The Holy Terror from Hamilton

JAMES BANNERMAN October 1 1952


The Holy Terror from Hamilton

JAMES BANNERMAN October 1 1952




The Radio Priest of the Thirties held millions spellbound. He eren ran his oicn man for president. He folloiced the y azi line. But the .\«wi i car silenced him. TT haterer became of

ONE DAY in The spring of 1898 the children of St. Mary's School in Hamilton, Ont., were giving their annual concert. Three little boys had recited verses about what they were going to be when they grew up. A fourth little boy spoke his piece—he was going to be a stonemason—got a polite round of applause. But instead of running off the moment he finished, as the others had done, he stood there happily and went on bowing.

Father Coughlin, the famous Radio Priest of the 1930s. then seven years old and known simplv as Tom Coughlin's kid Charlie, had made his ffrst public appearance.

It began quietly in 1923. with a seres o: innocuous sermons broadcast over a single Létroit radio station. But by 1932 an estimated tit -tv to fortv million people listened to his Sunday radio talks from the Shrine of the Little Flower at Roval Oak. Mich., near Detroit. For a long time he drew about eighty thousand letters a week and or.ee got more than a million after a talk caled "Hoover Prosperity Means Another War." At the height of his power he tried to belittle rebuke from the Vatican itself. He ran his own candidate for the American presidency. He followed the Nazi propaganda line when his countrv was at war with Germany and was praised bv the Berlin radio for his "undaunted stand against Bolshevism and

Millions hailed him as champion of the common people. Millions cursed Hm as a Fascist. But some found it hard to decide what Father Coughlin really was for one of his few consistencies as a public ffgure was that he was seldom consistent for long.

In 1933 he called Roosevelt "our beloved President.” beat the drum for the New Deal, and began to be asked for advice by important persons. A mar, who visited him in 193-4 heard a long-distance conversation between Coughlin and the governor of Pennsylvania. "Oh no. Governor. I don’t think I would use the troops in the mining crisis." Coughlin was saving. "There must be some better

think it over and let vou know." Yet within three years he had broken with many of these prominent admirers, as he had done earlier with Governor AÍ Smith of New York.

Bv 1933 he had turned against the New Deal and had publiclv called President Roosevelt a liar. He talked reneatedlv about the brotherhood of man but. when a bill to require United States adherence to the World Court came before Congress, he denounced it as "treason.’’ He insisted he was not anti-Semitic. Yet there was savage anti-

Semit ism among large groups of his most ardent followers.

.As World War II came closer his paper. Social Justice, echoed the propaganda line of Hitler and Mussolini more and more faithfully—at the same time urging its readers to live according to the principles of Christianity—proclaiming that "America Not England — Won England's Last Battle.” and warning to "Beware the British Serpent!"

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which Social Justice called "only a fair job in copying the 'sneak' tactics of Great Britain. Father Coughlin's views were equally embarrassing to Church and State. On May 1. 19-42. he promised .Archbishop Mooney of Detroit he would sever all his connections with the paper. And on May -4 the U. S. Postmaster-General revoked its secondclass mail license, after its representatives had failed to show cause whv it should not be barred from the mails for sedition.

Father Coughlin has lived since then in almost complete obscurity at Royal Oak. apart from one or two brief reappearances in the news. After the Nuremberg war-guilt trials in 19-45 it was disclosed that Nazi big shot Robert Lev had asked to have him as defense counseL In 1949 he was called as a witness in a widely publicized income-taxevasion case against a Dr. Gariepv of Royal Oak. But for nearly ten years before Pearl Harbor he was one of the most conspicuous men in the world.

