The Detroit church founded by antisemite Father Coughlin hosts an event on Jewish-Catholic relations – JTA News – Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Posted By on June 2, 2022

ROYAL OAK, Michigan (JTA) Nancy Gietzen needed to see if the plaque was still there.

She made her way to the foyer of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, the historic Catholic church and day school where the Jewish educator had been a substitute teacher for three years until she left after discovering how the parish had memorialized its founder, Father Charles Coughlin.

Sure enough, there it was, next to a glass case displaying the priests old chalice and vestments: While Coughlins pastoral skills produced the splendid Shrine, his political involvement and passionate rhetoric opened him up to accusations of anti-Semitism. The wording she remembered was intact.

It was really upsetting, Gietzen said. Accusations of being antisemitic? What are you talking about?

The plaque was, to say the least, a mild way to describe the man who had been Americas most vocal wellspring of antisemitism during the Great Depression. On Father Coughlins nationwide radio show, which ran from 1926-1940, he was a fearsome demagogue: parroting Nazi propaganda, telling his listeners that international bankers and Jewish Communists were plotting their demise, stating that the Jews deserved what happened to them at Kristallnacht, and encouraging the growth of the Christian Front, a pro-Nazi Christian militia that plotted to overthrow the U.S. government by attacking prominent Jews.

The proceeds from Coughlins media exploits (which included a political party and a fascist magazine called Social Justice) paid for the Shrines splendor, while ensuring that generations of Detroit Jews would stay far away from it.

Until now, that is. On Tuesday evening, the Shrine held an event titled The Jewish-Catholic Relationship: Past, Present, and Future, a series of historical lectures co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Detroit and the local Jewish Community Relations Council, known as the JCRC/AJC. Jews and Catholics alike filed into the pews to hear two academics, one Jewish and one Catholic, discuss the history of relations between the two faiths, most of it revolving around Catholic antisemitism.

The choice of venue was deliberate.

The Shrine of the Little Flower was founded by Father Charles Coughlin, who had an antisemitic radio show in the 1930s. (Jeff Kowalsky)

Theres so much polarization in our society, we need this reconciliation in general, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the Detroit JCRC/AJC, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Whats more powerful than for Jews and Catholics to come together in Father Coughlins church?

As a relatively new arrival to Detroit who lives in Huntington Woods, a heavily Jewish community that neighbors Shrine, Lopatin said he felt he had the right naivete to mount an event at the church inspired by the truth-and-reconciliation commissions formed in nations like South Africa and Rwanda following national traumas. Lopatin called the event a truth and reconciliation effort between Jews and Catholics acknowledging the painful history of the past while breaking new ground in local relationships.

Shortly after Lopatin moved to Detroit and became the JCRC/AJCs executive director in 2019, the group held the first such event at a different area church. A followup was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was interest from both parties in hosting an activity at Shrine, which staff at the archdiocese said had not held a Jewish outreach event in three decades not since the church publicly apologized for Coughlins antisemitism, in 1992.

Lopatin with Monsignor Patrick Halfpenny of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, May 31, 2022. (Jeff Kowalsky)

Father Coughlin was a force to be reckoned with in the 1930s. Getting that place built was a feat, David Conrad, coordinator of interfaith relations at the archdiocese, told JTA. But, he said, when you have to get our government and the Pope in Rome involved to shut down his views and his antisemitism, thats a stain on our history. Thats an unavoidable fact. And it has to be recognized.

The pairing of organizations at the head of Tuesdays event made for an interesting historical wrinkle: The Detroit JCRC/AJC was originally founded in 1937 as the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit, and one of its first orders of business was to publicly oppose Coughlins broadcasts as antisemitic. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Detroit supported and protected Coughlin for the first decade of his broadcasting career, until 1937, when the death of the areas bishop combined with Coughlins escalating bad press led the Vatican to appoint a new bishop, Ed Mooney, who worked more aggressively to control the Radio Priests rhetoric.

Coughlins name was rarely mentioned during the program itself, although Robert Fastiggi, a historian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, opened up his talk from the priests old dais by stating, Father Coughlin was antisemitic. He added that there remained elements of antisemitism in the Church today, before running through a history of Jewish-Catholic relations that climaxed with Pope Paul VIs 1965 reading of Nostra aetate, the papal declaration that Jews were not to blame for the death of Jesus Christ.

Levi Smith, a Jewish attendee at the event discussing The Jewish-Catholic Relationship at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Mich, inspects a plaque discussing the history of its antisemitic founder, Father Charles Coughlin, May 31, 2022. Smith later offered to help change the plaques wording, which he and other Jews said glazed over Coughlins antisemitism. (Jeff Kowalsky)

But during the Q&A section, Jewish attendee Levi Smith, vice president of a foundation devoted to the legacy of Detroit Jewish architect Albert Kahn, made a note of the venues history.

Speaking on behalf of myself and a lot of other people in our community, when we drive past the Shrine we get scared, Smith said. Because of Father Coughlin.

He asked if there were plans to change the wording on Shrines plaque and website to more accurately reflect Coughlins true nature, and offered to be part of any discussion on the subject: Lets sit down, lets talk, and lets come up with some improvements.

Alicia Chandler, past president of the Detroit JCRC/AJC and an advocate for interfaith relationships, delivers an opening prayer at The Jewish-Catholic Relationship: Past, Present and Future at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, May 31, 2022. (Jeff Kowalsky/JTA)

After the lectures ended, attendees were invited to take a guided tour of the church, which will mark its centennial in 2026. They were also invited to a dessert reception, which the churchs monsignor, Patrick Halfpenny, took care to note was kosher. (Shrines current rector, Rev. Joseph Horn, suffered a heart attack in January and has since been recuperating. He was not in attendance at Tuesdays event.)

As some of the Jews in attendance followed the tour guide, a Shrine parishioner named Bob Irwin approached Smith to tell him that there was a committee at the church reexamining its history, and Coughlins, in anticipation of its 100th anniversary.

The committee had already rewritten the plaques and were awaiting approval to mount them, Irwin said. The new history would more openly acknowledge Coughlins antisemitism and discuss the churchs efforts to assert its identity in the post-Coughlin years. Would Smith like to be a part of it?

Smith looked around at the churchs interior, at its high, arched ceilings and mounted artifacts of an antisemite who had once delivered his sermons to the world.

God, he said, brought us together.

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The Detroit church founded by antisemite Father Coughlin hosts an event on Jewish-Catholic relations - JTA News - Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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