Baltimore’s Archbishop Michael Joseph Curley,
Oklahoma’s Bishop Francis Clement Kelley
and the Mexican Affair: 1934-1936
Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Today we are accustomed to believe that the Catholic Church in Mexico is on
relatively good terms with the government, especially after 1992 when the Holy See
concluded diplomatic relations which at long last permitted the Holy Roman Catholic
Apostolic Church to register and assume legal existence. On May 24, 1993, the murder
of the cardinal-archbishop of Guadalajara, Juan Jesús Posadas, was not generally
suspicioned to have been instigated by the government, as might have been the case
sixty years ago. Without opposition Pope John Paul II personally visited Mexico as
recently as last August before going to Denver for World Youth Day. It would have
been unthinkable during the reign of “Papa Ratti,” Pope Pius XI.
Thus the persecution which the Church in Mexico endured, especially during the
first forty years of this century, might well be reviewed in order to see how the change
between then and now has taken place.
Two of the most intense years of suffering for the Church were between 1934
and 1936 when Archbishop Michael Joseph Curley of Baltimore, Maryland spoke out in
defense of the repressed. Since 1921 when he succeeded James Cardinal Gibbons, Irish-
born “Iron Mike” Curley never kept his thoughts secret. They were printed in the
official diocesan newspaper, still in existence today, by his alter ego, Mr. Vincent de
Paul Fitzpatrick, managing editor of <The Baltimore Catholic Review> (BCR). In that
period, moreover, the Baltimore archdiocese included the District of Columbia.
The capital city itself, Washington, became a separate archdiocese in 1939, equal
to Baltimore. Only after Curley died in 1947 did the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.,
along with five counties in southern Maryland, receive its first resident archbishop.
Curley was the archbishop of two archdioceses, in other words. This meant that the
<Review> surely would not escape notice by the political establishment in Washington.
And if anybody was “anti-establishment,” it was Curley. Unlike Cardinal Mundelein,
an ardent Roosevelt supporter, Curley had no use for either mainstream America or for
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s <New Deal>. He dismissed liberalism in every form.
Furthermore, more than any other of Baltimore’s archbishops, Curley’s private
and official papers were preserved.1 In addition to the original issues of the <Review>
itself, collected in the library of the Catholic University of America, this documentation
is now found in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore (AAB), and they have
been consulted specifically for this essay. One entire uncatalogued carton is marked
“Mexico (Unclassified).” Unfortunately, Catholic University of America Professor
Christopher J. Kauffman informs us that the archives on Mexico maintained by the
American bishops remain closed for the present.
Curley’s friend, Bishop Francis Clement Kelley, second bishop of Oklahoma City
and Tulsa, Oklahoma, would be perhaps the only other American bishop to work with
him in an energetic and forceful manner on this issue. After John Lancaster Spalding
who died in 1916, Kelley was surely the most intellectually sophisticated bishop since
the nation’s very first was ordained in England in 1790. At one point he nearly became
rector of the Catholic University, and he was the author of seventeen books. No one of
less reputation than the anti-Roosevelt secularist and “Sage of Baltimore,” H. L.
Mencken, was an admirer of his writing style. Although Oklahoma was remote _ very
remote, with a sparse (under 3%) Catholic population _ Kelley and Curley maintained a
lively correspondence and worked tirelessly together on the Mexican question.
The revolution which brought the National or “Institutional” Revolutionary
Party (PRI) to power in the United States of Mexico occurred in stages. But the
Constitution which would regulate the relations between church and state was
finalized in 1917. It is hard to say what “revolution” really meant in the long run _ it
certainly didn’t mean democracy for Mexico _ but it was a type of social upheaval
accompanied by ideological rhetoric which rejected the order of the past. One might
allude to the Constitution of 1857, or the revolutionary events of 1910 and thereafter.
But the Constitution of 1917 is the most fitting point of departure for us presently since
the authorities claimed it as the legal basis for the renewed attacks on the Catholic
Church after some intermittent periods of relative calm.2
A book by the British Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh nicely captured the spirit of
the times with the title: <Mexico: Robbery Under Law.> The Jesuit editor of <America>,
Wilfrid Parsons, aptly entitled his 1936 book on the subject <Mexican Martyrdom>.