Some who knew hfm as a child in Hamilton, or were at St. Michael's College with him in Toronto, or when he was teaching at Assumption College in Windsor, Ont., remember things they think were

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The Holy Terror from Hamilton

Father Coughlin


foretastes of what he was to become. Others say he was a brilliant if somewhat superficial student at college but apart from that, his great skill at handball. and a marked gift of the gab. they didn't notice anything particularly outstanding about him

Coughlin spent virtually ail his first thirty-two years in Canada and didn't go to live permanently in the States until 1923. But in a broadcast in 1935. answering General Hugh Johnson, tough-talking head of the National Recovery Administration, who had questioned his citizenship out loud, he said: “My dear General, I am as much, if not more, of an American as you are or ever will be."

His father was born in Indiana, left home at sixteen to work as a fireman on Great Lakes freighters. His mother, bom Amelia Mahoney in Strabane. Ont., was a Hamilton seamstress when she married Tom Coughlin Tom had settled down in Hamilton and was soon able to buy the little house at the comer of McNab and Barton Streets where their son Charles Edward was bom on Oct. 25, 1S91.

Coughlin's parents were devout Catholics. Their house was so close to St. Maw's Cathedral and St. Joseph’s Convent that when Mrs. Coughlin was in the kitchen she could hear the cathedral organ playing and it was no trouble for the nuns to visit her. Two of them came to pray the morning her son was bom. And throughout his babyhood and childhood, in the words of an old neighbor, “there was priests and nuns in and out of the place the whole time.’’

A sister, bom when Charlie was about a year and a half old, lived only three months, and there were no more children. His mother was stricter with him than his father, fussed over him a good deal, and was notably proud of hi« looks. When he was five she sent him off to his first day at St. Mary's School dressed in a white middy blouse and a pleated blue skirt, his brown hair in long ringlets. A teacher turned him back at the door of the boys' building, sent him home to ask his mother if he was a boy or a girl. That night the ringlets were cut off and the next morning he went to school wearing pants.

In class he was usually quiet and attentive and in danger of becoming a teacher’s pet until the morning he and some other boys walked out of the classroom without permission while the Sister was away for a few minutes. He sang in the cathedral choir, sometimes served as altar boy. was normally active and mischievous after church and school hours and disliked piano lessons.

He never showed any remarkable talent for music but he got more interested in it later on. Some vears ago a man who hadn't seen him for a long

time dropped in at the Shrine when Coughlin was conducting a choir rehearsal. “I noticed." he said, “Charlie was standing so every one of the two or three hundred people who were watching the rehearsal could see his hands and he was carrying on almost like Toscanini. Still, he always did go in for gestures a lot. I remember when he was teaching at Assumption he used to have a sort of wand that he waved when he was talking.'’

Coughlin's fondness for gestures began to appear early in boyhood. One afternoon in Hamilton when he was about ten he and the gang from St. Mary's were wandering around town when they came to an exceptionally tall house. One of the older boys suggested seeing if anyone could throw a stone over it and everybody but young Coughlin had a try. When they all failed they rounded on him and called him yellow for not even having tried. Whereupon Coughlin calmly reached down, picked up a stone and threw it clear over the roof— as he'd known he could do right from the start.

In his late teens and early twenties Coughlin got few chances to relax. Once when he and some friends were home in Hamilton on a short vacation from St. Michael’s, a friend of the family treated them to a day at the fair grounds. The friend remembers Coughlin ate a great many hot dogs, drank quantities of pink lemonade, rode the merry-go-round and the roller coaster over and over again, and laughed so hard and made so many jokes he was the life of the party. And that night he played the piano in his mother’s parlor for a singsong with his friends, and kept pounding and singing away long after the others were tired out. But at college he was mostly diligent, serious-minded and unspectacular—except when the tendency to gesture overcame him.

One day when he was a theological student it was his turn to give a twentyminute talk without notes on an assigned subject. He carefully let every one but the lecturer know beforehand he hadn't done any preparation for it at all. Yet he spoke fluently for nearer half an hour than twenty minutes. One of the students who heard him remembers there were a great many quotations in his talk, but that they were mostly from the Apocrypha which Coughlin knew the others weren't very familiar with. And although he ended with a text that contradicted the whole point of what he’d been sating, they were so caught in the torrent of his rhetoric that only a couple of them realized it.

