The Battle for Long Islanders’ Souls and Minds: Holy Name Society’s Fight against the Ku Klux Klan

Christopher Verga

Abstract: In the enclosed research, comparisons are made through the changing demographics between Long Island Protestants and immigrant Catholic populations of 1920s and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The article elaborates on how Catholic groups such as the Holy Name Society fought bigotry from the local Klan, through the use of mass rallies and endorsement of local political candidates. The Catholic unity had limited short term results, but paved the way for a unified political power in the long term.

Keywords: Bigotry, Catholic, Holy Name Society, Ku Klux Klan, nativism, Protestant

Articles VOL 27-1

By Christopher Verga

An insurgence of hate and nationalist groups spurred by a growth in immigrant populations that practiced a foreign religion and spoke a foreign language; false news that targeted new immigrants as threats to American society and promoted political campaigns designed around a Protestant conservative social etiquette — these events are reminiscent of 2016, but the year was 1923, and the Catholics of Long Island were transitioning from a minority to a majority religion. This cultural shift broke down the barriers of isolated Protestant communities across Long Island and created a surge in Ku Klux Klan membership devoted to rooting out Catholic social and political influences. But Catholic parishes on Long Island fought back, engaging the Klan in a political battle to win votes, strike down anti-Catholic laws, and convince a skeptical public that their values were fully compatible with America.

The Catholic population on Long Island, and across the United States in general, was on the rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1850 Catholics made up five percent of the United States population and, within fifty years, the Catholic population tripled as a result of mass migration from Europe. Catholicism quickly became the fastest growing religion in the United States, but some traditional Protestant communities viewed this as a threat to their beliefs in what it meant to be a true American. Their concerns were elevated by Pope Leo XIII opposing the establishment of Protestant churches within the city of Rome.[1] Protestant communities from New York to Oregon took this act as an aggressive indoctrination of Catholic values and argued that it blurred the lines between separation of church and state. The Ku Klux Klan and other conservative Protestant groups viewed the growing proportion of Catholics in the United States as a challenge to Protestant dominance over American society. They published editorials in local papers across the country questioning whether the Catholic Church could be compatible with American democracy. In response to Klan-slanted publications and nativist politicians, Catholic organizations began a national effort to combat false news reports and anti-Catholic political campaigns.

In the early 1920s, the KKK and a national feeling of nativism saw the Catholic Church’s opening of parochial schools as a threat to traditional American Protestant values. Public schools around the United States distributed Protestant bibles to students in an effort to assimilate new immigrants to the dominant religion and culture. Catholics utilized parochial schools to shield school-aged children from nativist influence and to preserve the culture promoted by the Catholic Church. States across the country elected political candidates who sympathized with the Klan, and Conservative Protestant groups created laws to ban or limit access to private Catholic schools by making public school attendance mandatory for all children within the state in which they resided. The Catholic Church challenged these laws in the courts. In the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, “The Society of Sisters argued that the law had no plausible purpose of assimilating foreigners and it violated the 14th Amendment by limiting fundamental rights of Catholic families.”[2] The argument was a success, and the court ruled in favor of the Society of Sisters. The ruling had effects in all communities with growing immigrant populations. Despite such judicial victories, nativist groups were willing to use fear and intimidation to pacify the new Catholic immigrants.

New York City and Long Island were not immune to the biases of anti-immigrant nativism. Increasing Catholic demographics had the largest impact in New York City, which witnessed a 39% increase in its Catholic population between 1900 and 1920.[3] The Catholic Dioceses, which was comprised of Long Islands’ Kings, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties, grew by 40% in 1920 to 800,000. Along with the rise in Catholicism came a decline in the proportion of Protestants. In 1900 Protestants compromised 47.40% of the population of New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area. Within ten years, only 34.55% identified as Protestant.[4]

Anti-Catholic laws included the banning of sacramental wine. This proposed legislation was pioneered by the Anti-Saloon League. Under the leadership of William Anderson, the Anti-Saloon League adopted a strong nativist policy that not only aggressively promoted prohibition, but targeted Catholics as un-American. Anti-Catholic sentiment was also a cornerstone of the revised Ku Klux Klan. Anderson publicly supported the Klan’s platform and claimed it was a natural response to the Catholic’s opposition to prohibition.

