They passed themselves off as nuns and monks—Catholics who had fled convents and quit monasteries.
They spun lurid tales of degradation and sexual promiscuity they allegedly had witnessed.
Their actual identities?
Members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Anyone who would listen, predominantly in Anaheim.
Nearly a century ago.
The history of Catholicism in Orange County includes the very colorful period from 1922 to 1925 when a group mostly associated with terrorizing the South after the Civil War with its hatred of blacks gained a stronghold in Anaheim.
But unlike the white-hooded and violent members of the South’s KKK bent on restoring “white rule” in the former states of the Confederacy, Klansmen who briefly rose to prominence and power in Orange County were members of a revivalist offshoot who concentrated their efforts in the political sphere and were non-violent and law-abiding citizens, according to historical documents at the Anaheim Public Library’s Heritage Center.
These card-carrying KKK members—estimated to number, at their peak, about 300 in Anaheim, when the city had 10,000 residents—weren’t so much filled with hatred of Catholics as they were determined to spread their fundamentalist Protestant vision of society, which included being anti-alcohol at a time when predominantly Catholic Anaheim had a long tradition of manufacturing beer and wine.
“It had to do with politics and alcohol, mostly,” retired Anaheim Police Department Sgt. Rick Martinez, a city history buff, says of the role of the KKK in the early 1920s in Orange County.
But there certainly was no shortage of anti-Catholic activity by the Ku Klux Klan in Anaheim and a few other nearby cities—Fullerton, La Habra and Huntington Beach—between 1922 and 1925, according to historical documents.
The most notorious incident was the placement of a fiery cross in front of the main entrance to St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim.
And in another incident, members of the KKK were suspected of effectively sealing up St. Boniface by thoroughly tarring the church’s doors and keyholes, according to an account in the July 1965 issue of Orange County Illustrated.
Christopher N. Cocoltchos, in his 1979 doctoral dissertation in history at UCLA, says white Protestant KKK members disliked Catholicism for its alleged hierarchical control of thought and behavior.
Cocoltchos interviewed a KKK member who told him, “I don’t like the Catholic religion. I don’t like the idea of taking everything through the pope… Why not go straight through (God) Himself—which we (Protestants) learned to do. It’s more appealing to me than the way Catholics do it.”
Monsignor Michael Heher, pastor of St. Anne Church in Seal Beach, notes that he’s far too young to personally know about the KKK in Orange County. He shared a story, however, about the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine’s Academy in Anaheim.
Shortly after the sisters first arrived from Germany at St. Catherine’s, the KKK paid them a visit one night, according to the story Monsignor Heher relates.
Not knowing who the visitors were, the sisters presumed their flaming crosses meant they were some sort of welcoming party. So they opened up their crates and pulled out their china and made them coffee.
“The KKK didn’t know what to make of that, and left,” says Monsignor Heher.
The Klan rose to prominence in Anaheim with the arrival, in June 1922, of the Rev. Leon C. Myers, a transplant from Oregon who took charge of the First Christian Church in Anaheim and spread his Klan agenda starting with a men’s Bible study.
Myers sponsored “bitter” anti-Catholic propaganda during his pastorate, according to the Orange County Illustrated story.
And the Orange Daily News, in a May 11, 1925 article, quotes Meyers saying, “The Ku Klux Klan is the only hope for America.”
Myers and his supporters were able to secure, in 1924, four of five seats on Anaheim’s equivalent of a city council, the Board of Trustees. And by then the Anaheim Police Department had 10 KKK members, including the chief of police, Bert Moody.
Throughout Anaheim, signs with the acronym KIGY were posted, for “Klansman, I Greet You.”
An estimated 20,000 people—mostly from the Inland Empire and other parts of California—flooded what is now Pearson Park in Anaheim for a huge KKK rally in July 1924 that was peaceful but that sparked a tide of resentment that ultimately would lead to the Klan’s downfall in Orange County, historical documents show.
One of the main groups that helped defeat the Klan in Anaheim was the Knights of Columbus, which worked together with other community organizations to coordinate efforts to remove Klansmen from positions of power.
A special election on Feb. 3, 1925 ousted four members of the Ku Klux Klan from the Anaheim council. Moody then quit and the other KKK officers were fired.
And soon the KKK vanished from Anaheim and Orange County.