Rhetoric was among his chief assets as a radio spellbinder. “Indian summer has come and gone.” he said at the beginning of a 1933 broadcast about the nature of money. “The fields are bare. The trees are stripped of their foliage. Before another week will have elapsed the chill winter winds will sing a sad requiem among the naked boughs." But sometimes his imagery

got a little out of hand, as when he spoke of “the Tory Press of today -whose editors bend their pregnant knees before the modem colossus of gold, sniping in safety behind the ramparts of left-handed compliments."

Another of Father Coughlin's radio assets was his voicerichly ripe, neither deep nor high, and sensationally effective on the air. His accent was vaguely Irish with occasional curious pronunciations like “Amorican woarkmun” for “American workman." One of his former colleagues at Assumption College said recently. “Once in a while I’d hear Charlie speaking at some service club lunch in Windsor, and he certainly didn’t sound like anyone who'd been bom and raised in Hamilton. the way he did when he spoke to the boys in the school chapel. He couldn’t have got away with any fancy accent there.”

Father Coughlin taught at Assumption from 1916, the year he was ordained a priest, until 1923. His special subject was English. Besides waving a wand when he was talking to the class, he walked endlessly up and down the room. He never minded the boys interrupting to ask questions even if they shouted, frankly admitted to members of the staff he liked plenty of noise. He also taught Greek for a while, but had to take lessons himself from another master to keep one jump ahead of the class. He coached the football team and threw pebbles at the players when he wanted to get their attention. He ran the dramaticsociety—at St. Michael’s he had gone in enthusiastically for theatricals made the actors build their own stage and put on a minstrel show to pay for the lumber they used. And when he wasn’t on duty at school he often took church services in the Windsor area and in Detroit.

The congregations thought well of his sermons. So did Bishop Gallagher of Detroit and the two men liked and admired each other from the start. When the carving at the base of the Shrine tower was finished it was found that by Coughlin’s orders the sculptor had given the Archangel Michael the unmistakable face of the Bishop. Gallagher returned the compliment by backing his subordinate through thick and thin.

Although many who know Coughlin deplore much of his public activity as unseemly rabble-rousing, there is general agreement that he was and still is an excellent parish priest. One man says,“His religious work is wonderful, and his charities are boundless -and anonymous." And i Cardinal, discussing him with friends after dinner not long ago. said. "You know. I can t understand some things about Father Coughlin. I sometimes think he must have two entirely different personal-

The famous broadcasts began in 1926. Father Coughlin had left Assumption College three years earlier to serve in the diocese of Detroit, and had been sent by Bishop Gallagher to Royal Oak to build a church and develop a parish there Coughlin thought Sunday radio talks might help the parish grow and he bought time on WJR for fifty-eight dollars a week. A microphone was set up in the new little wooden church, and on Oct. 17, 1926 he made his first broadcast.

He called his program the Golden Hour, kept in the beginning to general religious themes and an almost folksy approach. “Don’t wear a Sunday coat of religion and a weekday garb of inhumanity.” he said in one sermon. "I haven’t any use for halfway religionists.” By Jan 1927 he was being more specific, preaching against bigotry and intolerance. “At the Shrine of the

Little Flower." he told a reponer, "we are trying to put the universal credo into Christianity."

Coughlin was surprised and pleased to get five letters within two days of his first broadcast. Soon he was getting them by the hundreds and thousands. When it was clear they were going to keep pouring in. he organized the Radio League of the Shrine of the Little Flower, which listeners could join for a dollar a year, and hired an office staff to handle the mail. By the end of 1927 he was drawing nearly fifty thousand letters a week and a

great deal of money was being sent.