The anti-Catholic backlash in New York, in turn, strengthened Catholic religious orders such as the Knights of Columbus and Holy Name Society. In America, an estimated 370,000 – 380,000 Catholics were enlisted in the armed services during World War I. The newly formed National Catholic War Council adopted the care for soldiers internationally by building diplomatic relations within countries to form missions to help those injured on the front lines. After the war, Catholic Churches organized missions across the country to care for chronically injured soldiers returning home. American Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) showed their support by refusing to rent their halls to anti-Catholic affiliated groups. With the support of the VFW and veteran programs founded by the Catholic Church, returning Catholic soldiers rejected the ideology that they did not reflect the true values of America. After fighting abroad for the United States, hundreds of thousands of soldiers joined militaristic Catholic orders such as Knights of Columbus and the Holy Name Society.

The Knights of Columbus prompted Catholics to embody Americanism, and the returning veterans were the best example. Locally, the Knights of Columbus harnessed thousands of dollars to work on anti-poverty charities. The public presence of Knights of Columbus, most notably in parades on Columbus Day, demonstrated to the public that the first Europeans to colonize/discover America were Catholics. The Holy Name Society experienced a resurgence of membership and an expansion of their original purpose. During the 19th century, Catholic parishes promoted reverence and moral discipline among parishioners, which encouraged the formation of localized Holy Name Societies.[5] During the 1920s, the Holy Name Society and Knights of Columbus combated the anti-Catholic sentiment of the Ku Klux Klan, by holding mass demonstrations to exhibit the unity of the Catholic Church. The promotion of unification by Holy Name rallied Catholics into a solid voting bloc. Members were encouraged to embark on letter writing campaigns to combat potential anti-Catholic legislation and hired lobbyists to promote pro-Catholic ideas and investigate Klan members within Congress for corruption.

Anti-Catholic sentiment was further enhanced with the 1918 New York Governor’s election. Democratic candidate Al Smith, a Catholic with ties to Tammany Hall who opposed the Temperance Movement, was a target of nativists and the emerging Ku Klux Klan. Incumbent Charles S. Whitman ran for reelection as a law-and-order candidate based on his work as a district attorney and successful prosecution of criminally connected police officers. Whitman lost the election to Smith by an estimated 50,000 votes, leading to a nativist backlash. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a surge in membership in these years and waged successful campaigns in local elections, giving pro-Klan candidates control of several political offices. Grassroots efforts and local electoral victories also led to Al Smith being defeated for reelection. Although Smith staged a political comeback and was elected Governor again in 1922, the Klan had succeeded in making his Catholic background the center of debate. False newspaper reports inspired by the Ku Klux Klan circulated through New York depicting him as loyal to the Pope and not America or its values. The November 21, 1924 edition of the Klan-inspired paper Vigilance reported that Al Smith could be conscripting to make America a colony of the Roman Church. The Kourier Magazine declared in July 1927, the “Catholic church teaches disloyalty to America and electing Catholic Governor Alfred Smith will purposely promote the breakdown of America and its values.”[6] The false reporting from these papers was widely read and distributed in suburban areas across New York. This news spurred distrust and anxiety in Long Island communities, which were witnessing some of the largest increases in Catholic immigrants.

Catholic churches across the Brooklyn diocese started to push back against Klan propaganda and political influence. Anti-Klan unification came with the Knights of Columbus and the Holy Name Society. The Klan targeted the Knights of Columbus as a militaristic organization, claiming that it plotted to take over America and that all members had to take a “Blood and Thunder” Oath of loyalty to Rome. On March 17, 1923, Knights of Columbus leader James Flaherty attempted to debunk the Klan’s claim by advertising in local papers that he would give $25,000 to anyone that could find creditable evidence supporting the claim.[7] The Holy Name Society organized urban churches to put pressure on the New York State Senate to pass anti-Klan legislation. In 1923, New York State Senator John Hastings proposed and passed a law that would register the membership of members with the state. Hastings defended his proposal by arguing on the New York State Senate floor, “No organization conceivably guilty of outrages as have been attributed to the Klan should be permitted the privilege of secret existence.”[8] This was a modest win in a long war between the Klan and the Catholic population.

