University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
Notre Dame -- One Hundred Years / by Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C.

Chapter XXVI

IN THE early twenties, the Catholics of the United States were treated to an exhibition of religious intolerance which astounded them. In previous centuries and even remote decades, there had been persecutions and widespread displays of bigotry which Catholics were now prone, if not to excuse, at least to palliate, on the grounds that ignorance was formerly more difficult to dispel. But hardly anyone believed that in "this modern age" when enlightenment was so much our boast, and tolerance our watchword, there could arise a nation-wide attempt to persecute the Church in America, and that, in the name of one-hundred percent Americanism.

It is now pretty well established that the impetus from which arose this intolerance was not ignorance itself, but a shrewd and calculating resolution, on the part of men who knew better, to play on the ignorance and bigotry of the masses who did not, we believe, know better. It was a campaign of hate for the purpose of raising money. The Ku Klux Klan, in whipping up a wave of malicious opposition to the Church, based on lies and misinformation, was all the more diabolical in that it represented itself as an organization of true patriots and zealous philanthropists. Its stories about the Catholic Church, Catholic priests and Catholic institutions were so gross and overdrawn as to attract only the more ignorant, and fool only the most gullible. For the very reason that among its ranks could be found only the most inconsequential and insignificant of persons, the Klan, through its journalistic medium, the Fiery Cross, felt the need of asserting that very prominent and influential persons were, in reality, members of the organization.

Of course Catholics, great numbers of whom had fought in all the wars with distinction and bravery, were incensed at this insult to their religion. And they fought back. At first they tried to bring the fight out into the open. But the Klan wanted anything but that. The last thing in the world that the Imperial Wizard wanted was a fair fight. The Klan had no arguments, but only insinuations and false charges, in which either names or dates or places were omitted, the hit-and-run tactics of little men with little minds and small courage. In their ranks there was a great shout about the "American spirit," but little display of it in their methods. They would not even show themselves in public except shrouded in a hood and sheet, a regalia upon which the Klan leaders made a neat profit.

In this section of the country, Patrick O'Donnell, a Chicago attorney, decided to fight the Klan. O'Donnell was astute, willing to fight the Klan on its own terms. He could be as crafty as was necessary to catch the Imperial Wizard at his own game. To counteract the influence of the Fiery Cross, he began to edit Tolerance. In its pages he sought to bring to the public notice, not only the tactics of the Klan, but also to publicize the names of those who had joined the outrageous organization. He was not over-scrupulous about raiding the Klan's offices, obtaining the roster of members in different localities, and printing their names. This, he felt, would show Catholics who were their true friends, and who their false.

A curious reaction was almost immediately felt. The bad odor of the Klan was such that no one with any respectability wanted to be known as a member. Then the Klan conceived the idea of "planting" false lists of names, leaving them where they would fall readily into the hands of O'Donnell's secret staff. The result was, of course, that names of individuals who had no connection with the Klan were published as belonging to the organization. There were resultant lawsuits, in which these libeled individuals sued for damages. The Klan was gleeful over this set-back to O'Donnell.

In the vicinity of South Bend, Notre Dame represented the Catholic Church in the eyes of Klansmen, and of course the Klan did everything it could to embarrass the institution. The false lists of names involved, first, the University barber, then some of the members of the lay-faculty, next the head of one of the departments of the University, and finally, the chairman of the Board of Lay Trustees. It was soon apparent that all this misinformation was part of the Klan's underground method. At the time, however, it was very confusing.

One night the South Bend Chamber of Commerce invited Father Walsh and Father Cavanaugh to be present at a meeting in the city. No indication was given as to the purpose of the gathering, but there was some suspicion in the minds of the two priests and they agreed that if it concerned the question of the Klan they had better map out a little method of procedure. On the way to town they agreed upon a tentative plan.

Arrived at the meeting, they found a large number of Protestant ministers along with other representatives. After the meeting was called to order, the chairman said: "Now, Father Walsh, we would like to hear from you first!" Father Walsh was puzzled. "What is it that I am to talk about?" asked Father Walsh. "We would like to hear your opinion of this magazine called Tolerance." Father Walsh expressed himself briefly, and said that, while it might be true that the editors of the magazine may have made mistakes, the whole magazine was not to be condemned without a hearing. If, he said, it was established that injustices were being done and that the decent spirit of Americans was being offended, then, without doubt, the magazine should be suppressed. And then he sat down.

