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From “Militant Christian” to Silent Patriot: Archbishop John T. McNicholas, 1925-50

March 21st, 2017posted by Sarah Patterson

Written by Bob Miller, PhD, Department of History, University of Cincinnati-Clermont

Author’s Introduction: The following essay was crafted for a noncredit course I taught in January 2017 for Communiversity, which is run by the University of Cincinnati. I called the course “Rethinking Cincinnati’s Greatest Generation.” The idea or premise of the course was to use the familiar work by Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, as a start point. While Brokaw emphasized mostly military heroics, I wanted to broaden the definition of wartime heroism and patriotism by examining the actions of citizens on the home front. Archbishop McNicholas was one of my subjects. Much of my research was based from photocopies of obituary files from the Cincinnati Historical Society. Without exception, there was a very interesting trait that linked all of the folks I researched. Namely, none of the actions they engaged in during the war years were mentioned in their obituaries.

Archbishop John T. McNicholas

For twenty five years, from 1925 until his death in 1950, John T. McNicholas served as the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Born in Kiltimagh, County Mayo, Ireland, December 15, 1877, McNicholas immigrated to the United States at a young age, settling with his family in Chester, Pennsylvania. He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1901 and served in a variety of positions and locales, including Rome, before receiving his appointment to serve in Cincinnati.[1]

McNicholas quietly built up a reputation in local and national circles as an effective spokesman of his faith. In 1928 anti-Catholic tensions, which had been high in the postwar decade, continued to worsen after New York Governor Al Smith became the first Roman Catholic to capture the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. McNicholas worked with Protestant and Jewish leaders to promote tolerance among the major faith traditions. McNicholas also made a name for himself when he partnered with WLW owner Powell Crosley, making use of the latter’s shortwave transmitters to broadcast sermons and religious texts to audiences in Latin America.[2]

During the years of the Great Depression, McNicholas became a tireless champion and spokesman for the rights of organized labor. He also led a lively campaign to expose the immorality of Hollywood movies, which were still in their infancy in the 1930s. McNicholas argued that movies, if left unchecked, could pose a moral threat to the nation’s youth. He helped form the Legion of Decency to regulate the content of feature films and served as the group’s chairman from 1933 to 1943.[3]

McNicholas navigated a path between competing wings of leadership in the America Catholic Church when it came to support for Franklin Roosevelt. During the Presidential election year of 1936, Father Coughlin, of Detroit, who had a popular weekly radio program that drew millions of listeners, became one of Roosevelt’s most ardent critics. Over the next two years, Coughlin’s criticisms of Roosevelt’s monetary policies devolved into rabid, Anti-Semitic vitriol. On the other end of the spectrum stood Monsignor John A. Ryan, of New York, a nationally-known theologian and friend of the New Deal. McNicholas steered a middle course. He rebuked Coughlin and even supported efforts to silence the controversial priest. For his part, McNicholas found favor with some of the New Deal policies that ameliorated the conditions of the American worker, but he remained skeptical and often hostile to most of the administration’s foreign policy initiatives in the 1930s, beginning with the State Department’s decision to extend full diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933.

A prolific man, many of Archbishop McNicholas’s speeches and writings were printed in pamphlet form. This is from 1937.

Even after Hitler rebuilt and remilitarized the German state in the mid-1930s, McNicholas remained convinced that communism, rather than fascism, posed a greater threat to U.S. interests. In 1937, the archbishop wrote: “It seems almost incredible that Communism should be able to make a headway in our country where liberty and God’s abundant blessings have so long enjoyed. But Communism is here, hideous as it is, and it is determined to expand.” As war looked more and more imminent in 1938, McNicholas warned how Communism stood to profit from the toppling of the old order in Europe. He reiterated his plea for strict neutrality in Europe’s affairs and called upon American Catholics to form a “mighty league of conscientious non-combatants.” McNicholas implored:

Let us pray especially for the President of the United States who, until recent months, seemed adamant against committing this country to war. His is the most terrifying responsibility which involves not only the interests of citizens of the United States but probably those of the whole world. [4]

McNicholas’ brand of “militant Christianity” led him to defend Franco’s fascist regime in the Spanish Civil War, against the Republicans and their communist allies. As Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia partitioned Poland, McNicholas seemed more troubled that the two belligerents had waged war on religion than on its neighbors. It was the official policy of atheism among the Germans and Russians that McNicholas found so threatening.

