September 15, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Catholic response to the KKK’s anti-Catholicism in the 1920s

John F. FinkLast week, I wrote about the history of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Indiana during the 1920s. So, in addition to what the students at the University of Notre Dame did that I mentioned last week, what were the Catholics trying to do about it? Basically, suffering through it.

Bishop Joseph Chartrand was bishop of Indianapolis during this time. One way he tried to deal with threats from the KKK was to publish a list of Klan members in the Indianapolis Times. It’s doubtful, though, that that did much good.

A history of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis has this account about what happened after Bishop Chartrand decided to start the faith community in 1925: “Not everyone was pleased to see another Catholic parish on the East Side.

“Parishioner Rosemary Cleveland recalled, ‘The people in the house next door were, to put it mildly, anti-Catholic. Their young daughter often sat in the window facing the church and sang songs she thought would annoy us. Remember, this was 1925, and the KKK was going strong.’

“Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan dominated Indiana’s political scene, controlling the Statehouse, including then-Gov. Ed Jackson. Former Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson lived in Irvington, just southeast of the new parish. In the 1920s, the white-robed knights of the KKK, whose membership included Protestant ministers and local merchants, were more interested in making life difficult for Roman Catholics than in going after black city residents. The Klan irrationally suspected a papal plot to overthrow American democracy.

“Undaunted by hatred and bigotry, Little Flower parishioners, who were mostly of Irish and German descent, went about assembling lay groups that would become the heart of their community.”

That’s not all they did. Another report was that, hearing of KKK plans to burn down the church, some of the male parishioners hid in weeds with guns—just in case.

However, most of the defense by Catholics against anti-Catholicism took place elsewhere in Indiana—the small city of Huntington, 25 miles from Fort Wayne. The pastor of St. Mary Church there, Father John Noll, had been battling anti‑Catholicism since the first part of the 20th century, often appearing at talks given by false ex-priests and exposing them.

In 1912, Father Noll founded the weekly newspaper Our Sunday Visitor specifically to combat anti-Catholicism. He had his printer reproduce two pages of the anti‑Catholic periodical The Menace. On the reverse side, he printed a proposed Catholic answer. He mailed this to nearly ever Catholic pastor in the United States and asked if they would support a newspaper that refuted anti-Catholic libels. It would then provide instruction in Catholicism.

The response was immediate. Our Sunday Visitor had a circulation of 200,000 within a year, and it continued to grow until it reached a circulation of more than 800,000. Meanwhile, The Menace went into receivership, its publishing plant burned down, and its insurance company refused to honor the claim.

Father Noll became bishop of Fort Wayne in 1925, but continued to edit Our Sunday Visitor until his death in 1956. Our Sunday Visitor eventually became the largest Catholic publishing company in the country. †

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