A 1922 Catholic Sentinel story announces start of what would become Oregon Catholic Press.
A 1922 Catholic Sentinel story announces start of what would become Oregon Catholic Press.

In 1922 Archbishop Alexander Christie woke up after election day to find Oregonians had voted to kill the state’s Catholic schools. The archbishop, who had spent his career championing Catholic education, refused to give up. He reached out to the National Catholic Welfare Conference and asked them to challenge the School Bill in court. He asked the Knights of Columbus to form a committee to monitor the activities of the new Ku Klux Klan-dominated Oregon Legislature. And, together with local priests, Archbishop Christie founded the Catholic Truth Society of Oregon to fight misinformation and discrimination by educating Catholics and non-Catholics alike about the faith.

The society, eventually renamed Oregon Catholic Press, would go on to acquire the Catholic Sentinel, publish the most widely distributed missal programs in the U.S., and become one of the leading publishers of Catholic music and liturgical resources in the world.

The early history of this Portland-based non-profit was shaped by efforts to defend Catholic education in Oregon.

Anti-Catholic prejudice and misinformation flourished in the lead-up to the 1922 election. The KKK had become increasingly influential in Oregon by taking advantage of anti-immigrant sentiment in Astoria, fear of labor disputes in Tillamook, and anti-elitism in Portland. Following World War I, many Oregonians were seeking answers to their struggles, and KKK-endorsed politicians offered Oregonians a wealth of scapegoats, including Black people, immigrants, communists, Jews and Catholics. KKK leaders convinced some members of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Oregon to sponsor the nativist School Bill, which required all children ages 8 to 16 to attend public school. Advocates claimed the schools were non-sectarian and would take children from diverse backgrounds and create united citizens. In reality, the bill would have starved Oregon’s private schools of their pupils. Especially affected were Catholic academies, the largest network of private education in the state.

Defenders of religious liberty and private schooling fought back. Archbishop Christie organized the Catholic Civic Rights Association, which published a pamphlet that refuted the main arguments in favor of the School Bill. The Jewish League for Preservation of American Ideals took out full page ads criticizing the School Bill for religious discrimination.

A group of young Catholic men, including one priest, snuck into the parking lot of a large KKK meeting to copy license plate numbers and expose KKK members’ real world identities. When a policeman asked what they were doing, they carried out a feint, diverting police by reporting that some Catholics had snuck inside to infiltrate the KKK meeting.

Holy Names Mother Mary Flavia, the superior of St. Mary’s Academy, wrote letters to known KKK members urging them to drop their support of the School Bill. She cut business ties with Klansmen doing trade with St. Mary’s.

By election day, School Bill opponents outspent bill supporters 4 to 1. They still lost. The School Bill campaign played on nasty stereotypes about “the other,” including canards about Catholics. The Oregon KKK published a pamphlet depicting Episcopalian, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, and Catholic religious leaders setting fire to a public school building. Fake ads made to look as if they came from a Catholic group played on fears that Catholics were disloyal Americans. The sham write-ups told Catholics that religion comes before citizenship and that Protestants were heretics. Real Catholics responded by taking out an ad disavowing the phony spots, but the damage had been done. Most of the major papers either didn’t speak out against the School Bill, or didn’t do so until the election was close, either because they feared the KKK or didn’t oppose the bill, which passed, 115,506 to 103,685. Of the 241,267 who voted in the election that fall, 22,000 left the School Bill section blank, most likely because they were confused.

The election revealed that many Oregonians hated, feared, or simply didn’t understand Catholics. In response, The Catholic Truth Society set about to educate Catholics and non-Catholics about the church and its charitable and educational institutions. Under the leadership of the bespectacled Father Charles Smith, the society’s first projects included convincing the Oregonian newspaper to publish a weekly “Catholic Question Box” to educate Oregon Protestants about Catholicism. The society also hired speakers who traveled Oregon, addressing listeners in packed venues. In 1925, the society printed and distributed a quarter million pamphlets about the church to 25 states, the Philippine islands and parts of Canada.

Meanwhile, the Sisters of the Holy Names partnered with Hill Military Academy to challenge the bill in court, eventually winning the 1925 U.S. Supreme Court case Pierce v. Society of Sisters that to this day protects private schools.

As the School Bill fight faded into history, the society took on more ambitious, long-term communications projects. In 1928, they acquired the Catholic Sentinel, which had been the newspaper for Oregon Catholics since 1870 and continues to be one of the most award-winning diocesan newspapers in the United States. In 1934, the Catholic Truth Society made Catholic history by publishing “My Sunday Missal.” The missal presented an English translation of each Sunday’s liturgy so that congregants could follow along with the Latin Mass. It grew in popularity, and by the early 1940s was being distributed throughout the U.S.

In 1980, Truth Society leaders, who had seen their organization go from an information service organization to one of the most trusted publishers of Catholic music and liturgical resources in the world, changed the name to Oregon Catholic Press.

OCP’s projects reflected changes in the needs of the U.S. Catholic community. In 1982 OCP published the first U.S. Spanish-language hymnal, “Canticos de Gracias y Alabanza.” In 2009, OCP published “Thánh Ca Dân Chúa,” the first Vietnamese hymnal in the U.S. Today, OCP supports parish communities through the Parish Grants program, a web-based liturgy planning program liturgy.com, and the extensive liturgical and musical materials.

Archbishop Christie once said, “I shall build schools first or I shall have an empty cathedral twenty years from now.” In that same spirit, OCP continues to nourish the future through today’s Catholic communities.