Reflections from the Dome
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
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
-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..."
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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