In 1926 there was a rebellion of Mexican Catholics against the regime which had
been kept in power by military means and the will of the ruling National
Revolutionary Party. The Party, an amalgam of Masons, Socialists, Communists, and
greedy opportunists, had interpreted the anti-clerical laws arbitrarily and severely.
This led to the killing of priests and the confiscation of churches, schools, religious
houses of all kinds, and other properties. The Catholics who fought against the
government were called “Cristeros,” and today Jean Meyer, a French historian, is
researching this phenomenon from his base in Mexico City. The Cristeros had few
means of their own, and only got their weapons after overcoming the enemy and
taking theirs. They represented the overwhelmingly Catholic majority of the country’s
population, but they only took to arms out of desperation. At one time the Cristeros
were said to have thirty thousand men loyal to their cause. The record shows they were
An exiled Mexican Catholic lawyer, Octavio Elizonde, wrote in a letter dated
January 21, 1935, that he had completed a Memorandum for Curley which was a
detailed report concerning the events since 1929. He also asked for an interview that
week. Subsequently, in a letter to Mr. Vincent Fitzpatrick, Curley confirmed that the
twelve-page text “is about the best thing I have seen on the recent situation since 1929.
The analysis it gives of the so-called peace made in that year is exceptionally fine.”3
Elizonde states that between 1926 and 1929 an armed struggle was carried on in
behalf of the Catholic cause by the rebels known as Cristeros. This army was poised to
deliver the final blow when the Mexican hierarchy, at the wish of the Holy See,
requested them to disarm and to accept the offer of the Mexican government under
President Plutarco Calles to establish a <modus vivendi> in regard to the religious
question. Out of duty and obedience the Cristeros laid down their arms and thereupon,
in the words of the <BCR>:
The first things (sic) Calles did after peace had been made was to shoot down 500
Cristero leaders. The six years of the entente Cordiale between Calles and the Church
have been the six bloodiest years in the history of Mexico.4
Actually, Elizonde puts the figure at 400, but perhaps the exact number will never be
known. Calles was responsible for the killing. Plutarco Elías Calles, President of Mexico
from 1924 to 1928, was depicted in the <BCR> the way Nicolai Ceausescu was in the
popular press of 1989. When Calles left office in 1928 he controlled the government
from behind the scenes, and he dominated the life of the country until 1934 when his
rival Lázaro Cárdenas won out. How did Calles control the whole country for so long?
Very simple _ by owning the army. Cárdenas prevented him from making a final
comeback in 1936. No one has ever been able to explain adequately Calles’ extreme and
irrational hatred for the Church. Perhaps it was a combination of greed and Jacobin
ideology. In any case, Cárdenas also hated the Church, but his fanaticism was more
pragmatic and times had changed by the mid-30s.
The <BCR> described the 1929 revenge upon the Catholic “freedom fighters”
more fully by setting the figure at 500 leaders and 5,000 ordinary men who were shot,
often in their homes in front of their families. Their property was then seized, leaving
the survivors destitute. Elizonde clearly says that the obedience of the Mexican
Catholics to the request of the Holy See was a disaster for the Church, and ended only
in betrayal. The American Jesuit Wilfrid Parsons, on the other hand, claims Archbishop
Pascual Díaz, SJ, of Mexico City, disagreed with those of Elizonde’s persuasion, and
thought the decision to seek a military solution was mistaken in the first place.5
Furthermore, Father John Burke’s biographer, John B. Sheerin, adds:
Almost the entire Mexican hierarchy gathered in Mexico City on November 26th (1926)
at the home of Bishop Pascual Díaz, the Jesuit who acted as secretary of the episcopal
committee but was suspected of being a pliant ecclesiastical opportunist. The hierarchy
met with lay leaders to discuss the Liga’s plans for revolution. Díaz told the lay leaders
that the bishops had examined the plans but could not give their approval to use of
arms. Priests could serve the rebel forces but could not join the fighting. Although in
sympathy with the rebels and unwilling to condemn their armed rebellion, the bishops
did not sanction armed revolt. As the prelates had not actually forbidden the Liga to
join the Cristeros in their fight, the Liga leaders felt that Díaz had given his quasi-
blessing to the rebellion and they set to work organizing the rebellion more eagerly.
