During the mid-1920s, a new generation of the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing wide popularity among white Protestants across America and in parts of Canada. The Klan had long been known for intolerance and violence against African Americans, Jewish people and various immigrant groups, but during this phase, one of the foundational elements of their platform was Anti-Catholicism. The reorganized Klan had taken a more methodical approach to recruitment and public relations than its predecessor of the 1860s and 1870s and its membership was growing.
Rallies were held in our area with some regularity in an attempt to increase membership. One such event was held in 1924 at the old Florence Fairgrounds across U.S. 25 from where St. Paul Catholic Church and school are located. The rally’s attendance was estimated to have been nearly 5,000 people. The roads through Florence were congested for hours by attendees and passers-by bearing witness to the 40 ft tall cross that was burning at the fairgrounds. This visible show of force must have been seen as a threat to many, including the little Catholic church and school across the road.
Less than a year before the large rally, St. Paul Parish in Florence had rededicated its school, which had not been operating since 1913. The school reopened with 25 students and several instructors, led by Sister Mary Irene Schwartz, OSB, as principal. Sister Irene was a parishioner at St. Paul’s before entering service, so it was likely a special placement to her.
Around this same time, friction developed between members of the KKK and St. Paul’s school. Some of the members had had run-ins with the faculty, which was staffed exclusively by nuns of the Benedictine order. In short, the Klan was threatening a handful of nuns who dedicated their lives to faith and education.
The principal was both a brave woman and a formidable defender of her staff and students. Responding to the threats made to the teachers, Sr. Irene confronted the Klansmen and their Anti-Catholic rhetoric. Her forceful defense drove the men and their threats away, leaving the nuns and their students to the more important business of learning.
Little more is known about the confrontation between Sister Irene and her aggravators other than the outcome, which proved she had the advantage of right over might and good over evil. She remained in her role until 1935, during which time enrollment in the tiny school nearly doubled. Just as the little parish grew, the enrollment of the Klan began to shrink. Sister Irene returned to serve the school from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. She died in 1987, one month shy of her 96th birthday.
Hillary Delaney is the Local History Associate at Boone County Public Library