In October 1941 McNicholas addressed a rally of some 50,000 people at Crosley Field in which he stated the German and Russian people were the real victims of Nazism and Sovietism, “living in countries occupied by tyrants.”[5] Five weeks later, at the annual meeting of the U.S. Archbishops in Washington, D.C., McNicholas called the war in Europe a “crisis of Christianity.” He condemned equally the scourges of Nazism and Communism as twin evils “bent on world dominance.”[6]

Abp. McNicholas on the radio for NBC in this undated photograph.

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, McNicholas altered many of his prewar positions about neutrality and threw his support squarely behind the war effort. One of his earliest statements came on January 2, 1942, in a sermon broadcast on WLW. McNicholas: “While our country is now involved in a titanic war and while we must serve it loyally, each one in the measure of which he is capable, we must not forget that we are fighting in order to live in peace.”[7] From that point forward, McNicholas walked the walk. The former isolationist cast his lot with the war effort.

McNicholas used his position to help facilitate a variety of war-related concerns. He assisted Catholic conscientious objectors in obtaining funding to perform alternate service, mostly in faraway conservation and reforestation camps. In June 1942, he obtained the permission of parish priests to have all the Catholic churches in the Archdiocese ring their church bells to mark the inauguration of a war bond drive. In July 1943, McNicholas arranged for Catholic School bands to participate in a patriotic Mass meeting at Crosley Field. Church leaders in Cincinnati and elsewhere discovered that war bond purchases could be earmarked for capital improvements for future construction of schools and churches. In 1944, McNicholas urged parish priests to encourage parishioners to make bond purchases in the name of their parish. He also worked with archdiocesan officials to welcome Catholic serviceman to a USO welcome center.[8]

When President Roosevelt died suddenly in April 1945, just a few weeks before victory could be consummated in Europe, Archbishop McNicholas stated that “World War II has claimed in the death of our President its most notable victim of heroic stature.” McNicholas’ remarks were somewhat charitable given the sometime combative nature of their relationship.[9]

With the return of peace in 1945, McNicholas turned his attention to the most pressing demands on the archdiocese—the construction of new schools. By the time of his death five years later, in 1950, McNicholas had already earned the well-deserved reputation as a builder of schools. Construction stoppages during the Depression decade coupled with wartime rationing and shortages and postwar population increases had created a genuine need for more schools in the growing archdiocese. A big part of his legacy was the construction of two boys’ and girls’ schools. Interestingly, at some point in his career, McNicholas had gone on record stating his disdain for coeducational schools. Ironically, the Archdiocese honored McNicholas nine years after his death with a living legacy when McNicholas High School, the archdiocese’s first coeducational high school, threw open its doors to young male and female students in Anderson Township.

[1] “Archbishop John McNicholas: Recognized for Church Leadership,” April 24, 1950,Cincinnati Post.

[2] “175 Years of the Catholic Church in Cincinnati, 1822-1996: Archbishops Lead Catholics Through Trying Times,” June 14, 1996 (clipping), Archdiocese of Cincinnati Archives.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Archbishop John T. McNicholas, “Communism: Its Evils and Its Causes,” 1937, Cincinnati Historical Society (CHS) and John T. McNicholas, The Preservation of the Faith, Vol. XI No. 3 (June 1938): 3-5, John T, McNicholas Papers, Box 20 Folder 114, Conscientious Objectors, Archdiocese of Cincinnati Archives, Cincinnati, OH.

[5]  “Godless Tyrants Cause of World Chaos, Says Archbishop Before 50,000 at Rally,” October 17, 1941, Catholic Telegraph, p.1.

[6] “NCWS Statement Says Both Nazis and Reds Seek World Dominance,” November 21, 1941, Catholic Telegraph, p.1.

[7]  “Conflict’s 1st Aim Is Peace, Says Archbishop: At Pontifical Mass In Norwood, Prayers Are Strong Defense,” January 2, 1942, Catholic Telegraph, p. 1.

[8] Robert Earnest Miller, World War II Cincinnati: From the Front Lines to the Home Front (The History Press, 2014), p.137.

[9] “President Roosevelt Was Most Notable War Victim,” April 20, 1945, Catholic Telegraph, p.1.

Laboring on the Mission is a blog of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Archives. The title is taken from a letter written by Bishop Edward Fenwick, OP, describing his mission work in Ohio. Whether in the wilds of the 19th century or the baby boom of the 1950s, the Catholic Church continues the mission entrusted to her by Jesus Christ. Here we tell that story.