Díaz had given his quasi-blessing to the rebellion and they set to work organizing the
rebellion more eagerly. Díaz himself was arrested for allegedly directing Cristero
military activities but was exiled rather than jailed. Deported, he journeyed to New
York. At the administrative committee meeting on April 26, 1927, Burke informed the
committee that Díaz had made clear to him that the Mexican hierarchy did not want the
NCWC to countenance in any way the promotion of armed resistance in Mexico.6
Undoubtedly the <BCR> was merely reflecting the Elizonde Memorandum. In that
document, he had said:
And notwithstanding the fact that an immense majority of all the Catholics of action
who had been struggling for a long time and with all lawful means against the tyrants
of the Mexican people, felt a deep rooted doubt as to the success of an agreement
arrived at under such circumstances and on such bases, we accepted, sincerely, and in
all discipline, through our love for the Church and respect for His Holiness Pope Pius
XI, the situation created by the so-called agreements and made ourselves ready to
struggle within the terms of the “modus vivendi” to reconquer our lost liberties; not
without a feeling, on the part of the great mass of the people, of profound
discouragement and frustration upon the abrupt ending thus brought to the heroic and
bloody movement of defense carried on during the years 1926 to 1929 (<AAB,
Memorandum>, p. 2).7
Curley advised his editor to correct the English, given above in the original, since it was
done by a Mexican whose stylistic skills in American English were limited.
The <BCR> of August 23, 1935 printed the following figures for its American
readers. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. Miguel Augustín Pro, SJ,
had been summarily shot on November 23, 1927. Pro was later to be beatified in 1988.
There were 2,500 priests in hiding, many of them in the Federal District, the State of San
Luis Potosí (where the local governor received priests and nuns, despite federal laws)
or in exile. The Apostolic Delegate and Archbishop of Morelia, himself a Mexican, and
five additional bishops had been exiled. Twelve bishops were impeded from their
dioceses, and four were arrested but later released. In 1934 there were 334 priests
licensed to practice their ministry by the government for fifteen million people,
whereas in 1926 there were 3,000 serving the people.8
As early as the year of rebellion itself, 1926, the U.S. Catholic hierarchy issued a
Bishops’ Pastoral on the Mexican Situation: <A Pastoral Letter of the Catholic
Episcopate of the United States on the Religious Situation in Mexico.> It claimed not to
be an appeal for political intervention of any kind or for action of any sort.9
The Mexican Constitution of 1917 contains various articles regulating church
property, church schools, and the quotas of priests or other clergy which would be
allowed and duly licensed. It did not specify any one religion to be restricted, but made
the laws applicable to all religions. In Mexico, the number of Protestants or Jews or
those of other religions was quite small at the time. Therefore it was no secret that the
Catholic Church was the true target for this federal legislation. Between 90% and 95%
of the population was Catholic, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was one of
the most popular in the world.
In 1935 the <BCR> mentioned that a law in one of the Mexican states forbade the
registration, to obtain a license for practice of the ministry, of priests who were
celibate.10 This is one example of the restrictions, but it typifies the anti-Catholic nature
of some of the legal provisions even when the Catholic Church was never mentioned by
name. We are all familiar with the cowardly Whiskey Priest who lived in concubinage
and dereliction as portrayed in Graham Greene’s <The Power and the Glory.>
A small sign of hope in 1935 was the annulment by President Lázaro Cárdenas
of the decree censoring foreign religious mail coming into Mexico _ which had to that
point included, of course, the <BCR>.11
In that same year, Archbishop Curley had considered setting up a Bureau for
Mexican Affairs in Baltimore. On January 4, 1935, he wrote to the exiled Apostolic
Delegate to Mexico, Archbishop Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores. The Delegate since 1932 had
been living across the border in San Antonio, Texas:
It is very largely a matter of money, and just how we are going to get the money I do
not see for the moment. Other Dioceses may not be as interested in Mexican affairs as is
this, and it is a difficult thing at this time, on account of financial conditions, to get
Curley is referring, of course, to the total collapse of the economy which created the
dire conditions of The Great Depression. The lack of funds for special projects such as
aid to the Church in Mexico was obviously acute. Even the state of the <BCR> as it has
survived up to the present moment suggests they were using the least expensive paper
available. There is still some reason to believe other bishops besides Kelley were
sympathetic, although unable, to help.
