KKK March Protested New Church

As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, July 25, 2010

Father Francis J. Reilly stands in front of the county’s first Catholic Church built in 1929 on the corner of University and Lytle despite objections and a ‘torchlight march’ by the Ku Klux Klan.  This picture was taken in 1947, five years before the structure was sold and converted to a private residence.

Father Francis J. Reilly stands in front of the county’s first Catholic Church built in 1929 on the corner of University and Lytle despite objections and a ‘torchlight march’ by the Ku Klux Klan. This picture was taken in 1947, five years before the structure was sold and converted to a private residence.

By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society

A Union general, a New York donor and the Ku Klux Klan were involved in the early years of the Catholic Church in Rutherford County.

According to local church history, the first Catholic mission into Rutherford County was by a Father Jaquette in the “early 1840s.”  Nashville Diocese records indicate that a Father Orengo visited the area in 1856 and “said mass at the home of John Stanfield.”

Stanfield was a jeweler from Hertford County, N.C.  His wife is acknowledged as “the first Catholic to come to Rutherford County.”  The  Stanfield home, where mass was held “once or twice a year,” was in the Bethlehem community “a few miles southeast of Murfreesboro.”   (“Bethlehem” does not appear on either modern or 19th century maps, but family name records place the Stanfield home on the east
side of Manchester Pike just south of the Dilton-Mankin Road intersection.)

During the Civil War, a substantial Catholic population resided within the county.  Most notably, Union General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the forces that defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Stones River and occupied the area from January, 1863 to the end of the war, was a “devout Catholic” according to biographer William M. Lamers.

Rosecrans converted to Catholicism while a cadet at West Point.  (He also persuaded his brother, Sylvester Rosecrans, to convert while a student at Kenyon College.  Sylvester was later ordained and ultimately became the first Catholic bishop of Columbus, Ohio.)

As commander of the U.S. Army of the Cumberland, Rosecrans recruited his own personal “confessor.”  Father Jeremiah Trecy not only looked after the general’s spiritual needs while camped in Rutherford County, he also rode with the general under fire and tended to the wounded and dying during the Battle of Stones River and throughout the Tennessee campaign.

First and second generation Irish, German and Italian immigrants accounted for the high percentage of Catholics under Rosecrans’ command.  The mostly Irish 10th Ohio had its own Catholic chaplain, Father William T. O’Higgins.  Nineteenth century church records note that Rosecrans “edified the army by attending the holy sacrifice of the masses.”  (To “edify” — an archaic term-means to “instruct or  improve morally or spiritually by good example.”)

During the war years, Fathers Cooney and Walsh, apparently from Nashville, continued to conduct mass periodically at the Stanfield home.  This practice continued after the war with priests coming from Chattanooga and Nashville.  Following the death of Mrs. Stanfield, her daughter (married to J. Lawrence) continued to host the religious services in the family home.

By the 1890s a small group of Catholics, including a Soule College faculty member, was meeting for mass in the Lawrence home or in the Odd Fellows’ Hall in Murfreesboro whenever a priest was available.  During this period, the Paulist Fathers, based in Winchester, began serving the Rutherford congregation, a relationship that lasted for several decades.

In or about 1900, Addie Collins, a devout Catholic from Nashville, moved to Murfreesboro and married S.B. Christy, a wealthy businessman.  Mrs. Christy joined the small group of Catholic worshippers, and after the death of Mrs. Lawrence, services were moved to the Christy home on University Street in Murfreesboro.  In 1918 the expanding congregation leased space in the Masonic Building on North Spring Street, but soon moved to a larger space in the Murfree-Clark Building on the Square.  Over the next few years, the small group moved about the
Square— to the Butler Building (“where the only window was a skylight”), and then to the Cannon Building.

A New York couple, Mr. & Mrs. Francis Hoffman, stopped in Murfreesboro on a train trip in 1925.  During the layover, they searched in vain for a Catholic church and mass.  “Some months later Bishop A. J. Smith in Nashville received a gift to build a chapel” in Murfreesboro. Mrs. Hoffman requested that the new place of worship be named for her patron saint, Saint Rose of Lima.

