Some of the first religious refugees arrive in New York the day the Calles Law takes effect — Aug. 1, 1926. During the persecution, hundreds of priests and religious left Mexico in exile. Many were helped by the Knights of Columbus.
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Living in Nogales in the 1920s, Alfonso de la Torre experienced the difference a small change in address could make — even in the same city. Because Nogales straddled the U.S.-Mexican border, where he lived determined whether going to Mass was a protected right or a punishable crime.
Many Americans adopted a hands-off attitude or showed outright hostility toward Mexican refugees. De la Torre expressed his frustration in a series of satirical cartoons that underscored one of the greatest hindrances to U.S. support of persecuted Mexicans: public opinion was often unsympathetic to Catholics.
The de la Torre family had already endured much from the Mexican government’s restriction of religious practice. After the family removed anti-Catholic hate-speech posted on church doors and helped organize peaceful boycotts, de la Torre was targeted personally for protesting, and he and his family had to use pseudonyms to write to each other. De la Torre’s brother, unable to study for the priesthood in Mexico, had to come to the United States to complete his studies. And his sister’s boyfriend died in combat as a Cristero — the name given to the Catholic freedom fighters, known for their battle cry “¡Viva Cristo Rey!”
Across the border, things were very different. In Nogales, Ariz., de la Torre could practice his faith freely. For the first time in many months, he could walk down the street to an open church for Mass. Nonetheless, he soon became aware that the situation in the United States was not perfect. Many Americans adopted a hands-off attitude or showed outright hostility toward Mexican refugees. De la Torre expressed his frustration in a series of satirical cartoons that underscored one of the greatest hindrances to U.S. support of persecuted Mexicans: public opinion was often unsympathetic to Catholics.
But as de la Torre would find out, not all Americans were silent. In his family archive today, one can find a Knights of Columbus pamphlet from when the Order organized one of the first, and strongest, U.S. campaigns speaking up for the persecuted Catholics south of the border. De la Torre himself became a member of the Knights, as his father Ignacio before him had been in Aguascalientes, Mexico, before the persecution suppressed K of C meetings and drove his family north.
FACING RELIGIOUS BIAS
Although the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedom, anti-Catholic bigotry was common in the 1920s, and many U.S. citizens and organizations supported President Calles.
The Ku Klux Klan, in fact, offered its 4 million members as soldiers for the Calles regime should any group or country intervene militarily. And in a publication titled “The Knights of the Klan vs. the Knights of Columbus,” the Klan ridiculed Catholic and Jewish immigrants as “ignorant, superstitious, religious devotees” who first needed to be taught “the fundamental principles of human liberty before we permit further masses … to come within our borders.”
At the same time, Margaret Sanger — founder of Planned Parenthood — praised Calles’ campaign against the Church as a strike against intolerance and a step toward making her work easier: “With the yoke of medievalism thus thrown off we can anticipate a splendid development of the government work for birth control already begun in Mexico.”
Such hostility toward Catholics made life difficult for many Mexican refugees, and sought to discourage President Calvin Coolidge’s administration from taking a position against Calles’ anti-clerical policies.
Yet, the Knights — who in four short decades since the Order’s founding had become outspoken advocates for equality and religious liberty — were undeterred.
By the early 1920s, the Order had already spoken out against laws blocking immigration from Catholic countries; published a series of books on the vital role of African Americans, Jews and German Americans in U.S. history; and helped fund a successful legal action before the Supreme Court against a Klan-backed law in Oregon, thereby preserving parents’ rights to direct their children’s education, including sending them to parochial schools.
Recognizing this new face of religious bias, the Knights were quick to support the persecuted Church south of the border. In August 1926, within days of the Calles Law taking effect in Mexico, the Knights’ Supreme Convention passed a resolution in support of the Church in Mexico. The resolution established the “Million Dollar Mexican Fund,” which raised more than $1 million (the equivalent of nearly $13 million today) for relief work and education regarding the situation in Mexico.
Cardinal Dennis J. Dougherty of Philadelphia noticed effects almost immediately, writing in a letter that the Mexican Fund had already “aroused the Washington administration from their supine indifference and apathy.”
Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty and a number of Supreme Officers took the issue to President Coolidge, meeting with him to discuss plans to raise public awareness and to urge the use of U.S. influence to end the persecution. The president expressed his appreciation for the Knights of Columbus’ education campaign, and “even suggested how it might be enlarged,” Flaherty later noted.
A K of C delegation meets with President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 to discuss the issue of religious persecution in Mexico. Pictured left to right are Supreme Advocate Luke E. Hart, Deputy Supreme Knight Martin Carmody, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty, President Coolidge, Supreme Secretary William J. McGinley, Supreme Director William C. Prout, and Assistant Supreme Secretary John Conway. Hart and Carmody each served as supreme knight in the decades that followed.