On April 2, 1935, Kelley wrote to Curley:
It was mighty kind of you to send one hundred dollars. I can do a lot with that. In fact I
have enough now to cover the whole Senate and part of the House. I have written to
John Burke asking him if he will take care of the distribution in Washington.13
The matter being discussed by this letter is the financing and distributing of copies of
<Blood-Drenched Altars> for the members of Congress who were deliberating over the
Borah Resolution whose point was to condemn religious persecution in Mexico. The
book had been published under Bishop Kelley’s name, and hastily researched for him
by Eber Cole Byam:
This volume of more than 500 pages, which made no pretense at being a detached
treatise, defies an adequate summary. Its mass of facts, contentions, and scholarly
references were bound together by a single proposition, supported by two cosmic
themes running through the book. Kelley’s objective was to present to a pluralistic
America the idea that religious oppression was beyond narrow sectarian interest. The
persecution in Mexico was a tragedy that should concern all men and women, whether
or not they were sympathetic to or affiliated with the Catholic church.14
It has endured the test of time, was praised in 1950 after Kelley’s death by Frank
Tannenbaum, sympathetic historian of the revolution, and was even recently
republished. To prove it was taken seriously, we have evidence that it was reviewed by
the Mexican government’s Department of Publicity of the Ministry of Foreign
Relations.15 The name given was deliberate:
Kelley’s choice of title, <Blood-Drenched Altars>, referred to the savage pre-Christian
rites of human sacrifice which greeted the conquistadors and padres. Yet in this
primitive environment these pioneers had built cathedrals, universities, hospitals,
schools, libraries _ relics of a noble civilization which preceded in antiquity and rivaled
in splendor the institutions that evolved in North America. The revolution in Mexico,
Kelley went on, had thus targeted its attack on the two pillars of this way of life, first
driving Spain back to Europe and, a century later, threatening to crush the church.16
Bishop Francis Clement Kelley would certainly not have followed the fashion, so
common lately, of denouncing Columbus for bringing Spanish civilization to the New
World. The human sacrifice represented by the Aztec “blood-drenched altars” was, to
him, even comparable to the slaughter of the Catholics at the hands of the Mexican
government between 1926 and 1936, except the altars were Catholic, not Aztec.
Curley’s chosen investigator and historian of the Mexican persecution was
Georgetown University’s Father Michael Kenny, SJ, who surely agreed with Curley
when the following translation of a smuggled Mexican document appeared in the
<BCR>, July 3, 1936:
As many, if not most, of the evils we now endure have been caused directly or
indirectly by United States influence, and there is undoubtedly a debt of restitution, an
obligation to repair the resultant evils of oppression and suppression of liberties that a
tyrant minority inflicts, and can only inflict by the favor of our all-powerful North
American neighbor. We submit that the neighborhood of our countries and the evils
that we are suffering, materially as well as morally, largely through United States
influence, imposes on the honest people of the United States the duty of aiding us in
averting impending disaster.17
Curley was forever frustrated that he and the Church could not affect the Roosevelt
Administration to do more for the sufferings of Mexican Catholics, even in such a
simple thing as the recall of an ambassador who was perceived as inimical to this
cause, or at best, a bungler in the effort to help. That frustration was spoken of by
Bishop Francis Clement Kelley in a letter to Curley:
I do not understand the President. I had heard that he made a promise. Surely he had
enough visits from ecclesiastical dignitaries to understand the situation. I am afraid that
some of those who went to see him, by avoiding the subject of Mexico, gave him the
idea that we are divided about it.18
If Kelley didn’t understand the president, we may assume Cardinal Mundelein did.
Historian David J. O’Brien says:
Mundelein soon became the President’s closest friend in the hierarchy. In 1935, when
Catholics were incensed by Roosevelt’s Mexican policy, the Cardinal heaped praise on
him in ceremonies at Notre Dame.19
The incident over the recall of the American ambassador deserves special note. It
was the result of the clash between the suppression of Catholic education in Mexico,
even after the <modus vivendi> of 1929, and the introduction of “Socialist” education in
Promises made in 1929 were never honored by the government of Mexico.
