. I will take the rest in May. My health is good. My people are poor...
I, myself desire with all my heart to become a priest. I have had this desire ever since I made my first Holy Communication, when I was eight years old...
My parents have no objection to my being a priest but rather wish me to be, and I think they pray for me to become a priest.
I go to Holy Communication every day, as Rev. Father Boyle asked me to do, and one of my greatest intentions is for the purpose.
Fearing to make my letter too long I will close, hoping that your decision will be in my favor.
Joe was accepted into minor seminary at Notre Dame. In a letter to Fr. Finnegan in early August of 1923, he states that he intends to arrive at Notre Dame on August 31, taking a train from Clinton, Iowa. He writes: "I have never traveled myself alone and so I would be very glad is someone would meet me at South Bend."
He began High School in September of 1923 at the age of almost sixteen.
His mother wrote to Fr. Finnegan a couple of days after Joe's arrival. She was apologetic that the family was to have deposited "enough money with you for his return ticket in case of necessity and also furnish his books, which we have not done yet."
She went on to explain that their means were very limited and that they did not have the money to send, but would do it "the earliest date possible."
She also says that they wanted "to have Elmo's picture made before he left home but could not spare the money." She wonders whether it could be done at Notre Dame as a remembrance of him, if it is not against the rules.
Joe studied four years at minor seminary and entered the novitiate in 1927. He made first profession on July 2, 1928 and final profession on July 1931. He studied theology in Washington, D.C. and was ordained on June 24, 1936 at the age of twenty-eight. Throughout he took the fourth, missionary vow.
He spent one year after ordination at Notre Dame studying English and then was at Little Flower Parish for the next thirty-five years. He worked from 1927, until his death on March 31, 1976, with Notre Dame married students.