SUPPORT AND EDUCATION
Two areas became central to the Knights’ work: caring for those forced out of Mexico and educating Americans about the situation unfolding across the border.
The persecution drove many Mexican Catholics into the United States to escape the violence and worship freely. President Calles’ policy disbanded monasteries and expelled foreign-born religious, including about 400 priests — amounting to 10 percent of all priests in Mexico.
In turn, a significant portion of the Mexican Fund went toward aiding these displaced clergy and religious, including Bishop Pascual Díaz y Barreto of Tabasco, a member of the Order who later became one of the key negotiators for a peace agreement in Mexico. The Mexican Fund assisted many displaced religious through Cardinal Patrick J. Hayes of New York, who received numerous requests for aid.
This work of helping refugees and immigrants was continued on the local level. In Laredo, Texas, one council supported 15 refugee nuns, and the Colorado State Council worked to improve Mexican immigrants’ labor conditions through its Mexican Welfare Committee.
A significant concern for the Church in Mexico was not only helping current priests, but also providing for seminarians. Following a direct request for support from Bishop Díaz, part of the Mexican fund was used to sponsor 20 Mexican seminarians at St. Philip Seminary in Castroville, Texas.
“A bishop can do without a miter, a crosier and even a cathedral, but never without a seminary, because the future of his diocese depends on the seminary,” said Bishop Rafael Guízar Valencia of Veracruz, Mexico, a Knight of Columbus who operated a clandestine seminary in Mexico and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.
The international reach of the Order also helped with the Mexican Fund’s second focus: public education. In Mexico, the media was controlled by the government, thus compromising the accuracy of the information reaching the United States. Getting factual news about the situation in Mexico was therefore a priority for the Knights.
Members in Mexico gathered first-hand accounts, which they sent to their brother Knights north of the border. To safeguard this process, the Supreme Council founded a special committee of three Knights responsible for facilitating the delivery of accurate information.
Columbia magazine played an important role as well — but with consequences. Under the editorial leadership of Myles Connolly — who later became an Academy Award-nominated scriptwriter — the magazine explored various elements of the Mexican situation in nearly every issue for several years. Within months, though, Columbia was banned from the mail in Mexico by the Calles regime.
Finally, the Knights supported the investigative work of other journalists, especially Jesuit Father Wilfrid Parsons of America magazine, in order to bring the facts to light. Using the information gathered, the Order printed and distributed 5 million pamphlets about the persecutory laws and other aspects of the crisis. Request for pamphlets came from throughout the United States and beyond.
A SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN
Recognizing how the Church was silenced in so many ways in Mexico, the U.S. bishops spoke out in solidarity with their Mexican brethren. Cardinal Hayes enlisted the Knights’ help for this, and the K of C presses printed and distributed more than 2 million copies of the “Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Episcopate of the United States on the Religious Situation in Mexico.”
But the written word was not the only medium pursued. Across the United States and Canada, the Knights sponsored more than 700 free lectures, hosted by local councils. While some had as many as 7,000 attendees, the lectures reached millions more by radio.
As one might expect, such strong advocacy became controversial. Supporters of Calles distorted facts and increased pressure to suppress not only the Knights’ voice, but the voice of all Catholics urging for something to be done. In Mexico, dissenting voices were often penalized severely.
In the United States, the Ku Klux Klan blatantly disapproved of people of faith getting involved. In the previously mentioned booklet, “The Knights of the Klan vs. the Knights of Columbus,” the Klan stated: “In protecting … [the] right to absolute freedom of worship we find ourselves in the anomalous position of requiring religious devotees to abstain from religious meddling in matters of state for their own protection.”
Fortunately, the absurdity of suppressing voices from speaking on a matter of religious persecution — simply because they were religious — was rejected by the Coolidge administration. Coolidge’s ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, consulted with and depended upon the diplomatic finesse of both clergy and Catholic laymen, including several Knights of Columbus. Such collaboration produced the negotiations and peace agreement that ultimately ended the Cristero War and the worst of the persecution. However, the Mexican government did not honor the agreement and persecution continued, in varying degrees, for another decade.
Despite the forces aligned against it in the United States, the Order played an important role in educating the American public and motivating the U.S. government to be a voice for peace and religious freedom in Mexico. For the Knights of Columbus in the 1920s and ’30s — as today — the common bond of Catholic faith, and the common cause of religious freedom, created a unity that transcended borders
Maureen Walther and Jennifer Diagle are researchers at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council.