On a blue-sky Sunday with temperature in the high sixties, Alice and I drove from Detroit along old State Highway 1 and from a half-mile we could see the enormous structure. Appearing like an ungainly block of granite the great pile soared over 100 feet into the air and featured a huge figure of the crucified Christ cut into its face.The tower, with the word “Charity” incised over an entry in bold art-deco letters was the product of the most influential Catholic preacher America had ever known – and probably the most controversial.
Charles Edward Coughlin was born of Irish heritage, the son of a Great Lakes’ seaman and a Canadian mother. Ordained a priest in 1915, he taught high school and college, and worked for a brief time in parish ministry before joining the Detroit Diocese. In 1926 he was appointed pastor of a small semi-rural parish. Shortly thereafter Coughlin obtained funds from his bishop to use the fledgling technology of radio as a vehicle for countering anti-Catholic prejudice. He began explaining the basic tenets of Catholic faith in programs directed at children. His beautiful speaking voice, and his lucid explanations earned him a growing radio audience.
On the eve of the Great Depression, Coughlin conceived the idea of building the tower. When completed in 1931, the structure featured five floors of offices leading upward by a spiral staircase to his sixth story office. It was from this podium in the sky that he delivered his Sunday afternoon “Golden Hour of the Little Flower” to over twenty radio stations serving the large metropolitan areas of the Midwest and East Coast. In time, his audience was estimated to be as high as 40 million listeners.
Coughlin’s radio messages spoke to the working class poor, down and out farmers, and other victims of the great depression. Listeners turning through the dial on Sunday afternoon were captivated by his impressive radio voice and articulate explanations and his weekly broadcasts became the center point of their week. They responded with thousands of letters a week containing small donations that required a force of several dozen secretaries to handle the volume of mail.
Meanwhile, Coughlin had opened up a relief center in storefronts along nearby Highway 1 where large amounts of clothing and food were being distributed daily to what he described as “God’s poor.” As an early champion of labor’s right to organize and a more equitable distribution of wealth, he was idolized by masses of German and Irish workingmen and women. An appearance in Madison Square Garden, though opposed by New York Cardinal Patrick Hayes, drew 23,000 supporters. By the mid nineteen thirties, Coughlin was hailed as the “great emancipator,” and was considered by some as the second most influential man in America after President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Throughout his radio career he spoke with the dogmatic certitude of an old-line Catholic pastor serenely confident that Christ, the head of whose massive statue partially blocked the west-facing window of his tower office was always at his side. He railed against Communism and social injustice. But core aspects of Christian spirituality such as prayer, belief, sin and forgiveness, were virtually never mentioned. The one exception to his distancing himself from more conventional Catholicism was in the realm of religious art and architecture. Tapping into his large donor base he as joined to his tower an enormous church with a capacity of 3000 worshipers, a jewel of art deco design, built in the form of an octagon centered around the high altar. Here Coughlin celebrated Mass and administered the sacraments to a large congregation.
He had his detractors. In 1932 Cardinal O’Connell of Boston forcefully attacked Coughlin, declaring: “You can’t begin speaking about the rich, or making sensational accusations against banks and bankers, or uttering demagogic stuff to the poor. You can’t do it for the Church is for all.” Later, the Vatican sought to silence him, but fearful of a backlash among American Catholics and aware of Coughlin’s support by his local bishop, was hesitant to condemn him outright. The priest in the tower was unswayed.
Before entering the priesthood, Coughlin had considered entering politics and in the early 1930s re-engaged this ambition, endorsing Franklin D. Roosevelt, and praising the New Deal as “Christ’s deal.” By 1936 he had broken with President Roosevelt and ran a slate of candidates for the US President. His effort to unseat the President failed miserably. Coughlin’s candidate for president received less than a million votes.
Fr. Coughlin’s Basilica of the Little Flower wears its years well. It hosts an active Christian community that provides well-mounted liturgies and an impressive variety of religious and social action programs. But the mystifying force of the radio priest also lingers. Above the great sanctuary, hovers the elaborate polychrome pulpit from which Fr. Coughlin delivered his Sunday sermons. The bas-reliefs and selection of saints rendered in mosaic and marble bear the names of Coughlin’s family members. The cornerstone reads in “in the year of the Lord, 1933.” But the costliness of the artwork seems strangely at odds with a depression-era Detroit in which many of the Catholic parishes struggled to avoid bankruptcy. One senses that in the elaborate fabric of the basilica there may be too much Coughlin and too little of the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
In his final years as a national figure, the unbending certitude that characterized the priest, in his dealings with both his parishioners and his national audience proved to be his undoing.
After a short absence from the national stage, Coughlin launched an ambitious new project: a well-produced illustrated weekly newsmagazine. Entitled “Social Justice” the periodical amassed over a million readers who eagerly read his weekly column “From the Tower.” But now darker subtexts came to the fore. Coughlin had become convinced that much of the world’s economic, and social evils were the products of an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers. ” Complaining about the persecution of Catholics in Russian and Spain, he showed little sympathy for the assaults again the Jewish community in Germany. He espoused isolationism, arguing that American had no business involving itself with European affairs. As the world lurched toward World War II, his message rang increasingly hollow, and his popularity waned. His increasingly anti-Semitic statements combined with his opposition to American involvement in the conflict led to the end of his career as a national figure.
In 1940 he ended his radio broadcasts. Two years, under threats of court action, possible jail for publishing seditious articles, and threats from a new bishop to remove him from priestly ministry, his magazine ceased publication. “I could have bucked the Government and won, — the people would have supported me,” Coughlin affirmed many years later. “But it was my duty to follow, for disobedience is a great sin.”
For most of the next thirty years he served as pastor to his large parish, avoiding interviews, and shunning public contact. He no longer dreamed great dreams or sought to change the world. Summing up the man, historian Derek Finn described him as “bigoted and charming confounding critics to the end.” He never retracted his more controversial teachings. When asked in 1970 what he would do differently, he said, “I would do it the same.” At the time of his death eight years later, most American Catholics had never heard the name of the once famous “radio priest.”