Some of the ministers spoke. The tenor of their remarks was to the effect that Tolerance was obnoxious in its practice of accusing men of Klan membership, men who were neither Klan nor anti-Klan. The good, decent American who wished only to live and let live was being ensnared by the "horrible" Mr. O'Donnell. Father Cavanaugh was asked to express his views. Wisely, he intimated that he would rather say something toward the end of the meeting. More ministers were then called on and spoke in the same vein as had their predecessors. Finally, Father Cavanaugh was asked to speak. As he rose, his eyes narrowed as though they might be two slits of ice. "Reverend Clergy," he said, "you are just six months too late. For six months, that libelous and cowardly magazine of the Klan, the Fiery Cross, has circulated among you without let or hindrance. For six months, its pages have been filled with calumny and obscene vituperation. For six months, this sheet has been before your eyes and before the eyes of your congregations. And not once have you said anything to prevent the spread of that spirit of hatred of Catholics which fills the pages of the Fiery Cross." Father Cavanaugh proceeded to lay upon his hearers the responsibility for the spread of intolerance and hatred. It was one of his finest speeches.

Klan parades, in full regalia, were very much in vogue. A parade was planned for South Bend on May 17, 1924. The students of Notre Dame were itching for a chance to show their resentment to the Klan.

The administration was deeply worried about the consequences of the student temper. On the preceding day, May 16th, which was a Friday, Father Hugh O'Donnell, who was Prefect of Discipline, had a conference with Larry Lane, the chief of police of South Bend. Lane assured Father O'Donnell that the parade would not come off, that permission had been refused. The Klan, of course, was resolved to parade anyhow, and Klansmen from the neighboring towns poured into the city on the morning of the 17th.

Father Walsh issued a bulletin that morning. In part, it read as follows:

Undoubtedly, some of the day students, coming to the University on the morning of the 17th, saw some disturbing scenes in South Bend. When they arrived on the campus, they told the resident students of great mobs of Klansmen pouring in by train, interurban and auto, of hooded figures that stood on the corners directing traffic, or "fiery crosses" brandished from the Klan headquarters at Michigan and Wayne Streets. Bulletin or no bulletin, the students rushed to town. It was a very unwise thing to do, but who would ever accuse hot-blooded students of prudence and wisdom.

Every street-car, every bus, every interurban vomited forth its strangers, each carrying under his arm a suspicious bundle. The students of Notre Dame were the first to greet them. With a smile, they would touch the arm of a descending resident of Goshen or New Carlisle, and ask, "Are you from the Klan? Have you come for the parade? This way, please!" Up an alley, down a side street, through a dark entrance, and a Klansman would emerge without his sheet, and sometimes with a black eye. For the students it was glorious adventure.

They had the time of their lives. Forming a flying wedge, they would advance on a white-clad figure that was directing traffic, and then he was there no longer.

The actions of the students were somewhat exaggerated by the Klan publicity. For instance, there appeared later the following livid description that marked its author as an excellent fictionist:

The Klan members, not anticipating much opposition, were surprised and took refuge in the headquarters at Michigan and Wayne. On the third floor a cross of red electric bulbs was displayed. There were perhaps five hundred students congregated about the building. They paid their compliments to the refugees, and an occasional potato found its mark in a second or third story window. Of course, in its report of the event, the Fiery Cross really outdid itself. The Fellowship Forum, in its report of May 31, 1924, contained the headline, "Roman Students of Notre Dame Trample Flag." It went on to assure its readers that Notre Dame students stoned the flag that flew before Klan headquarters; that women, on their way to the demonstration, were insulted and ridiculed; that a three-year-old girl and an old man and an old woman were struck by students.

The administration at Notre Dame was not particularly proud of the action undertaken by the students. Of course, it was not sorry for the Klan. But it was felt that the students should not jeopardize the good name of the University by such demonstrations of lawlessness. There was always the possibility of a fatal accident. Some ardent, though ignorant, Klansman might wield a club or a gun with deplorable results. It was this possibility over which Father Walsh and Father O'Donnell brooded on Sunday.

On Monday, the 19th, both Father Walsh and Father O'Donnell congratulated themselves on having been able to hold the students in check. But after the lights were out on Monday night, someone from South Bend put in a telephone call to the students' booth in Freshman Hall. A voice said: "Hurry. They've got so-and-so (naming some well known campus student) down here near the court-house, and they're beating him to death!" The student who answered the telephone, true to his instincts, let out a yell that aroused everyone. The excitement spread from one hall to another, and in less time than it takes to tell, the entire campus was running to town.

It was pointed out to the chief of police that had he firmly met the situation on Saturday, he might have prevented this fresh outbreak on Monday. Instead of making any serious effort to prevent Saturday's disorders, the police had been conspicuous by their absence. Now, however, with time to reflect, they had made up their minds to show the people "who was running this town." For that purpose, the sheriff, a well-known Klan partisan, had deputized a number of Klansmen, under the old "Horse-Thief" law.