Some of this money was used for office and radio expenses, and with the rest Coughlin decided to build a new and far more ambitious Shrine on the site of the original church near the comer of Royal Oak's Twelve Mile Road and Woodward Avenue—a superhighway leading from downtown Detroit. Work started in 1928 on a blunttopped pale grey stone tower just over a hundred feet high, which people in Royal Oak took to calling "Charlie's Silo" until they saw its chief feature was going to be an enormous carved

figure of Christ on the cross. The church part of the Shrine, begun a couple of years later, is an eight-sided building of yellowish granite joined to the tower by a short projecting wing. It can seat thirty-two hundred.

The Shrine is estimated to have cost a good million and a quarter altogether. When AFL building trade unions in Detroit complained that Father Coughlin was hiring nonunion labor at half to three quarters the going wage, he admitted some of the workers were nonunion but said they were his own parishioners who needed the jobs, and

that he was actually paying more than the current rates.

After 1929 the great depression started and Coughlin made i drastic change in the Golden Hour. Instead of talking primarily about religion he turned to social and economic questions. Basing what he said on the writings of Pope Leo XIII—especially an 1878 encyclical against Communism and socialism—he echoed the pope's views almost as if nothing had happened in the half century since they were expressed. Soon he got his first setback.

Norman Thomas, leader of the American Socialist party, charged him with ‘"serious misrepresentation of the nature of socialism . . and hopeless

confusion of it with Communism." and said Coughlin had attacked him by name. Station WJR asked Father Coughlin to observe the rules forbidding speakers to enter into controversy on the air, and for the next few months he directed his blasts against Communism alone.

The Golden Hour drew more letters than ever—particularly after Coughlin appeared before a Congressional committee investigating Communist activity in the Detroit area, criticized Henry Ford's labor policies, and made nationwide headlines like "Says Ford Is Helping Communism But Doing It ‘Through Ignorance’!” In Oct. 1930 Coughlin put the program on a network of eighteen CBS stations, upped the Shrine office staff to forty and brought his total expenses to more than ten thousand dollars a week.

The chief subject of his Sunday talks was now the depresión itself. He based them largely on another of Leo XIII’s encyclicals— the 1891 Rerum Novarum dealing with labor problems and unemployment. Coughlin laid most of the blame for the lengthening breadlines on greedy capitalists, condemned the Hoover administration for playing a "political game of tag” with the situation, and spoke darkly of "anxiety in certain quarters for us to join the World Court, to save some of the billions invested by our international financiers in the blood bonds of an unjust treaty.” The program had been on the network less than three months w-hen these themes and the bitterness of his approach brought him more trouble.

In Jan. 1931 a statement from the Shrine said CBS had told Father Coughlin that "a considerable number of protests had come to its attention regarding his sermons, which . . . were termed ‘inflammatory’.” Coughlin countered by asking his listeners whether they wanted him to go on. Within a week he got three hundred and fifty thousand answers, nearly all favorable, and until his radio season ended in the spring he kept pounding away at Washington and Wall Street.

That August the radio system said it had decided not to carry any more paid religious broadcasts and in October the Golden Hour went on a privately arranged network of nineteen stations from Maine to Minnesota. With fortyone thousand and six hundred dollars a month in radio line charges alone, a staff that had had to be increased to fifty-five and the cost of building the new Shrine, Coughlin was paying out close to twenty thousand dollars a

He continued to thunder against financiers and the Hoover administration. with less and less restraint as the presidential elections of 1932 drew near. That year Cardinal O’Connell of Boston expressed disapproval of the Coughlin broadcasts. Coughlin commented: “I, being an ordinary and humble priest, think that it would be out of place for me to criticize, so to

speak, a general in the army,” but added that every one of his talks had been approved beforehand by Bishop Gallagher of Detroit. This answer was widely taken to mean that Father Coughlin, with thinly veiled impudence, was telling the cardinal to mind his own business.

