Reflections from the Dome

Broadside promoting a parade in South Bend. The one in South Bend in 1924 was cancelled by Sheriff Lane. Probably a good move.

Broadside promoting a parade in South Bend. The one in South Bend in 1924 was cancelled by Sheriff Lane. Probably a good move.

 

From Shake Down The Thunder, by Murray Sperber:

Chapter 19: Notre Dame vesus Klandiana: 1925

"The University [of Notre Dame] found rich compensations for all the abuse she had received for her athleticism in the fact that her football team, playing the toughest kind of schedule, should give an inspiring example of spiritual life."

-Father Arthur Hope, C.S.C. historian

It was Father John F. O'Hara, the university's prefect of religion from 1921 to 1933, who first made an explicit and public connection between religion and football at Notre Dame. In the Catholic school's sports history, players had frequently gone to mass and received communion before games, but only in 1921, when the team, en route to West Point, used a stopover in Albany to attend church, did the players' religious observance become news. Father O'Hara arranged the excursion from the railroad station to a replica of Lourdes in Albany and for local reporters to cover the event. The wire services picked up the story and Americans learned of the religiosity of the "manly Notre Dame football players." Furthermore, even the non-Catholics on the team attended the mass -the press emphasized this angle- and participated in parts of the ceremony" Subsequently, throughout the Rockne era, the Notre Dame football team's attendance at church during road trips and on game days became important, well-covered rituals.

Another highly publicized event involving Father O'Hara occurred before the 1923 Army annual in Brooklyn. West Point had asked a famous actress to do the ceremonial kickoff; when the N.D. prefect of religion learned of this stunt, he announced, "Elsie Janis will kick off for Army, Joan of Arc will kick off for Notre Dame," and he gave each member of his team a Joan of Arc medal to wear during football combat. He continued to distribute saints' medals before games for the remainder of his N.D. days; press coverage of this practice helped popularize, particularly among Catholic boys, the wearing of medals during sports events.

As the Fighting Irish continued to win during the 1920s, Father O'Hara stressed the religious component in Notre Dame's football success. He preached often on this theme and wrote about it in his weekly "Religious Bulletins." He encouraged team members to receive daily communion, noting: "When timid freshmen see monogram men, their natural heroes ...approach the Holy Table, they learn what the upperclassmen already know, that devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is a mark of strength and not of weakness." In addition, O'Hara, in his bulletins, drew a correlation between the number of students receiving daily communion and the team's chances for victory -according to his calculations and charts, the higher the number of daily communicants during the week before a game, the greater the likelihood of an N.D. win.

Father O'Hara's missionary zeal was not confined to campus. He sent his sermons and bulletins to alumni and coreligionists around the country and to the Catholic press. One of his colleagues later remarked that O'Hara's efforts, coupled with the fame of Rockne's teams, resulted in such spontaneous exhibitions of faith as the "thousands of rosaries and innumerable prayers [for Notre Dame victory] offered by cloistered nuns on Saturdays of autumn" as well as the prayers of countless other believers for Fighting Irish success. A few Catholic academics, primarily in the Jesuit order, scorned O'Hara's "Football Theology," but the N.D. priest's work sparked a very positive response in most Catholic clergy and in the national lay community.

In part, O'Hara's aggressive Catholicism was a response to the 1920s resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in America and an attempt to combat the "anti-Papist" forces head-on. Notre Dame's geographic location in Indiana, a pro-Klan state, strongly influenced O'Hara's religious campaign.

"An overzealous lecturer declared to a crowd at North Manchester [Indiana], a college town, that for all they knew the Pope might come there any day. 'He may even be on the north-bound train tomorrow. ...He may! He may! Be warned! Prepare! America for Americans! Search everywhere for hidden enemies, vipers at the heart's blood of our sacred Republic! Watch the trains!'

Some fifteen hundred persons met the north-bound train the next day..."