Perhaps this is because the arrangement rested on a “gentlemen’s agreement” no more
solid than oral assurances between President Emilio Portes Gil (described by the
<BCR> as a <callista>)20 and the American Ambassador Dwight Whitney Morrow. The
<BCR> never considered any of them gentlemen, either. In the “modus vivendi” the
Catholics were supposed to be respected. They were to be allowed to use every
democratic means to effect a constitutional change: the “vote, written and spoken
propaganda, appeals before judicial authorities, petitions to Congress, etc.”21 Elizonde
maintains that the Church was lied to, and the American ambassador had economic
interests and the American business community to please above all else. The struggle
which finished the alleged truce was the educational issue when the government strove
to impose a complete monopoly and install a “socialistic” program.
Elizonde in the Memorandum is shocked and at a loss when he says there is no
explanation for the absence of any protocols on the question of education in the 1929
Bishop Kelley had written in <Blood-Drenched Altars>:
The new Constitution prohibited any minister of religion from teaching in a school,
public or private. Article 3 prohibited religious corporations or ministers of any
religious creed from establishing or directing primary schools. Article 130 went further
and ordered the confiscation of any school erected for the purpose of teaching religion.
It provided likewise that in all primary-school matters the curriculum, teachers, etc., be
under the direction of the Federal government. Not only were clergymen forbidden to
teach, but they were even forbidden to maintain any institution of scientific research.
Nevertheless Article 3 begins with the words “Instruction is free.”22
It was the school issue which strained the consciences of Mexican Catholics
when the “atheistic brainwashing” of the revolutionary curriculum was applied to their
children. This schooling had been invested with the content of an alien ideology,
contrary to the faith of Mexican Catholics. The January 24, 1936 edition of the <BCR>
stated that the Mexican Hierarchy in a formal pastoral letter had condemned the
socialistic education curriculum explicitly. Parents were not permitted to send their
children to these state schools under pain of mortal sin, and no Catholic was permitted
to teach in them. They had to give up their jobs if this was necessary. No Catholic was
permitted to be a socialist under any condition. Socialism here, according to the <BCR>,
was just communism using the name “socialism.”23
On one occasion President Lázaro Cárdenas, who had succeeded Calles, tried to
defend socialist education. Sacrilegiously speaking from the Catholic church pulpit in
Ciudad González, he is reported to have said:
It is untrue that Socialistic education may lead to the dissolution of the home; and it is
also untrue that it perverts children and separates them from their parents. Socialist
education prepares the child so that, when he becomes a man, he may comply with his
obligations of solidarity in a spirit of fraternity for his class companions.24
He went on to challenge the <men> to support the revolutionary process, and basically
said religion should be left to <women>. They, the women, if they had these religious
sentiments could believe in Catholic things if they wished, and the revolutionary
government would promise not to infringe upon their rights. This is somewhat
contradictory because part of the National Revolutionary Party’s rhetoric was in favor
of a version of the class-struggle theory which included women as a special part of the
proletariat. He insulted the local priest and said he must be careful to obey the laws set
by the government.25 One can only imagine how Curley took such an attack on the
priesthood and on simple Mexican peons. He was thinking, no doubt, that the federal
president’s words in Ciudad González were aimed at the eight archdioceses, twenty-
two dioceses, and one vicariate apostolic of all Mexico. And it was no secret that the
revolutionary school system was inculcating atheism. Its program of “sex-education”
was crude and laughable in today’s terms. And it was certainly offensive to Mexican
standards of decency. One might also add that the whole persecution was crude
because it only served to enrage the vast multitudes of the population.
If Elizonde repudiated the role of American Ambassador Morrow in the “modus
vivendi” of 1929, Curley did the same for Ambassador Josephus Daniels who
represented the American Government in these years of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first
term. Daniels, precisely at the time of the educational conflict mentioned above, gave a
short talk in the American embassy in Mexico City, July, 1934, which praised the
Mexican government’s efforts in the educational field.
Daniels quoted President Calles favorably, and the key line was: “We must enter
and take possession of the mind of childhood, the mind of youth.”26 The <BCR>
headline read “Josephus Daniels Offends 330,000,000 Catholics.”27 Curley was furious,
as were many others, even though Daniels maintained his words were innocent and
had been taken out of context by the Catholic press in the United States and by Mexican
Catholics themselves. It does seem that the <BCR> was making this into an artificial
An exiled Mexican priest writing in the <BCR> quoted Governor Arnulfo Pérez
of the State of Tabasco who approved of the following song in the school curriculum:
God did not create mankind; the latter created God.