After the elections Coughlin warmed up more and more to Roosevelt and the New Deal, and throughout the fall of 1933 his Sunday talks were mostly in support of the President's plan to revalue the dollar—which would incidentally bring a sharp rise in the price of silver. “My friends,” he cried in one broadcast, “the restoration of silver to f its proper value is of Christian concern ! For God’s sake become partners in this crusade! This is the call to arms!” i

Coughlin’s attacks on the big finan! ciers were if anything fiercer than ever. “The spirit of Judas Iscariot still | marches down Wall Street!” he said, and spoke in a horrified voice of “the spectacle of Wall Street tyranny trampling upon American freedom.” But the Detroit Free Press charged that while he was preaching against Wall Street he was using a Wall Street broker to handle part of his funds, in stock-market speculation. Coughlin said the money belonged to the Radio League of the Shrine, not to him, and he was merely investing it as he had a right to do. His personal honesty was unquestioned but many people considered his ethical position somewhat delicate—particularly when the federal government’s list of silver holdings i disclosed that the secretary of the League had half a million ounces and ' was the largest holder in Michigan.

The Radio Priest’s looks and bearing were now full of confidence. The line of his chin was beginning to blur into a soft jowl, but it was unmistakably pugnacious. He held his stocky body stiffly straight. There were flashes of arrogance in the blue stare behind the rimless glasses. In spite of the black clerical clothes he gave an impression of worldliness rather than spirituality — especially when he wore his dapper camel's hair overcoat.

Early in 1933 Coughlin extended his growing influence still further by organizing a group he called the National Union for Social Justice. It had a platform of sixteen basic principles— some strongly reminiscent of the constitution of Fascist Italy. The third, for example, WEIS defined by Coughlin as “public ownership of public necessities which, by their nature, are too important to be owned and controlled by private individuals.” The fifth, he said, “while upholding the right of private property, concedes the right to the government to control it for the public good."

At first the National Union backed many of Roosevelt’s major policies, but in 1935 Coughlin began to take an almost fanatically isolationist stand. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and the League of Nations imposed sanctions against Italy, Coughlin said propagandists wanted America to “become entangled in their dirty European brawls and make the world safe for the Bank of England." And in 1936 he gave the National Union a weekly paper, Social Justice, which he edited himself, and with it made the turn hgainst Roosevelt drastic and conclusive.

That June he aamounced the formation of a new political party, the Union pEirty, with William Lemke, an obscure North Dakotan, as its presidential candidate. Coughlin insisted that he and the National Union were only endorsing the party and hadn’t brought it into being, but campaigned for it enthusiastically. In a speech in Chicago in July Coughlin

referred to the President as “the great betrayer and liar Franklin D. Roosevelt.” For this he was rebuked by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano. Father Coughlin made a public apology but went on campaigning as bitterly as ever. In a speech in Cincinnati he said Roosevelt WEIS “antiGod,” and at ClevelEuid showed his confidence in the new party by promising to retire from broadcasting if presidential candidate Lemke didn’t get nine million votes.

When the votes were tabulated in November and this forecast turned out

to be more than eight million on the high side, Coughlin kept his promise and went off the air. But he let it be known through Social Justice that he might go back if enough people wanted him to, and early in 1937 he began his regular Sunday broadcasts again.

In February Bishop Gallagher died and the diocese of Detroit was made an archdiocese under Archbishop Mooney. A short time later, in a newspaper interview, Coughlin attacked the CIO, managing to imply that no real Christian ought to belong to it, and said the President had showed “personal stupi-

dity” in appointing Justice Hugo Black to the Supreme Court.

Archbishop Mooney promptly reproved Coughlin in a statement published in the Michigan Catholic. At the same time it was announced Coughlin had canceled his contract for a series of twenty-six broadcasts over thirty-five stations, scheduled to start on Oct. 31.

His radio silence lasted until the middle of Jan. 1938. When he broke it, on a network of more than sixty stations, his talks gave many listeners an impression of marked anti-Semitism.