                         -Atlantic Monthly, May 1928

Popular histories portray the 1920s in America as "Roaring" and an "Era of Wonderful Nonsense." In fact, the decade began with a major recession plus inflation, and when the economy, shifting to an urban industrial base, finally boomed, it spread prosperity unevenly across the society. Farmers and residents of small towns saw a decline in real income as well as the continuing migration of younger family members to the cities. Increasing numbers of rural Americans became frustrated and angry at these unwanted events and found simplistic explanations more comprehensible and satisfying than complex dissertations about the after- effects of industrialization. Among the threatened and confused populace, demagogues thrived and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan enlisted millions of adherents.

In the South, the Klan pointed to the supposed economic gains of "Niggers" as the cause of social dislocation, and it preached rigid segregation as the solution. In Indiana, the most Klan-infatuated area outside the South, a mainly rural and Protestant population could not find many blacks to blame for its discontent and so it turned against Catholics and Jews. These minorities not only represented strange religions that conducted rituals in the ultraforeign languages of Latin and Hebrew but, because, according to Klan propaganda, they sent their money overseas and were loyal only to the Vatican and Zion, they were clearly "un-American." Exacerbating tensions was rural Protestants' support for Prohibition -part of their desire to impose their moral code on the entire society- and their awareness that many urban Americans, particularly Irish Catholics, mocked the "Drys" of the "Bible Belt." (The Irish-American community considered the Eighteenth Amendment an attack on its social customs and an attempt to obliterate the separation of Church and State.)

By 1924 in Indiana, about a quarter of a million men -30 percent of the white male population- were members of the Ku Klux Klan. A talented rabble-rouser, D. C. Stephenson, organized them and also directed huge Klan rallies and cross burnings across the state. In addition, he helped to elect Klan-approved candidates at all levels of government, including the governorship. Although he was a megalomaniac, for a time Stephenson's plans came true; thus, when he discussed buying Valparaiso College near South Bend and turning it into a Klan university to eclipse Notre Dame, the C.S.C. priests took notice.

More directly threatening to the Catholic school during the spring of 1924 was the Klan's intention to hold a week-Iong "Klavern" in South Bend and to march upon Notre Dame. The Klan newspaper, The Fiery Cross, promised that more than 200,000 members -the size of the estimated crowd at a Kokomo rally the previous year- would begin arriving on Saturday, May 17.

The N.D. students, showing Fighting Irish spirit, decided to oppose the Klan with guerrilla warfare. On Saturday, small groups of students ambushed arriving Klansmen at the train station and on town sidewalks, grabbing their robes and hoods and tearing them apart. Skirmishes continued through the weekend, and when some South Bend police intervened on the side of the Klan, a number of students, according to one vivid report, "were injured seriously and were taken to Hullie & Mike's Pool Hall where they rested on the tables, red blood staining the green felt until medical help arrived."

Then on Monday night, a rumor swept the campus that the Klan had killed a Notre Dame undergraduate. The dormitories emptied and an army of students marched to the South Bend courthouse, intent on battling the Klan and the local police. President Walsh drove to the courthouse and, standing on the cannon outside the building, informed the crowd that the rumor about the murdered student was false. He also advised: "Whatever challenge may have been offered tonight to your patriotism, whatever insult may have been offered to your religion, you can show your loyalty to Notre Dame and to South Bend by ignoring all [Klan] threats." He ordered the students to return to campus, stating that "a single injury to [another] Notre Dame student would be too great a price to pay" for fighting the Klansmen.

Rainstorms doused the remainder of the Klan's South Bend activities, but the organization used the fracas with the N.D. students for propaganda, claiming that the Fighting Irish had destroyed American flags and beaten innocent women and children, including babies. President Walsh received inquiries from reporters and concerned citizens about the truth of the Klan's atrocity stories, and although he tried to refute the "gross misrepresentations of the conduct of the Notre Dame students," many Hoosiers believed the Klan's tales.