There is no God except in petrified hearts and books.
The priests are like bartenders who exploit mankind.28
We might look at the comparison with Baltimore. At this same time Curley’s
archdiocesan newspaper carried numerous articles on the situation of Catholic
education in Baltimore. New schools were opening and old ones were praised for their
efforts. Girls and boys were photographed at wholesome social and athletic functions,
and there was much interest in youth generally. Curley’s friend Bishop Kelley was
chairman of the Bishops’ Committee of the Boy Scouts of America.29
Mr. Vincent de Paul Fitzpatrick in 1929 had written the <Life of Archbishop
Curley: Champion of Catholic Education.> The contrast with the situation in Mexico
Ambassador Josephus Daniels, a Protestant, was a native of Raleigh, North
Carolina. On April 29, 1935, he paid a visit lasting an hour with the Catholic Bishop of
Raleigh, William J. Hafey. Hafey immediately wrote to Curley. A number of points
were considered, but it was Hafey’s judgment that Daniels was worried and that he,
Hafey, had done his part to encourage him to resign “and ultimately he might also
decide that Raleigh, little town that it is, might be preferable to Mexico City.”30 But the
urgency of Hafey’s letter was due to Daniels. The ambassador was asking him to serve
as an intermediary in requesting an appointment with Curley within ten days. Curley
loaned the letter to a Jesuit friend and wrote “Please return” at the top. He also wrote in
the upper right-hand corner: “I feel I should not see Mr. Daniels.”31
The <BCR,> a weekly, had an inflammatory tenor and tone in referring to
Daniels that would surely be unacceptable by today’s standards of journalism. It was so
harsh and severe as to make the expression “flayed alive” seem the only one of
sufficient strength to describe what they were doing to poor Ambassador Daniels. The
paper often used the device of “open questions” rhetorically and sarcastically directed
to Mr. Daniels. Hafey in his letter also adds his visit with Daniels was concluded thus:
“He departed with a copy of the <Baltimore Catholic Review> under his arm and is
probably now thinking up the answers to the questions contained therein.”32
Thomas W. Spalding summarizes all of this:
After a brief respite, the persecution in Mexico was resumed. In 1934 Curley was
roused to action again when the ambassador to Mexico, Josephus Daniels, injudiciously
praised the remark of a Mexican leader to the effect that it was the aim of his
government “to take possession of the mind of children.” Curley had the <Catholic
Review> address a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt calling for Daniel’s
resignation. <The Review> asked the president to read its “exposé of the bestial,
pederastic and sodomistic campaign of socialistic education which has gone on in
alliance with the other methods of warfare against God, Religion and Common
Decency in Mexico.”33
Daniels never did resign, though he issued a bland statement defending the idea
of religious freedom. Roosevelt issued a similar statement. Eventually the Borah
Resolution fizzled. None of this pleased Curley or the Knights of Columbus whose
Supreme Knight, Martin H. Carmody, had warmly praised Curley on many occasions,
especially after the thundering speech the archbishop had made in Washington, March
25, 1935. More than the bishops, the Knights took a strong stand on the Mexican
persecution and the need for the United States to do something to help.
The year 1936 saw a good many changes. Father John J. Burke, CSP, secretary of
the NCWC, died October 29. Father Wilfrid Parsons, SJ was replaced as editor-in-chief
of <America.> Archbishop Pascual Díaz y Barreto, SJ, thirty-sixth Archbishop of
Mexico City and a full-blooded Indian, and Archbishop Francisco Orozco y Jiménez of
Guadalajara who at one time had dressed as a peon and hid out in the mountains, both
died that year. Mexican Catholics swarmed to their funerals in unprecedented
numbers. The idealistic President Lázaro Cárdenas _ who seems really to have believed
in the socialist-revolutionary rhetoric of the Party _ began to soften on <the
interpretation and implementation> of the anti-religious sections of the Constitution of
1917. A relaxation was gradually introduced, though sometimes it was two steps
forward and then one backward.
