This is one of the most well-known religious buildings in the Detroit area. Its fame, however, is not attributable to its distinctive and attractive architecture, but due to the priest who founded this parish and then served as pastor for four decades: Father Charles Coughlin. At times of great economic upheaval in this country, populist movements emerge to challenge the nation’s economic and political system while denigrating the governing officials and presidents who apparently got the nation into an economic crisis. The Populist movement reached their apogee following the economic travails of 1892 when William Jennings Bryan became a serious contender for president. The Tea Party movement of this decade follows in that Populist tradition. Sometimes, fairly mainline politicians are involved in these movements such as Democratic presidential candidate Bryan. Other times, their leaders are seen by historians as mean-spirited demagogues and rabble rousers.
Father Coughlin is an important figure in our nation’s social and political history. Anyone interested in populist movements and alternatives to the dominant Republican and Democratic parties should give consideration to Father Coughlin and his great popularity during the Depression. Born in Hamilton, Ontario in October, 1891 to deeply religious parents, his mother encouraged him to become a priest. He studied in Toronto and was ordained at age 25. His first assignment, in 1918, was teaching at Assumption College in Windsor, the university located at the eastern foot of the Ambassador Bridge. I believe that he preferred parish work to classroom teaching and so he changed his assignment to the diocese of Detroit in 1923. He quickly gained a reputation as a talented preacher and made connections with the city’s numerous economically successful Catholic leaders.
Radio stations at this time were in their infancy. They seldom played recorded music and talk and sports shows had yet to be invented. Indeed, they found it a challenge to fill their all of their air time. Administrators at Detroit station WJR knew of Father Coughlin’s reputation for his sermons. They decided to experiment with having Father Coughlin preach for one hour each week on their station. He was a success and quickly gained a large audience. Of course, Roman Catholicism was the modal religion in Detroit but his religious appeal was broad. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first religious figure to develop a substantial following by using the air waves—the original in a long series of radio and television evangelists who continue to broadcast daily.
Until 1929, Father Coughlin’s presented traditional religious themes that were acceptable to all in the Abrahamic tradition. However, his popularity—and the shortage of alternatives—promoted many other stations to carry his sermons just as the national radio networks were developing. The Columbia Broadcasting System, with its stations across the nation, carried his program by the end of the 1920s. Father Coughlin claimed 40 million listeners at a time when the nation’s adult population was only 79 million. It is difficult to verify his assertion but he was the most listened-to person in the nation. Many more heard his weekly Sunday sermons than heard the occasional speeches of governmental leaders.
After 1929, Father Coughlin changed the content of his presentation to emphasize political and economic themes rather than religious issues. The stock market crashed in October, 1929. The federal government did not know how to cope with the economic disaster. Life savings were wiped out, banks failed, portfolios went to zero and the unemployment rate soared, especially in Detroit. Vehicle production in 1932 was no more than one-quarter what it had been three years earlier. Father Coughlin stressed the need to fundamentally restructure the nation’s economic system. By early 1932, he believed that Franklin Roosevelt would make the changes needed to drastically alter or abolish the capitalist system that had failed. His Sunday presentations strongly endorsed the Democratic candidate. One of his slogans was that “The New Deal is Christ’s Deal.” This was before the era of any “fairness doctrine” and long prior to the days of any scientific polling. After Franklin Roosevelt won in a landslide in 1932, Father Coughlin claimed that he was responsible for electing the new president. Roosevelt did not dispute that claim and met with Father Coughlin, although Roosevelt was careful not to embraces him too closely. I think the president knew the history of populism in this country and recognized that Coughlin could easily turn against him.
President Roosevelt and the New Deal were not successful in mitigating the terrible conditions of the Depression. Unemployment continued to rise and some of the strategies Roosevelt advocated such as strictly balancing the federal budget and cutting benefits to veterans are now seen a worsening the Depression more severe. By 1934, Father Coughlin was moving away from President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Coughlin founded the National Union for Social Justice which was to be a workers’ rights organization, one that favored huge changes in the nation’s monetary system. They called for some traditional populist themes such as high minimum wages, government guarantees of employment and an elimination of what they saw as the federal government’s unwavering strong support for an exploitive banking system. Father Coughlin’s was one of many populist movements of the Depression era that sought to end capitalism, as it was then known, and replace it with some other financial system that would benefit most people. He was not an economist and did not recruit an array of scholarly advisors. Indeed, he increasingly condemned everything that President Roosevelt did, consistently accused Roosevelt of violating the constitution and spoke of a forthcoming revolution.