Thus it happened that when the students began their demonstrations they met a force they had not expected. Saturday, it had been so easy, and so thrilling! Now, the deputies laid about them with clubs and bottles and there was many a cracked skull, bleeding face and bruised shin. In the midst of this furore, Father O'Donnell arrived and, with the chief of police, forced the students to listen to him. He enjoined them to cross the street and gather on the lawn of the Court House. Father Walsh was waiting for them, and he mounted the cannon and spoke to the students.

Father Walsh, pointing a finger at the building in which the Klan had holed themselves up, said: "I know that if I told you boys to go back there and show the Klansmen of what stuff you are made, you would tear that building apart, leaving no stone upon a stone!" There was almost an instinctive surge toward the building, a movement which Father Walsh stopped in his next sentence. "But I know, too, that you have confidence enough in me, so that if I tell you to go back to the college, you will obey me, and you will leave to my judgment what is best to be done. And so, I tell you: Go back to the college!" With a roar, the students formed ranks and in columns of four, marched back to Notre Dame.

Father Walsh was made extremely uneasy by many anonymous letters and telephone calls. He was well aware that among the Klan members there were many whose threats were more than idle words. One post-card, enclosed in an envelope, told him that "he better keep his students to home, or there would be hot-lead waiting for them in South Bend." Another letter, from Winamac, a bit amusing now, but full of portent at the time it was written, said:

There was never a night that the faculty at Notre Dame did not speculate on the possibility of some catastrophe overtaking them before morning. The grounds were patroled with a nervous sense of some impending danger. In the dark, every shadow was regarded with breathless suspicion. Often, two would draw close together, each planning on how he might overpower the other, only to find themselves on the same side. There would be a suppressed chuckle, and each would go his way, eyes peeled for enemies. That this was no idle fear was well brought out years later when the Klan was being investigated. One Pat Emmons, who had been the Exalted Cyclops of the Valley Klan, No. 53, testified in February, 1928, that at one of the meetings in 1924 a Klan member had volunteered to "blow up" Notre Dame if the Klan would but furnish him with the dynamite. Emmons said that he squelched the proposal.[5] On that same occasion, Emmons confessed that of all the money collected in this vicinity between 1923 and 1927, ostensibly for charitable purposes, not a dime of it went to charity, but all of it to politics.

The crusade of hate finally exhausted itself. "Kluxer" became a term of opprobrium except in the most unenlightened circles. Almost everyone expressed indignation if it were suggested that he had been a member of the Klan. Without exception, former members blushed at their gullibility. Catholics, who had been waving the flag of tolerance for generations, learned the irony of their belief that "it can't happen here" If the action of the students that May day, 1924, did more, as was alleged, to bring an upsurge in favor of the Klan, it must be admitted that the Klan's actions achieved a great success in welding the Catholic Church into a strong and striking unit. At Notre Dame, too, the students and faculty grew closer. The whole episode forced everyone to reflect on the treasures of friendship and faith fostered on the campus.

* * *

During Father Walsh's presidency death came to many a beloved campus personality. These were mostly religious of Holy Cross, priests, Brothers and Sisters, whose long lives of devotedness and zeal were the golden hinges of the door that opened upon Notre Dame's renown and glory.

Take, for instance, Father Alexander Kirsch. He was born in Luxemburg, in 1855. A lank, strapping youth of 17, high of brow and with long straight black hair, he arrived at Notre Dame in 1873. He entered the Novitiate and was professed in 1875. Thereafter, after a period of teaching and prefecting, he was ordained a priest in 1880. A stroke of exceptional luck gave him two years at Louvain, studying the sciences. It was in 1882 that he joined the faculty at Notre Dame. He was a prodigious worker, one account saying that he spent as much as thirteen hours in the laboratories and class-room. Several summers were spent at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, studying and gathering specimens for his laboratory. He was a man of singular whimsy and unconventional manner. Big framed, of lofty brow, eyes behind thick glasses, he would shuffle through the corridors, croaking like a frog, barking, whinnying, growling. His classes in anatomy and zoology displayed his profound scientific mind. He could not tolerate mediocrity and many were the students who felt the touch of his scorn. He had a great bass voice, that churned and crackled in a most amazing way. On Holy Saturday, when he blessed the Easter water and the font, it was with gusto and obstreperous exaltation that he sang as he plunged the paschal candle into the depths of the barrel containing the water.

