90 years of Catholic news with ‘snap, vigor and courage’

National Catholic Register began in 1900 as Denver Catholic Register

Aaron Lambert

When 22-year-old lay journalist Matthew Smith took over as editor for Denver Catholic Register in 1913, he likely could have never imagined how God’s providence would allow the newspaper to flourish and endure — even to this day.

The National Catholic Register celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. Launched in 1927, the seed for the long-running newspaper was planted with the Denver Catholic Register. From it, Smith, who was ordained a priest in 1923 and named a monsignor in 1930, would spawn the Register System of Catholic newspapers in 1929, producing 35 diocesan editions with circulation of 850,000.

Unfortunately, the Register System was no more by 1970; however, the National Catholic Register stuck around and is now 90 years strong (and as a side note, so did the Denver Catholic…you’re reading from it right now, after all!)

In one of the first issues of the paper, Msgr. Smith promised readers a Catholic newspaper with “snap, vigor and courage” and one that would “always be loyal to the Church.” 90 years later, this seems to still ring true.

In an era of history where the Church is increasingly under attack for upholding values and morals that the culture at large deems to be “old-fashioned” or “archaic,” Catholic newspapers like the National Catholic Register stand boldly against the rising tide.

Msgr. Smith was never one to back down from a fight, and certainly didn’t compromise when it came to combatting the pressing issues of the time. For example, in the mid-1900s, when the Ku Klux Klan ran rampant in Denver, under the leadership of Msgr. Smith, the Denver Catholic Register’s reporting helped to debunk falsehoods the Klan was spreading about the Church at the time and helped to expose their hateful, racist organization for what it really was.

Msgr. Smith was honored at the 1953 Catholic Press Association gathering with a plaque that said as an editor “he has fought bigotry with courage and intelligence and in him the Ku Klux Klan had one of its most effective adversaries.”

It’s in this spirit that the National Catholic Register still operates – and it’s in this spirit all Catholic newspapers should strive to operate.

“Catholic journalism today needs Msgr. Smith’s spirit,” said Kevin Jones, a journalist for Catholic News Agency. “[He] left a legacy of professional Catholic journalism that sees no contradiction between honest reporting and principled advocacy of the Catholic faith and Catholic social teaching.

Jones organized a toast to Msgr. Smith and the legacy he left on Catholic journalism in November. The work of Msgr. Smith underscores the evergreen importance for good Catholic journalism, Jones argued. Catholic news organizations face many of the same financial, social and technological challenges as other news organizations, but in some ways, their work is even more important because they work to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ in a muddled world.

“Just as our time needs faithful Catholic voices to make the news, we need dedicated Catholics to report the news,” Jones said. “Good information and good reporting are vital to the situation of American Catholics, but simply reporting on these negative trends will be fruitless, unless Catholics organize and act intelligently and credibly. While grassroots advocacy is important, this task requires full-time, well-funded professional work.”

Roxanne King served as editor for the Denver Catholic Register, now the Denver Catholic, for 13 years, making her the second-longest serving editor behind Msgr. Smith’s 47 years. She still contributes to both the Denver Catholic and National Catholic Register, and loves her job just as much as the first day she started.

“I have the best job in the world,” King said. “I get to interview amazing, holy clergy, nuns and lay peoples and cover beautiful ministries and faith-related events that bring the light, love and joy of Christ to the world.

“It makes me so happy and proud that the Denver Catholic Register, under Msgr. Smith, gave birth to the National Catholic Register as its national edition and that they, and other newspapers the Register System produced, are still in publication today. I’m thrilled to be a part of his ongoing legacy through the Denver Catholic and the National Catholic Register as we now strive to also claim the digital continent for Christ. The good news has never been needed more than now.”

COMING UP: The Klan and why we need Catholic media

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February is Catholic Press Month—a time to recognize the value and contribution of the Catholic Press, and to pray for its journalists and editors. It’s also a time to recognize great chapters in the history of the Catholic media, many of which, we proudly report, have been written by the nearly 117-year-old Denver Catholic.

The chapter that stands above all others was recently recognized by the Colorado Experience series on Rocky Mountain PBS—the role of the Denver Catholic Register in exposing and ultimately defeating the Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1920s.

The modern narrative of the Klan tends to emphasize its activity in the deep south during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but Colorado, believe it or not, had the second largest chapter of the Klan in the United States in the 1920s, second only to its birthplace in Indiana.

The Klan was so entrenched in Colorado that it was impossible to be elected to political office, or gain a leadership position in the city’s institutions, without the backing of the Klan. It’s estimated that at its height, the Klan in “Kolorado” boasted a membership of about 35,000 to 40,000 members.

Businessmen, to show their support, and also worried about being targets of powerful Klan boycotts aimed at non-Klan members, would rename their companies in such a way that it was impossible not to know they were members or friends of the Klan, such as the Kanon Koal Kompany, of Canon City, Colorado.

We know that the Klan was racist. What isn’t often mentioned is that the Klan also targeted Catholics, who they considered to be anti-American.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KKK_-_St_Patricks_Dau.jpg

In this 1927 cartoon the Ku Klux Klan chases the Roman Catholic Church, personified by St. Patrick, from the shores of America. Among the “snakes” are various supposed negative attributes of the Church, including superstition, union of church and state, control of public schools, and intolerance. (Clarke Branford, Wikimedia)

Gano E. Senter, a politician and owner of a restaurant named Kool Kosy Kafe, sold Cyana cigars (Catholics, You Are Not Americans). He was the regional director of the Klan, while his wife Lorena headed up the woman’s auxiliary, whose main issue was to ensure that innocent white children were kept out of Catholic orphanages.

