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Resolve in the Face of Hate

2/1/2019

By Andrew Fowler

Knight steadfastly defended African-Americans against KKK aggression during 1920s.

(Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Brooklyn/Editions du Signe

(Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Brooklyn/Editions du Signe)

Decades before Martin Luther King, Jr. would begin advocating for civil rights, Knight of Columbus member, Msgr. Bernard Quinn fought for the dignity and rights of African-Americans during the rise of nativism and racism led by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Msgr. Quinn knew it was his duty as a Knight to fight against racial discrimination since the organization has always been a fierce opponent of the Ku Klux Klan. The fight included legal battles to defend the rights of minorities as well as the commission of books that promoted racial equality, with one by civil rights proponent W.E.B. DuBois. When the Klan took to acts of violence, Knights responded by protecting priests, Catholics and other Knights from the Klan’s angry mob.

In 1928, Msgr. Quinn and the Klan had their own conflict. After he founded the orphanage “The Little Flower House of Providence” for African-American children in New York, the Klan set it ablaze. Undeterred, Msgr. Quinn rebuilt it only for the Klan to burn it down again several months later. Still Quinn didn’t give up, this time rebuilding the orphanage with concrete and brick. The headline in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle read, “New Fireproof Orphanage Will Defy Incendiary.”

He also founded St. Peter Claver Church, the first parish established for Black Catholics in the Diocese of Brooklyn. In a letter to his parishioners, he wrote, “I would willingly shed to the last drop my life’s blood” for each one of them, regardless of their race.

Msgr. Quinn was born to Irish immigrant parents in Newark, N.J., on January 15, 1888, the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be born decades later. Early in his priesthood, Msgr. Quinn approached Bishop Charles Edward McDonnell, with the desire of establishing an “apostolate to Blacks” to serve the Brooklyn diocese’s growing African-American population. These people were coming to New York to flee the Jim Crow laws of the South or were migrating from Caribbean countries.

Msgr. Quinn never got permission for a formal apostolate. Instead, he served in parishes around Long Island and Brooklyn before volunteering as an Army chaplain during World War I. During his time in France, Msgr. Quinn served in racially inclusive Knights of Columbus huts, known for their slogan “Everybody Welcome. Everything Free.” Even after surviving a gas attack, Msgr. Quinn stayed in France following the conclusion of the war to tend to the wounded.

Upon his return to the U.S., Msgr. Quinn received several assignments within the Brooklyn diocese before petitioning again to open a church for the African-American population, who were unwelcome in German, Irish and Italian neighborhoods.

“It seems to me that no church can exclude any one and still keep its Christian ideals,” Msgr. Quinn said. “The Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and this, plus the fact that church property is tax exempt, ought to mean that anyone can go any place to worship.”

Finally, in 1921, Msgr. Quinn was named rector of St. Peter Claver Church. Before long, 10,000 people of all ethnicities filled the church each week for a popular novena, allowing the ministry to Brooklyn’s Black Catholics to expand.

Msgr. Quinn died in 1940 at age 52, and the cause for his canonization was opened in 2008. Throughout his life, he championed African-American rights, emblematic of the Knights of Columbus’ mission: Everybody Welcome. Everybody Free.

To learn more about the Knights’ history against discrimination, click here.

Share your story with andrew.fowler@kofc.org