Father Coughlin continued to be a popular radio figure, although almost all his presentations focused the political and economic programs of the Roosevelt administration. In early 1936, he—and many other observers—believed that President Roosevelt’s failure to end the Depression made him extremely unpopular and they concluded that the Democrats would likely lose the White House. Father Coughlin thought that he could be elected president and briefly considered a run for that office but then backed away from becoming a candidate. He formed a Union Party that nominated North Dakota Senator William Lemke as their candidate for president. Misjudging his own popularity and misunderstanding the nation’s mood—an easy mistake to make at that time because of the absence of scientific polls—Coughlin claimed that Lemke would get at least nine million votes for president and that he, Father Coughlin, would retire from the airwaves if the count were less than that. Lemke won just 900,000 votes; Roosevelt got 28 million votes in 1936 and carried 48 of the 50 states—the most one-sided election to that date. Father Coughlin retired but came out of retirement just a year later.
After 1936, Father Coughlin changed his views again and, I think most agree, he became much more supportive of the Fascism and the anti-Semitism that was spreading in Europe and quite popular in the United States. Coughlin was not the first to imply that Jewish bankers were responsible for the economic chaos of his era. At this time, it appeared many came to believe that democratic capitalism was no longer a viable system of government. Four years of the Roosevelt Administration had done very little to improve the welfare of most citizens and left most of the nation’s financial system in place. Some presumed that the emerging Communist system in Russia was the government of the future, so quite a few American workers and intellectuals—including many from Detroit’s labor movement—visited Russia to learn what they could. Father Coughlin, however, believed that the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism were created and promoted by Jews, a group that he did not trust. As an alternative to Bolshevism, he saw many virtues in the Fascism that was becoming increasingly popular in Germany and Italy. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Father Coughlin appeared to become the most outspoken and popular American seeming to rationalize and justify the policies of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Coughlin, in the late 1930s founded the magazine, Social Justice. He used it to spread his populist themes and criticize the Roosevelt administration. However, it took a distinctly anti-Semitic tone. Just as Henry Ford had republished The Protocols of the Elders of Zion a score of years earlier in his magazine, Ford Times, Father Coughlin published them again in his Social Justice. By 1938, he was quite strongly defending the National Socialists in Germany, even after Kristallnacht. He also defended the Fascists in Italy.
At this point, quite a few radio stations in the larger cities canceled his program and observers increasingly questioned his patriotism.
Some Catholic leaders thought that Bishop Gallagher in Detroit should order Coughlin to cease his radio show. The Vatican Apostolic Delegate to Washington and the archbishop in Cincinnati asked Bishop Gallagher to silence Father Coughlin but the Bishop refused to do so. I do not believe that Bishop Gallagher ever wrote anything about why he did not condemn Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitism or assign him to some other job.
In the early 1940s, both the German and Italian governments were funding substantial publicity and organizations in the United States in hopes that this country would remain neutral in the Second World War. Father Coughlin, perhaps unknowingly, apparently accepted funding from sources supported by the German and Italian governments. In the early 1940s, the government prohibited the postal service from delivering Father Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice, since it was assumed to be endorsing enemies of the United States. By late 1941, persons such as Father Coughlin, who strongly advocated isolationism, were seen as being sympathetic to the enemies the nation would soon fight in World War II. There are various versions of what happened next. Edward Mooney replaced Bishop Gallagher as administrator of the Detroit diocese. Perhaps FBI and other governmental officials presented Archbishop Mooney with convincing evidence that Father Coughlin had accepted substantial contributions from groups supported by the German and Italian governments. Apparently the federal government threatened to arrest Father Coughlin for treason if he were not silenced. Archbishop Moody, on May 1, 1942, ordered Father Coughlin to confine himself to administering his parish.