Buy a catechism!

The PBS documentary rightly named the Denver Catholic Register, and its editor then Father Matthew Smith (later Msgr. Smith), as one of the main players who “made an intense effort to expose the inner workings of the Klan,” and who “kept fighting the Klan, constantly.” For his efforts, he was, at least six times, nearly run over in the streets.

The Register featured a steady stream of stories about the Klan during 1924-25, the peak years of control of the Klan in Colorado. Many were national stories that the paper followed closely, such as the Klan’s efforts to push the national expansion of Oregon’s anti-private school legislation, which was ultimately deemed unconstitutional. Klan members proposed similar laws, which would make it illegal for parents to send their children to anything but a public school, in Washington State and Michigan.

One of the first mentions of the Klan was Jan. 3, 1924, when the Denver Catholic Register published a front page story with the headline: “Father Donnelly Recommends Ten Cent Catechism for Ku Kluxers Prospective Members.”

The paper reported that a Protestant minister attempted to explain the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the Denver Express, a Ku Klux Klan newspaper. Father J.J. Donnelly, pastor of St. Francis de Sales, found the explanation “Amusing, offensive, saddening!” He suggested that if the Klan really wanted to know what Catholics believe, then it should buy a Baltimore Catechism. “It costs only 10 cents,” he added.

Good intel

The Catholic newspaper was an early target of the Klan’s bullying. A short notice in the April 3, 1924, paper noted that the Klan had been calling local businesses telling them not to advertise in the Denver Catholic Register. “One of the largest advertisers of the Register told the KKK ‘phoner to go—well, where we don’t want to spend eternity,” the paper reported in its characteristic tongue-in-cheek style.

The boycott backfired, so another plan was hatched. In June of that same year, a group put together a list of 800 Catholic businessmen and printed at the bottom of the list: “Do not patronize heretics,” and “Only trade with Roman Catholics.” The problem, according to the story in the June 19 issue of the Register, is that Catholics normally didn’t refer to themselves as Roman Catholics, and they don’t refer to their Protestant brothers and sisters as “heretics.” Whoever put the list together, the paper suggested, wasn’t even Catholic. So, who wrote the list?

The Register doesn’t say, as the issue was still under investigation, but it did end the article with this thinly veiled accusation: “The local Klan has been under investigation from Atlanta headquarters. The money-grabbers are decidedly worried over the clownish position and the constant slipping that have characterized His Majesty’s efforts in this section” (a reference to Dr. John Galen Locke, the Grand Dragon of the “Colorado Realm”).

In an article published in the Feb. 5, 1948, edition of the Register, Msgr. Smith revealed that years after the Klan had folded he was told my former Klan leadership that his information on the inner workings of the Klan was surprisingly on target. They asked him how many spies he had embedded in the organization. He never had a spy, he wrote, just good sources.

Fake nuns, Mass wine

In 1925, the Register covered the proliferation of “fakers” who pretended to be ex-priests or ex-nuns and who would speak as “experts” at Klan events about the Catholic Church and the depravity of its priests. The worst offender was “Sister Angel,” who said she was a Franciscan nun in Massachusetts for a year in her 20s. She was 58 at the time. Her talk was deemed by the Denver Catholic Register as the “lewdest lecture ever given in the history of Denver.” The paper refrained from going into detail, for fear of being sent to jail for publishing obscenities!

Capture

May 28, 1925

The most high-profile story covered by the Denver Catholic Register was the campaign launched by Klan-backed Governor Clarence Morley to ban sacramental wine, which he announced in his inaugural address in 1925. The total ban would essentially prevent the celebration of Mass in the state of Colorado, or at least the legal celebration of Mass (our priests would have found a way to continue offering the sacraments).

A strongly-worded editorial in the May 1, 1924, edition of the Register asserted that “wine in itself is not evil,” and furthermore, the 2,000-year old Catholic Church “does not need half-baked theologians and newspaper writers to teach her morality.”

The stories of Father Smith on the topic gained national attention and sparked an outcry that was heard all the way to Washington, D.C. The paper’s unwavering stand was expressed in a rallying cry dated Jan. 29, 1925: “We stand ready, if needs be, to die or to rot in jail.” The measure was ultimately defeated, and it marked the beginning of the end for the Klan in Colorado. They had reached too far.

It won’t last

The greatest contribution of Father Smith was his guidance to Catholics on how to respond to such a real and tangible threat to the very existence of the Church. At stake was the Church’s ability to educate its children in Catholic schools, and celebrate Mass. These were not small issues.

His advice was to not react, especially not with violence, to remain vigilant in exposing the Klan for what it was, and to be patient.

“Such a movement cannot last,” he wrote in an Aug. 14, 1924, article meant to console Catholics following the re-election of Mayor Ben Stapleton, at the time a Klansmen (he later turned on the Klan). “Founded on hate, which is naturally repulsive to the human heart; built on principles which must inevitably bring discord among its own members, it may get a temporary hearing … but the air of America is too friendly to permit such a disease to last.”

“The way to fight such movements as this one,” another editorial said on Nov. 13, 1924, “is not by violence. That only adds impetus to them. It gives them favorable publicity as being persecuted. Not only that, it is morally wrong.

“But at the same time we shouldn’t sit back and hope to see them die a natural death. Too many people believe that silence give consent. An organized system of publishing truth and facts concerning the Church, that is what we want.”

“If we spread truth among our non-Catholic friends,” he added optimistically, “sooner or later they will realize that such a movement as the Klan has no place in our American institution.”

Wise words, published in a truly Catholic newspaper. Long live a robust, faithful, courageous Catholic press.