In response to the rumors, Protestant Churches gave sermons that declared the Catholic churches within New York were instituting a boycott against Long Island Protestants. The Ku Klux Klan argued this was an attack against religious liberties and that they were the only guardians to protect the nation’s democratic institutions.[9] Klan books were given out in Protestant churches during and after services that explained the stances of the newly reformed Klan. The Klan manual, Klansmen: Guardian of Liberty, declared that “the Klan is not anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-Negro or anti-foreign, it is Pro-Protestant and Pro-American.”[10] Klan newspapers such as the Vigilance printed articles that claimed Catholics accumulated weapons in the columns of their Churches and were conspiring to commit random acts of terrorism.[11] Klan-sponsored town-hall meetings had a woman, who claimed to be a former nun, address the crowd with stores of how she supposedly endured slavery from the Church and how Catholics preyed on trustful Protestants. The combination of Protestant church sermons and false news reports fueled membership of local Ku Klux Klan chapters across the South Shore. Suffolk Klan membership swelled to one in seven residents within the county.

As Klan membership and propaganda intensified, pro-Catholic groups started to organize and rally members. Bay Shore’s Catholic community was expanding rapidly and gaining influence within the community. The growing Catholic population led to the construction of the current St. Patrick’s Parish Church on the corner of Fifth Avenue in 1919. The new pastor, Father Edward Donovan, organized the purchase and development of a new school run by Sisters of Mercy from Brooklyn in 1921. In response, the Klan organized membership drives and rallies within the community to voice their opposition. The Klan chose Bay Shore to establish a community foothold not only because of the community’s growing Catholic population, but because it had received large donations from local businesses such as real estate and insurance companies. On November 7, 1922, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Imperial Klokard G.A. Mahoney of the Ku Klux Klan’s Atlanta, Georgia chapter was to give a lecture in the social club of the Odd Fellows on recruitment. In response to the proposed lecture, an estimated one thousand protesters stormed the hall and threatened the Klan members. State troopers had to shut the meeting down to prevent violence. The anti-Klan protest rallied local store owners to hang signs that read TWAK (Trade only with a Klansman) to demonstrate solidarity to local Klan members.

Following the Catholic and Klan demonstrations and a push for anti-Klan legislation, local New York newspapers such as the Herald Tribune and The Tablet reported that Protestantism within Suffolk County had weakened due to churchgoers resenting bigotry. The change in public support for the Klan prompted the Catholic Holy Name Society to hold rallies aimed at demonstrating to the public that the morals and patriotic views of Catholics were aligned with what it meant to be American.

On June 24th, 1923 the Holy Name Society held a rally in Bay Shore in honor of the Sacred Name of the Savior of Mankind. The demonstration was expected to draw 25,000 but attracted an estimated 40,000 people. To accommodate people who planned to attend the rally, the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) ran a special schedule that added five trains and additional stops. On the day of the rally, the LIRR had to add a total of nine additional trains. Among the attendees were New York City police officers, New York State troopers, several fire house companies, and the parishioners of Catholic churches within the Brooklyn dioceses. They gathered at the Bay Shore train station and marched to the event carrying American Flags with a band playing the national anthem. The guest speakers, Dr. John G Coyle – the state director of Knights of Columbus – and priests from surrounding parishes, delivered speeches that brought awareness against the threat of intolerance towards Catholics and embraced the patriotic spirt of American Catholics. Dr. Coyle gave the keynote speech and opened with the statement, “We deplore the condition of our many non-Catholic friends who give allegiance to other creeds and we hope to witness the crumbling of walls between Catholics and non-Catholics. Yet we still see day to day the indifference and not the Christian beliefs.”[12]

After the rally, Catholic and Klan tensions spilled over into Islip town politics. Catholic groups were more unified after the rally and started to endorse and hold public forums for town and state candidates. Democratic town supervisor James Richardson became favored by Father Donovan of St. Patrick’s Parish of Bay Shore. At the Holy Name Society rally, Richardson was introduced as a supporter of the Catholic community. This introduction at the rally was the extra push the Klan needed to build a political coalition. The Republican party challenger, Frank Rogers, was endorsed by Klan leaders. During the Islip Town elections, the Islip Republican committee issued poll-watching certificates to various members of the local Ku Klux Klan chapters. The outcome of the 1923 election had Frank Rogers defeating Richardson by four votes, and Klan-backed candidates took control of all town offices across Suffolk County.