His great friend and intimate was Father John B. Scheier. Father Scheier was a Latinist, as we have mentioned, of extraordinary ability. Like Father Kirsch, he was a native of Luxembourg, born the 22nd of March, 1862. His early education was in the Jesuit schools of his country. In 1882 Scheier came to Notre Dame and entered the Novitiate. In 1887 he was ordained and sent to St. Edward's University, Austin, Texas, where he remained a few years. When he returned to Notre Dame he was made head of the Latin Department. He was also Prefect of Religion, and pastor of the college church. In character, he was nearly as odd as Father Kirsch, except that he had much more humor and kindliness about him. Father Kirsch would enter Father Scheier's room without knocking, without even a greeting, sometimes. There was a sort of mutual and silent understanding between the two priests, whereby conversation, except at rare intervals, was dispensed with. Often of an evening they would sit back to back under the light, reading and smoking, and when Father Kirsch was ready to leave, he would put down his book or magazine, grunt a "Goodnight, John," and go over to his room. Father Kirsch died January 15, 1923. Some five years later, on December 6, 1928, Father Scheier's death occurred.

On the same steamer that brought Andrew Morrissey as a lad to

America, there was a young Irish girl who intended to enter the convent at Notre Dame. In a few years, and for many thereafter, she was known as Sister Martha, the head of the Notre Dame kitchen. She was a woman of titanic strength, and like the other Sisters who worked in the kitchen with her, she made of herself a perfect slave for Christ's sake. Students remembered her as the Sister of the "silver finger." In cleaning fish one day, a bone pierced her finger, and Sister Martha nearly lost her hand. After the infection was finally cleared up, the bone of her finger had to be replaced with a small rod of silver, and it was with this that she pointed stiffly to the students who came to the "turn" for a handout. For twenty-three years she labored in the kitchen, her work never ceasing until her death, April 4, 1923.

Sister Cecelia was, for thirty-four years, located in the students' infirmary. She had been born at Albany, New York, in 1855, and entered the convent at Notre Dame in 1884. It was in 1905 that she took up the post in which generations of Notre Dame boys came to know her and love her. She had the courage of a man and the deep tenderness of a woman. Her ministrations were prompt, efficient and generous. A marvelous nurse, she would watch by the bed of a student dangerously ill with pneumonia, and you would think of her as an angel of mercy. But she could step down the corridor and stop a roughhouse or a pillow-fight with all the mastery and finality of a regimental commander. In the fall of 1927 the doctors told Sister Cecelia that her heart would no longer sustain the burden of infirmarian. They were quite right. On November 12th she breathed her last.

Then, there was Father Timothy Maher whose life had stretched back ninety-four years. Born March 3, 1831, in Tipperary, he had come to Notre Dame in 1846. His first thought was to become a Brother of Holy Cross, and that he did, taking the name of Brother John Chrysostom. Later on, in 1861, he decided that he would like to become a priest of the Congregation, a change that was permitted in those days. He was ordained in New Orleans, together with Fathers Toohey and Robinson, who had likewise been Brothers, on August 15, 1869. Later, Father Cavanaugh was to write of Father Maher:

There were two other venerable priests whose lives were closing during this epoch, Fathers Daniel Spillard and Thomas Vagnier. Father Spillard's life was identified with the early days at Notre Dame when he was prefect of discipline for a period of years, and when his humorous and pithy comments in the "Black Book," the disciplinary record of the times, gave him some claim to local "immortality." His record of service in the community reads like that of a soldier who was rushed from place to place to fill some breach in the lines. He came to Notre Dame from Elgin, Illinois, although he had been born in Cork, Nov. 8, 1839. He was graduated in the class of 1864, ordained in 1869 and made Prefect of Discipline. Almost simultaneously, he was pastor of St. Patrick's, South Bend, until 1874. From 1874 until 1883, he was in charge of St. Mary's Church, Austin, Texas. He came back to Notre Dame to serve as Master of Novices from 1883 until 1885. The following year, he was superior of Holy Cross Seminary at Notre Dame. Again, from 1890 until 1893, he was pastor of St. Patrick's in South Bend. The administration named him superior of the Community House at Notre Dame, a position he filled from 1893 to 1896. In that latter year began Father Spillard's only long tenure of office, as President of Holy Cross College and pastor of Sacred Heart Church, New Orleans, from 1896 until 1912. In 1912, he came back to Indiana and acted as assistant chaplain at St. Mary's until 1924. He then retired to the Community House at Notre Dame, where, on February 12, 1926, he rendered his soul to God.[7]