Since there always had been a two-tiered mechanism of enforcement, one federal
and the other exercised by the governors of the states, Cárdenas could sometimes hide
behind an explanation of interference on the part of local authorities against his
intentions in the matter of church closings and the like. This approach worked
especially well when the federal administration had to explain things to the foreign
press. Cárdenas may have been more sensitive to foreign opinions than we are aware
Persecution continued in Mexico, but also relaxation in many areas began to be
reported more and more. The <BCR> reflected these developments, although it usually
urged caution in welcoming good news as true. We must not forget that Curley, and
thus his newspaper, was the destination of <samizdat> documentation and it also had a
correspondent stationed in Mexico City. Even so, priests returned, were given licenses,
and churches re-opened. It was uneven and contradictory. Mexico is not a country
which always handles its affairs in an entirely tidy manner, although the Mexican
propaganda machine did seem to have an effect on quieting the fears of the secular
press in the United States. There had been international embarrassment in the anti-
religious campaigns, and the Cárdenas government was anxious for it to be explained
away. President Cárdenas also may have wished to prevent Roosevelt from being
further embarrassed by enraged American Catholics such as Curley and Kelley.
Diplomats of the period might have worked quietly for a level of understanding that
was not known even to Curley who had so many special sources of information. The
pages of the <BCR>, by 1935-1936, tended to focus on Germany and Spain more than
on Mexico. Especially the atrocities of the Reds in Spain attracted the attention of the
Catholic world, and Curley was naturally annoyed at the <Baltimore Sun> for siding in
with the Loyalists who were murdering so many priests. Curley always like a good
fight, we are not with difficulty able to conclude.
Since the Mexican Church had been dispossessed of so much property and
resources, there was not much they could do to repay the kindness of the American
bishops. What arrived _ and it was the express wish of Archbishop Pascual Díaz before
his death _ was an illuminated, parchment spiritual bouquet from Mexican Catholics
who had prayed for the Americans. The subheading in the <BCR> of January 15, 1937
read “Prelates Send on their Behalf Spiritual Bouquet to American Hierarchy.”34
Besides a scrapper, Curley was deep down ever the sentimental Irishman, and we may
assume he appreciated the spiritual bouquet more than silver or gold.
To this day the problem with the National Revolutionary Party in Mexico has
never been fully resolved. The old Constitution of 1917 is still valid, though it is
enforced in a mild way and parts may soon be changed. Bribes were always more
forceful than principles in neutralizing its worst elements anyway. Mexican Catholic
shrines bring in tourist dollars, and who would wish to spoil such a good thing as that?
The Party has never completely given up its monopoly on power or its rhetoric or its
control of the army. But their situation is eroding. Recent state elections have given
some posts to the opposition, however, and the PRI’s tactics of fraud are less and less
acceptable in a world more conscious of human rights.
The Church never fully recovered either from the savagery of “El Turco” (Calles)
or from the renewed persecution in the first years of the Roosevelt Administration. The
swift advance of the U.S.-based Fundamentalists and Protestant sects in later decades
showed how much Catholicism had been weakened, especially with the destruction of
Catholic schools. A dechristianization had occurred gradually through the long years of ideological contest and suffering. But following the relaxation of 1936 and thereafter came Cárdenas’s chosen successor in 1940, President Manuel Avila Camacho. He was president until
1946 and was described as “a believing Roman Catholic.”35
With the outbreak of World War II, little attention was possible for anyone in the
United States to give to the problems of Mexico. After tensions eased in 1940, Curley
and Kelley must have felt they had done their best for God. Kelley died in Oklahoma
City on February 1, 1948 and Curley died in Baltimore on May 16, 1947.
1 In 1929 Fitzpatrick wrote the only partial biography we have of Curley. It was
entitled <Life of Archbishop Curley: Champion of Catholic Education.> Father Michael
J. Roach of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD is preparing the full
biography of Curley, but it has not yet appeared. Therefore no complete account of
Curley’s Mexican “crusade” exists outside some remarks by Thomas W. Spalding in his
ecclesiastical history of the archdiocese, <The Premier See: A History of the
Archdiocese of Baltimore>, 1789-1989 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,
2 From the point of view of ecclesiastical history, a summary of the early phases of the
revolution and the oppression which resulted are found in the chapter “Mexico’s
`Guardian Angel’,” in James P. Gaffey, <Francis Clement Kelley and the American
Catholic Dream>, vol. II (Bensenville, IL: The Heritage Foundation, 1980), pp. 3-57.
