Researching "Ex-Priests": The Catholic Central Verein, Anti-Catholic Lecturers, and the KKK

[This month Cushwa welcomes Sean Rost, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Missouri. A recent recipient of a Graduate Fellowship in American Political History from the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, his dissertation examines the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, with a particular focus on the efforts of anti-Klan activists to use their power at the polls, in the pulpit, and in the press to stymie the growth of the “Invisible Empire” in Missouri." As with last month's Cushwa post, this one focuses on the results of a 2015 Research Travel Grant. And while I'm at it, don't forget to finish your applications for the Theodore M. Hesburgh Research Travel Grants, which in this cycle are due April 1.

On the topic of Cushwa news, also, a reminder to check our Events Calendar if you might be in the neighborhood. In the next month we have a lecture by Colin Barr on Missionary Sisters in Ireland's Spiritual Empire and the Spring Seminar in American Religion, featuring a public discussion of Mark Noll's new book In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. Thomas Sugrue's planned lecture from a few weeks ago had to be canceled because of weather, and is currently being rescheduled for the last week of April.]

Sean Rost

When I first ascended to the sixth floor of the University of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library, I thought I knew what I was looking for. At the time, my dissertation research focused narrowly on anti-Klan activism in Missouri’s “Little Dixie,” a series of counties in the central part of the state known for southern heritage and a slave-holding past. As such, with the exception of reviewing files related to the nationally published anti-Catholic newspaper The Menace, I intended to hunt through the Notre Dame Archives in the hopes of finding materials related to the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Catholicism in “Little Dixie.” But I quickly realized that to understand the efforts made by “Little Dixie” residents to confront religious intolerance I needed to review the files of the Catholic Central Verein of America.

The Central Bureau of the Catholic Central Verein of America, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, and directed by Frederick Kenkel, undertook a number of social reform causes in its early years. The Central Bureau, according to Philip Gleason, “issued pamphlets on timely issues, established a press service on social reform topics for Catholic newspapers, sponsored lecture tours and social study courses, and established a day nursery for the children of working mothers in St. Louis.” Yet I was struck by its large collection of letters concerning anti-Catholic lecturers. Between 1901 and 1957, the Central Verein received letters from around the United States asking for background information and investigations into the claims made by anti-Catholic lecturers that they had once been priests and nuns. In a folder containing letters from the 1920s, I came across a familiar address: “St. Peter’s Rectory, 216 Broadway, Jefferson City, MO.” Jefferson City is my hometown. The rectory sits across the street from the Harry S. Truman State Office Building, where my father used to work, and I knew many people affiliated with the church.

The ad from the Kansas City Star which caught Vogelweid's attention
The correspondence from St. Peter’s Rectory was from Rev. J.A. Vogelweid, who contacted Frederick Kenkel to discuss a public lecture in Kansas City given by “a certain Doctor Matthews” who claimed to be an “ex-priest.” According to Vogelweid, an advertisement for the lecture in the Kansas City Star had drawn the attention of many local residents who were curious about Matthews’ status as a former priest. As over a month had passed since the lecture, and even a monetary wager by Father John Keyes and the Kansas City Catholic Register to Matthews to prove his ordination had not settled the matter, Vogelweid reached out to the Central Verein to ascertain Matthews' credentials.

Kenkel responded immediately, informing Vogelweid that he was “glad you wrote us about this matter.” The Central Verein had already collected a substantial amount of information on “Dr. Matthews,” including excerpts from articles in Our Sunday Visitor and the Western American. Both newspapers mentioned that J.F. Matthews (or Mathews) was an ex-priest and anti-Catholic lecturer who had come to the United States around 1916. He had battled “drinking and drug-taking habits” in recent years, and had apostatized and later drifted between Presbyterian and Baptist denominations. He had recently shown up in Texas, according to an editorial on “Converted Priests” in the Western American, and appeared at an event with anti-Catholic preacher J. Frank Norris to discuss “the meaning of the mass and other matters.”

In addition to sending these articles to Vogelweid, Kenkel also included further information on the Matthews advertisement in the Kansas City Star. Citing information collected from an article published in the September 5th edition of the Kansas City Catholic Register, Kenkel informed Vogelweid that the Register had contacted John Barrons, the Advertising Manager of the Star, after the initial publication of the advertisement. Barrons admitted that he had not seen the advertisement before it was printed and would not tolerate further information like it in the newspaper. In notifying Vogelweid of this information, Kenkel decided not to discuss the accusations by the Register that Walker’s Prayer Tabernacle, the site of Matthews’ lecture, was once tied to Klan activity and had “always been a hot-bed of anti-Catholic abuse and lies… [where] numbers of fake priests and nuns have been used to trim the gullible out of their money.”

Instead, Vogelweid and Kenkel showed a level of caution. They never levied any charges at Walker’s Tabernacle, opting to focus on confirming the identity of “Dr. Matthews," which proved to be troublesome and inconclusive. In the information about Matthews collected by the Central Verein, Kenkel noted that Our Sunday Visitor spelled the name “Mathews,” while the Western American recorded it as “Matthews.” Additionally, the Kansas City speaker was advertised as “Dr. Mathews.” The investigators couldn't even determine if he was "Joe" or "J.F.," as other newspapers called him. As for the fifty dollar wager put forth by Father John Keyes and the Register, that too remains a mystery. Kenkel concluded his letter to Vogelweid with a reminder that “if the Kansas City Mathews is the man described [in the Central Verein’s records]…the ‘Register’ [and Father Keyes] stands to lose the $50 offered for proof of his having been ordained.”

The correspondence between Frederick Kenkel and Rev. J.A. Vogelweid is quite revealing about early 20th Century activism against bigotry, religious intolerance, and, to a large extent, groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Efforts to expose the truth behind those deemed anti-Catholic or allegedly affiliated with the Klan required factual information. The Central Verein's archives indicate that Catholics put substantial effort into this research during the early 20th century, and that the Central Verein deliberately established itself as a clearinghouse, as Kenkel wrote to Fr. John Keyes:

“We would be grateful for additional information [on Mathews]…we collect such material, and even seemingly meagre bits of information, properly pieced together, may prove of value.” 

The Central Verein was not alone in its investigation of anti-Catholic lecturers and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. I have so far found similar practices undertaken by organizations and newspapers throughout Missouri during the 1920s, particularly the St. Louis Church Progress and the Kansas City Catholic Register. The Church Progress advised its readers that vigilance and activism would ensure that the Klan became “an unsavory memory,” while the Catholic Register was certain that “the Catholic people of Kansas City, while they are ready to fight the Klan at every step, are not laying awake nights worrying about it.” While not “worrying,” the Register did send reporters to events deemed to be anti-Catholic or affiliated with the Klan to record the names and license plates of those in attendance. My research trip to the University of Notre Dame Archives, where I discovered the correspondence of Kenkel, Vogelweid, and Keyes, ended up marking a turning point in my dissertation research. During the summer of 2015 I shifted the scope of my project; instead of focusing on “Little Dixie,” my dissertation now examines anti-Klan activism in specific locations throughout Missouri, including the Catholic Central Verein’s hometown of St. Louis. I had arrived at Notre Dame knowing that the rhetoric of anti-Catholicism had once echoed from buildings along Jefferson City’s West High Street, but I soon discovered that the battle against such intolerance was being waged not only in the same town, but also on the same street.

A panoramic photo of Jefferson City, showing St. Peter's Church and rectory on the left, the Missouri State Capitol in the center, and, at the top of the hill/street on the right, the Merchants Bank building, where the Jefferson City Ku Klux Klan had its headquarters during the 1920s.


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