The crazy, true story of how the Church helped take down the Klan in Colorado

With the recent publication of Colorado’s historic Ku Klux Clan membership ledgers, which were made public for the first time earlier this week and published by History Colorado online in their entirety, now is a good time to remember how the Catholic Church in Colorado – and the Denver Catholic Register in particular – played a critical role in exposing local Klan members in the 1920s and ultimately helped to dismantle the organization in Colorado.

This important chapter in the history of the Church in Colorado was recognized in 2017 by the Colorado Experience series on Rocky Mountain PBS, when the video series explored 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.
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 by 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!

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, indeed, published in a truly Catholic newspaper, and representative of a truly courageous Catholic Church.

A version of this article was originally published by the Denver Catholic in 2017.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”