3 Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore (hereafter AAB), Mexico (Unclassified),
Elizonde to Curley (Memorandum) (copy) and letter (copy), January 21, 1935; also
Curley to Fitzpatrick (copy), February 6, 1935.
4 <The Baltimore Catholic Review> (hereafter BCR), April 19, 1935, p. 1, col. 1 ff.
5 See Wilfrid Parsons, SJ, <Mexican Martyrdom> (New York: The Macmillan
Company, 1936), p. 100.
6 John B. Sheerin, <Never Look Back: The Career and Concerns of John J. Burke> (New
York: The Paulist Press, 1975), pp. 114-115.
7 AAB, Curley to Fitzpatrick (copy), February 6, 1935.
8 <BCR>, August 23, 1935, p. 3, col. 1.
9 AAB, ibid., <Bishops’ Pastoral on the Mexican Situation: 1926 Pastoral Letter of the
Catholic Episcopate of the United States on the Religious Situation in Mexico.> Official
edition published by the Committee of the American Episcopate, NCWC. See Part II,
10 <BCR>, April 9, 1935, p. 2, col. 2.
11 Ibid., July 5, 1935, p. 1, col. 6.
12 AAB, ibid., Curley to Ruiz y Flores (copy), January 4, 1935, p. 1. Ruiz y Flores was
deported in October 1932 by order of the Mexican congress. His successor, Archbishop
Girolamo Prigione, Apostolic Nuncio to Mexico, is the one who registered the Church
with the government after the accords of 1992.
13 AAB, ibid., Kelley to Curley (copy), April 2, 1935, p. 1. John Burke, CSP was the first
General Secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, established in 1919, just
after the First World War. He held that post until his death in 1936. The NCWC was the
predecessor to the current NCCB/USCC, established after the Second Vatican Council.
The establishment of the NCWC as the consolidated voice of Catholicism in the land is
given in “The National Bishops’ Conference: An Analysis of Its Origins,” in Elizabeth
McKeown, <Modern Catholicism,> 1900-1965, ed. Edward R. Kantowicz (New York:
Garland Publishing Co., 1988), pp. 38-56.
14 Gaffey, ibid., p. 87.
15 <BCR,> September 13, p. 6, col. 1, editorial. The Mexican government was sending
propaganda into the United States free of charge. The headline read: “Will Mr. Farley
Tell Why?” He was Roosevelt’s Postmaster General. Among other points made are the
following: “The Mexican government is now, in its propaganda sheets, reviewing books
on Mexico, including Bishop Francis C. Kelley’s <Blood-Drenched Altars>. It is also
advertising books on Mexico for sale.”
16 Gaffey, ibid., Vol. I, p. 88.
17 <BCR>, July 3, 1936, p. 1, col. 4, and p. 6, col. 1.
18 AAB, ibid., Kelley to Curley (copy), April 2, 1935, p. 1.
19 David J. O’Brien, <American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years>
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 55.
20 <BCR>, April 19, 1935, p. 1, col. 1 ff.
21 AAB, Elizonde to Curley (Memorandum) (copy), p. 1.
22 Francis Clement Kelley, <Blood-Drenched Altars> (Milwaukee: The Bruce
Publishing Company, 1935), p. 261.
23 <BCR>, January 24, 1936, p. 3, col. 1.
24 Ibid., April 9, 1936, p. 1, col. 7.
25 Ibid., cols. 6-7.
26 Ibid., September 14, 1934, p. 6.
28 Ibid., September 21, 1934, p. 1, col. 1, and p. 6, col. 6.
29 AAB, K-244, Kelley to Curley (copy), November 10, 1934. Letterhead.
30 Ibid., Hafey to Curley (copy), April 29, 1935.
33 Spalding, ibid., p. 350.
34 <BCR>, January 15, 1937, p. 9, col. 1.
35 Christopher J. Kauffman, <Faith and Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of
Columbus>, 1882-1982 (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 314.
Father Brian W. Van Hove, S.J., is the rector of the Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis, Missouri, and is also a spiritual director for Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.
This article was taken from the Summer 1994 issue of “Faith & Reason”.
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