Coughlin insisted he wasn't antiSemitic: he was only against “bad

In a broadcast in Nov. 193S. he said that students of history recognized that "Nazism is only a defense mechanism against Communism and that persecution of the Christians always begets persecution of the Jews.” He also referred to a British White Paper issued in 1919 which he said, named Kuhn. Loeb and Co., "the Jewish bankers.” amont those who helped to finance the Russian revolution and Communism. It was later shown that the White Paper contained no such statement.

Early in 193-S an organization called the Christian Front was formed, mostlv recruited from ardent Coughlinites and professing to be inspired by his principles. That summer in New York a man named Bono was sentenced to serve sis months for pasting up on a subway station pillar a sticker showing the statue of Liberty with a big hooked nose above the words "Clean Up America! Break the Red Plague! Boycott the Jews!” Bono said it and about ;1 hundred and fifty identical stickers had been given him at a meeting of the Christian Front. The Front's president. Marcel Honoré, denied any knowledge of the stickers, and said the Front was formed to fight Communism but was opposed to anti-Semitism.

In June 1940 sixteen Christian Fronters in Brooklyn were tried on charges of sedition and conspiracy to overthrow the government of the L nited States. At the time of their arrest two .30 calibre rifles and more than thirty-two hundred rounds of ammunition were found in their hideout. During the trial Father Coughlin said, speaking of one of the accused. "Beside the boy I take my stand — beside him and his fellow Christian Front prisoners, be they guiltv or be they innocent!”

All the prisoners were acquitted, but Coughlin s stand did nothing to contradict a growing feeling that he had a somewhat unusual notion of patriotism. After the outbreak of World War II in Europe, radio stations began to drop his Sunday talks, and in April 1940 he gave up broadcasting altogether. But Social Justice, for whose policies and contents he later assumed sole responsibility, continued to be published.

"England's zeal to destroy Germany,” it said in Oct. 1939. "has now removed that nation as her own safeguard against Communism’s invasion of the V\ est." It once published a full-

page manifesto warning Americans of various national origins against England, sating to Irish-America ns for example that “since 1772 the Irish people have been robbed, starved, exiled, shot, bayoneted and hanged by Britain because they love their faith and their liberty.”

Even when America entered the war Social Justice followed the same line. In April 1942 the Attorney-General of the United States informed the Postmaster-General that Social Justice had violated the Espionage Act of 1917, and had engaged in a "sustained and systematic attack on certain of our activities directly related to the war effort as well as upon public morale generally.” The Attorney-General quoted such passages as one from the issue of March 23, which asked, “Will the American people want to listen to reason and terminate a war which now no one can win completely, and which Americans can lose completely?”

A federal grand jury considered indicting Social Justice for sedition, but did not do so. If it had. Coughlin might have faced a possible tenthousand-dollar fine and amt hing up to twenty years in prison. But in May 1942 the Postmaster-General barred Social Justice from the mails, and Father Coughlin’s fabulous public career was over.

Since then he has been living quietly in Royal Oak. busy with the affairs of the parish he runs with the help of five assistant priests. Sometimes he talks to the congregation of the Shrine on Sundays, but as one of his parishioners puts it. "He never talks about politics or world affairs except so vaguely you can hardly understand what he's getting at.” He is on the masthead of the parish paper, the Shrine Herald, as publisher but its contents are a blend of religious exhortations and parish news. The townspeople in Royal Oak's business district hardly ever see him. And he refused to be interviewed for this article.

But he still seems to have some of his old pugnacity and grandiloquence. Just last summer he got annoyed with Michigan State Highway Commissioner Charles M. Ziegler, a Republican. for refusing to recommend a traffic light at the intersection where the Shrine high-school students cross. And in a statement published in the local paper Father Coughlin declared that because of Ziegler’s refusal, “We are withdrawing our support from the Republican party.”

It doesn’t look as if the chastened Holy Terror from Hamilton has entirely changed his ways even yet. ★