Thomas Vagnier was born near Fort Wayne on Washington's birthday, 1839. His parents moved to Notre Dame and lived, with their family, near what is now known as the Mission House. In 1855, Tom Vagnier joined the Congregation of Holy Cross, and at that early age, was made a teacher in the preparatory department. In 1857 he was appointed "professor of chemistry and physics," while at the same time he pursued higher studies in philosophy and theology. He was ordained a priest in 1867. He continued his teaching until 1874, when he became chaplain at Sr. Mary's, a post which he occupied until 1880. He was pastor of St. Leo's Church, St. Leo, Indiana, from 1880 until 1888, and pastor of St. John the Baptist Church, Earl Park, Indiana, until 1895. Renamed chaplain at Sr. Mary's in 1895, he continued in that post until his retirement in 1919. Then he went to the Community House at Notre Dame, where he remained until his death on August 1, 1926.[8]

There were five Brothers whose useful and edifying careers were brought to a close at this time. Brother Columba was said to have worked miracles, real miracles, through the intercession of the Sacred Heart. His simplicity of spirit, his modesty and honesty, his abnegation, seem to confirm the story of his extraordinary powers. He had what was described as a "miraculous" nudge, for when conversing, he had the habit of throwing his elbow into the side of his listener. By trade, he was a shoemaker, and for years he plied his trade in the Manual Labor school. When Father Sorin was weak and ill, Brother Columba was his personal nurse. It was with a skeptical eye, however, that he viewed the adulation given to Father Sorin. In the 1920's, when a young seminarian, learning that Brother Columba had attended Father Sorin in his last illness, rushed to him, and breathlessly exclaimed, "Brother, you were Father Sorin's nurse when he died?" Brother Columba eyed him coldly and answered: "Pshaw, boy! He was no saint!" Brother Columba's intercession was sought in hundreds of instances and his reputation was widespread. He went wherever the sick called him and in many instances he was said to have worked cures. After his death in December, 1923, many pilgrimages were made to his grave, and people took handfuls of the soft loam from his resting place as so many relics.

Then, there was Brother Philip Neri, born Robert Kunze in Germany, September 14, 1844. He entered the Novitiate at Notre Dame in 1861, and was professed August 15, 1870. For years he was a teacher in the commercial department, and was the devoted master of penmanship. In a day when there were no typewriters, the commercial student who could not write a legible hand was hardly able to get a job as bookkeeper. Years later, Brother Philip was the campus landscaper. To his credit must go the beauty of the old quadrangle which was just about all the campus until the 1920's. Brother Philip died February 14, 1926.[9]

For twenty years, Carroll Hall had a rector whose reputation for discipline was certainly national. No one who had been under him ever forgot Brother Alexander. His great, stubborn frame towered over his charges, and he was wont to emphasize his authority in a physical way that was, if not charming, very effective. Many of the students resented his freedom with the whip, and the archives contain many letters from the boys saying that they would be glad to return to Notre Dame, but only on condition that they would not be placed under Brother Alexander. But the good Brother, deep down in his heart, thought physical punishment a necessary adjunct in the training of boys, and nothing could make him doubt that stern measures must be always at hand. He was an odd individual, with spells of gigantic moodiness, but he was always on hand for his classes in mathematics. In these classes the students admitted he was a remarkable teacher. Later on, he was relieved of his prefecting and teaching and became the University steward. He died February 16, 1926.[10]

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Notre Dame boys spoke of the "Brother of Ten Thousand Keys." They meant Brother Terence. For over fifty years he was the locksmith at Notre Dame. When some student locked himself out of his room or lost the key to his trunk, Brother Terence could oblige him in a flash. During those fifty years he had acquired a string of keys which, if laid end to end, would reach, so said the students, from the front porch to the State Capitol in Indianapolis. Brother Terence was born Jeremiah Greany, March 6, 1853, in Chilton, Wisconsin. He was professed in 1879 and worked on St. Joseph's Farm for a number of years. But from 1895 until his death, October 16, 1927, he was at Notre Dame as locksmith.[11]

Of Brother Cajetan, we have already spoken in connection with his work in the Minim department. He was born at Avon, New York, June 15, 1855. It was in 1881 that he began to care for Father Sorin's "princes" in St. Edward's Hall. From that date until 1927 -- forty-six years -- he held that position. He was so gentle that when he was out for a walk with his little charges, he seemed like a shepherd guarding his lambs. At night he wrestled with God in prayer, and his shouting and groaning came in awesome waves through the walls of his tiny chamber. He died on January 25, 1928.[12]

© Copyright 1999 University of Notre Dame Press. All rights reserved.

<< ======= >>