While Mrs. Christy and her fellow parishioners rejoiced and made plans, others were not pleased by the anticipated construction of a Catholic church.  The local and vocal chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) took exception.

The original Klan was organized in 1865 by veterans of the Confederate military.  (The name was taken from the Greek word “kyklos” which means “circle.”)  According to the World Book Encyclopedia, the KKK was originally meant to be a social group without organizational hierarchy.  The local chapters, however, soon became involved in the political and social turmoil of Reconstruction.  These groups were voluntarily dissolved under pressure of federal enforcement in the 1870’s.

In 1915 the so-called 20th century KKK was established at Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, by William J. Simmons.  One of the organizational catalysts was the massive immigration of that period from the largely Catholic countries of eastern and southern Europe.  This new Klan preached racism, anti-Catholicism, nativism (favoring of native inhabitants over immigrants) and anti-Semitism.  It was  organized at a national level and flourished particularly in the Midwest where it took control of several state governments.

Membership peaked in the early 1920s at about four and a half million members (one of whom, Hugo Black, was elected to the U. S. Senate and later appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court).

“You have to understand that in those days almost everyone of importance belonged to the KKK,” says Sam Woods, a retired Rutherford veterinarian now living in Florida.

A lot on the northeast corner of University and Lytle (300 North University Street) was purchased for the new church from Helen C. Earthman on April 25, 1929, for $2,500.  The deed specified that any new structure had to face Lytle, and that a driveway on the north side was to be shared with the adjoining property owned by the Ridley family.

This plan to construct the county’s first Catholic Church was the target of a local KKK protest march.  Woods was only 7 or 8 years old when he and his brother watched the “torch light” KKK march through downtown Murfreesboro.

“The march began at the A.L. Todd place on Manchester Pike,” remembers Woods.  “I do not know that the Todds had anything to do with the KKK, but that is where the march started.  They came into town on Maney Avenue, then turned onto East Main to the courthouse.”

Andrew L. Todd was a Murfreesboro attorney and “Farm Loan Correspondent” for the New York Life Insurance Co. in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.  (Todd advertised in the 1920s that his firm loaned “millions of dollars to farmers annually.”)  He also owned half of the Home Journal Publishing Co., and is believed to be the only person to have served in the Tennessee Legislature as speaker of both House
and Senate.  Todd lived on Toddington Farm, his Manchester Pike estate located just south of what is now the Middle Tennessee Boulevard intersection.  Known for its prize-winning black angus cattle, Toddington Farm filled the area between the Manchester and Bradyville Pikes, including Todd’s Lake.

C.B. Arnette, 93, a local historian and former auctioneer, also remembers the KKK march.  He was at the time making deliveries for his father’s store just off the square on Mink Slide.  “The marchers wore hoods and robes,” remembers Arnette.  “All you could see was their shoes.”

“Back then times were hard and only people with money had more than one pair of shoes — everyday shoes and Sunday dress shoes,” explains Woods.  For that reason, an individual could often be recognized from his shoes.  Arnette recalls seeing the high-polished black shoes of a local physician.  Woods and his brother spotted the shoes of Oscar Noland, “preacher for the Church of Christ on Academy and Main Street” and called to him by name.

Undaunted by the KKK objections, the local Catholic leadership completed their construction and dedicated their first “regular meeting place” on September 15, 1929.  Bishop Alphonse J. Smith from the Nashville Diocese dedicated the new facility, and Father Malone from Winchester held mass.  Mr. and Mrs. Francis Hoffman, the New York donors, were in attendance.

In 1953 the local Catholic congregation moved to new facilities and the original church was sold to the James A. Ridley family.  The church steeple and portico were removed and the remainder of the structure was converted to a private residence, which continues to be owned and maintained by the Ridley family.

Please visit the website of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church at www.saintrose.org.

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