On November 9, 1923 the Ku Klux Klan had a victory parade to celebrate the election results throughout the community of Bay Shore. The Suffolk County News reported, “An estimated 350 members marched in full Klan uniform while holding a giant cross illuminated with battery operated lights.”[13] Fear gripped the Catholic community, which created speculation of proposed zoning laws that would restrict construction of Catholic churches or parochial schools. Despite these fears there was no reversing the trend of Catholic population growth and proportional Protestant decline. The Klan remained significantly active in Suffolk County for the next ten years but remained limited in political power even after winning all town offices. The unified Catholic community grew and blocked any anti-Catholic sentiment from becoming law.

By 1932 the Bay Shore Klan had mailed a letter to Bay Shore School District’s Superintendent, Floyd Herbert, that demanded he did not rent the Fifth Avenue School out to the parochial groups. Ten years earlier the Klan was influential enough that the Superintendent would have had to address their concerns, but the Bay Shore community had changed. The Bay Shore of the 1930s had a population of just under 8,000 people, which included a sizable Catholic population.[14] In the 1930s the Long Island Klan was crushed through in-fighting over leadership, declining membership, and questions about misappropriated funds. Influenced by a growing Catholic population and a lack of Klan unity, Superintendent Floyd Herbert responded to the Klan’s letter by putting it in the back of his desk drawer to gather dust as an embarrassing relic of intolerance.

Long Island’s reaction to changing demographics and resistance to the growing Catholic population in the 1920s still play out in the anxiety towards growing Latino and Muslim populations today. In 1980 the Long Island index reported that Suffolk and Nassau Counties were 89% white, but as of 2010, whites had decreased to 69% of the population. In response to this demographic shift, the Klan has made its presence felt again through fliers and hate crimes. The most horrendous hate crime in recent years was the 2008 murder of Marcelo Lucero, who was targeted for being Latino. Despite the public brutality of his murder, elections fueled by anti-immigration sentiment and fake news have put candidates in power who promise to aggressively reduce immigration. The nativist politics of the 1920s reflect the current political climate all too closely, but if the outcome of the struggle between the Ku Klux Klan and grassroots Catholic organizations on Long Island is any indication then we may be in a better position to judge who will end up on the wrong side of history and who will inherit the future.


[1] James Smylie, “The Roman Catholic Church, the State and Al Smith,” Church History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1960), 325.

[2] Martha Minow, “We, the Family: Constitutional Rights and the American Families,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 3 (December 1987), 964.

[3] “Catholics Lead in City Population,” The Tablet, Saturday, January 6, 1923, 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lynn Dumenil, ““Assimilated” Catholics’ Response to Anti-Catholicism in the 1920s,” Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol.11 No 1 (Fall 1991), 5.

[6] Hiram W. Evans, “Alienism in the Democracy,” The Kourier Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 8 (July 1927), 12-16.

[7] “K.K.K. Fail to Claim K. of C. Oath Offer,” The Tablet , Saturday, March 17, 1923, 7.

[8] “Organizations Against Klan Publicity Bill,” The Tablet, Saturday, February 10, 1923, 5.

[9] Jane S. Gombieski, “Klorkards, Kleagles, Kludds and Kluxers: The Ku Klux Klan in Suffolk County, 1915-1928, Part One,” Long Island History Journal, Vol 6, No. 1 (Fall 1993), 41-62, 54. [Accessed June 28, 2019].

[10] Alma B. White, Klansman: Guardians of Liberty (Good Citizen New York, 1926), 163.

[11] Gombieski, 55.

[12] “Nearly 40,000 Attend Annual Holy Name Demonstration,” The Tablet, Saturday, June 3, 1923, 1.

[13] “Ku Klux Klan have victory Parade,” Suffolk County News, November 9, 1923, 1.

[14] Historic Census Map, Long Island Index, [Accessed June 28, 2019].

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