In the fall of 1924, the Klan threatened another attack against Notre Dame. Walsh wrote a colleague that "the intended gathering of the KIan has been instigated by the backers of [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Ed Jackson, who figured that a life sized riot in South Bend would go a long ways towards bolstering up Jackson's candidacy" in the coming election. The fall Klavern never occurred, but over 650,000 Indiana voters elected Jackson, controlled by Grand Dragon Stephenson, as governor. In the new legislature, Jackson backed various anti-Catholic bills, including one proposing the abolition of parochial schools. This increasingly hostile political climate depressed Notre Dame administrators and faculty but also confirmed their resolve to be as independent as possible from the state of Indiana.

However, N.D. could not totally ignore Hoosier politics, and even its football team became involved in the controversy with the Klan. In March 1925, Indiana's powerful United States senator, James E. Watson, wrote N.D. past president Father John W. Cavanaugh requesting his help in scheduling a game between Notre Dame and the Quantico Marines for December in Washington. Watson, a Republican, was socially friendly with Klan leaders and had supported Klan candidates in the 1924 election. Probably the senator wanted to exhibit his political muscle by making the Catholic school give over one of its most valuable prizes -a Notre Dame road game- but he underestimated Notre Dame's independence.

Cavanaugh forwarded the request to Rockne, noting: "I have no use for Senator Watson and don't suppose you will be interested in this proposition for a football game in Washington. ...Personally I would not shake hands with the Senator nor would I write him any kind of letter for myself. ...His connection with the K.K.K. in this state has put me on the side lines for life so far as he is concerned."

Rockne offered to write to the senator on behalf of N.D. and he told Cavanaugh, "I will. ..give him the refusal of the Faculty Board" as the excuse for not playing the Marines.

Watson, however, was close to President Calvin Coolidge, and he increased the pressure on the Catholic school by having the White House also request the Quantico game. The N.D. administration agreed with the prior refusal and again Rockne invoked the faculty board's veto. Considering the political climate at this time, particularly in Klandiana, Notre Dame's determination not to please the secular powers illustrates the C.S.C. priests' resolve and courage.

"No Governor can kiss the papal ring and get within gunshot of the White House."

                       -Methodist Bishop Adna W. Leonard, in a 1924 speech

Beyond Indiana, the political landscape for Catholics was also bleak, In 1924 Al Smith, the Irish-American governor of New York, wanted to run for president, but his campaign sparked anti-Catholic reactions in Klan-dominated regions of the country and also within his own supposedly progressive Democratic party. At the party's convention, Smith squared off against Senator William McAdoo, the son-in-law and political heir of Woodrow Wilson. Before the balloting for the top of the ticket, Smith's supporters tried to pass a platform plank strongly condemning the Ku Klux Klan and its followers. McAdoo's people, according to reports, "proposed a vague and innocuous plank calculated to soothe the sensibilities of the Klansmen" and to parallel the Republicans' appeasement of the Klan. When put to a convention vote, Smith's anti-Klan plank lost. Then, in 102 ballots for the presidential nomination, Smith and McAdoo reached a stalemate and the bid went to the unknown Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis. In the November election, Calvin Coolidge overwhelmed Davis.

But Al Smith had a real constituency: through hard work and savvy, he had moved up in American society from the immigrant Irish-Catholic lower east side of Manhattan to the uptown middle class; in the same way, his strongest supporters had made a similar trek in New York and other urban centers. In 1924, Smith became their political hero, and in that same year, for many of them, Notre Dame became their favorite football team.

*   *   *   *   *   *

For those interested in further reading on this subject, I recommend Robert Burns' Being Catholic, Being American. Refer to chapter 8: The Ku Klux Klan comes to Indiana,  and chapter 9: Confrontation in South Bend and After.

The following is an excerpt from Professors Burns on the effect of the Klan's campaign of hate against Notre Dame:

For the university, the events occurring in May were a turning point. In terms of university relations with city officials, with communities in the region, with state government and state institutions generally everything would be changed for the worst. Not forever of course, with most of these elements but with state government and state institutions deep distrust bordering on hostility would persist for thirty years. Subsequent events occurring elsewhere in the country would recall and reinforce the harsh experience of being Catholic, foreign-born, or a child of foreign-born parents in America during the 1920s and 1930s. This series of defining moments for the university community began with the primary elections on May 6. 1924.

 

Back to Irish Reveries