Father Coughlin never again made public statements. He continued to serve as pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower until his retirement in 1966. He moved to Bloomfield Hills where he resided in retirement for another 13 years until his death at age 88 in 1979. Father Coughlin lived through the First World War, the Depression, the Second World War, the post-World War II prosperity that seemed to demonstrate the vitality of Democratic capitalism and the Civil Rights Revolution. Apparently, many historians attempted to interview Father Coughlin in his later years. He was one of the most important leaders of the Populist movement in the nation’s history. He turned down almost all of those opportunities, so what we know about him and his movement comes from the written record and some recordings of his presentations.
By 1931, radio air time was becoming valuable. The Columbia Broadcasting System refused to carry the sermons of Father Coughlin without payment. He began soliciting contributions from his audience, an innovation that has been repeated many, many times and continues to the present. He claimed to be receiving as many as 80,000 letters per week, often with funds enclosed. There was never scandal about any misuse of these funds. Father Coughlin apparently used the monies for the causes he espoused and to build the large National Shrine of the Little Flower complex that you see pictured above.
There is no state or federal historical marker here or elsewhere in Detroit commemorating Father Coughlin, even though he is one of the most significant national figures to use Detroit as a home base. If he had devoted himself to his parish after 1932, I suspect he would be honored as a populist leader who endorsed many ideas that were adopted by the federal government, such as minimum wages, control of the banks and support for low-income and impoverished people. Instead, after 1936, he espoused anti-Semitism and favored the policies of the National Socialists in Germany and the Fascists in Italy. Similar to Father Coughlin, there is no state or national historical marker in Detroit commemorating the native son who was the first to fly across the Atlantic—Charles Lindberg. Lindberg’s opposition to the United States involvement in World War II, perhaps, is sufficient to prevent a historical marker in his honor.
St. Thérèsa of Lisieux, born in 1873, was the ninth and final child born to a middle-class family in Normandy. Her father earned his living as a watchmaker. She was a devote and extremely religious child who hoped to enter a convent at age 13. The administrators turned her down as too young, but several years later she joined the Carmelite Order in Lisieux, France and became a nun. She was a prolific writer who drafted many moving spiritual and mystical poems. Perhaps she was best known for her autobiography, Story of a Soul. St. Thérésa was born seventy years before the sulfa drugs became available. She died of tuberculosis in Lisieux at age 26. Just 24 years after her death, Pope Pius XI proclaimed her a saint in 1925 and later, Pope John Paul II declared that she was a Doctor of the Church. Thérésa portrayed herself as a “little flower of Jesus,” hence her sobriquet. She was a briefly popular saint in the years shortly after her death, although I suspect that few new churches are now named in her honor. I suspect that students can now complete 12 or even 16 years of Catholic education in the United States without reading her writings. The website for the National Shrine of the Little Flower presents a short biography. That website also shows various picture of Father Coughlin.
Capitalizing upon the popularity of St. Thérésa at the time of her canonization, Detroit Bishop Gallagher established a nine-day novena for public worship at Sts. Peter and Paul downtown church. This drew large crowds so the novena was repeated in 1926. Once again, large crowds participated in the nine-day novena honoring the new saint. Bishop Gallagher presumed that there was so much interest in her that he had special chapel built to honor her, one that is shown on this website. Bishop Gallagher also realized that the north suburban ring was growing rapidly and that there would soon be a need for many suburban churches. I believe that he knew that the best time to purchase land for a church was before the developers erected homes and apartments. Thus, he secured acreage at Twelve Mile and Woodward in Royal Oak in the mid-1920s and asked Father Coughlin to found a parish there. In the many decades after he disappeared from the public scene, Father Coughlin was widely known as “Twelve Mile Charlie” to his peers in the clergy. I do not know if that name originated in affection or derision.
Architect: Henry McGill or the New York firm, Hamlin and McGill
Date of construction: Late 1920s
Use in 2010: Roman Catholic parish serving congregants in the Royal Oak area
Website for the National Shrine of the Little Flower: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33069.pdf
Books: Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression, New York: Knopf, 1982.
Sheldon Marcus, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower. Boston: Little and Brown, 1972
Donald Warren, Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
Text of several Father Coughlin speeches from 1934 and 1935: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/history/fcspeech.html
Audio clips from Father Coughlin speaking in 1947: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/history/coughlinradio.html
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not Listed
National Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley, June, 2009
Description Updated September, 2010.
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