Ninety years ago, Father Matthew Smith launched the National Catholic Register in Denver.

But you should know the rest of his story. It is a tale of hardball politics, a rivalry with the Ku Klux Klan, fake nuns, attempted blackmail, business intrigue and even a bit of espionage.

Smith’s reporting faced retaliation not only from Klansmen—but from Catholic businessmen opposed to the Church’s pro-labor stand!

Msgr. Matthew Smith, Catholic Press Lord. Courtesy of Archdiocese of Denver.

Msgr. Matthew Smith, named “Catholic Press Lord” by Time Magazine. File Photo Courtesy Denver Catholic.

Father Smith, ordained in 1923 and named a monsignor in the 1930s, began as a lay journalist. He moved out west from his home in Altoona, Pa. and spent four months as a reporter for the Pueblo Chieftain before becoming editor of the Denver Catholic Register at the age of 22. While he aimed to modernize the paper, management decided not to use the editor’s name on letterheads, because previous editors had not lasted long.

How wrong they were!

Smith’s June 1960 obituary in the Denver Register takes on a legendary tone. It characterizes the Denver news scene of his time as “an age of blood and thunder journalism.” His was not the “weak and watery Catholic press to which a minimum of pious people had been wont to contribute.”

The Colorado of his time needed that thunder.

The Klan quickly rose to power in the mid-1920s, combining the power of fraternal associations with dark values that were anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Jewish, and anti-Catholic. They worked against Catholic education and even tried to ban sacramental wine for Mass.

Denver’s Pillar of Fire Church produced propaganda showing Klansmen chasing both St. Patrick and the snakes out of America. The Colorado Klan particularly attacked Irish Catholics, deeming them the “whiskey-soaked puppets of the Pope in Rome.”

The Klan burned crosses in front of Catholic churches and threatened to burn them down. Bishop Henry Tihen, Bishop of Denver from 1917-1931, Smith’s publisher, took the threats in stride, suggesting the Klansman target “one or two churches we would like to get rid of.”

In September 1925, a cross was burned at St. Anne’s Church in the northwest suburb of Arvada. In response, 10,000 Denverites marched from the Jesuits’ Regis University in north Denver to the Shrine of St. Anne’s to protest the Klan.

As the Denver Catholic recounts, many touring speakers hosted by the Klan pretended to be ex-priests and ex-nuns, “experts” about the Catholic Church and the reputed depravity of its priests.

The worst among these was “Sister Angel,” a 58-year-old who said she was a Franciscan nun in Massachusetts for a year in her 20s. Her talk was deemed by the Denver Catholic Register to be the “lewdest lecture ever given in the history of Denver.” The paper refrained from going into detail, for fear of being jailed for publishing obscenities!

His reporting and editorial work aimed to counter fake nuns and fake news. It drew retaliation, as his Denver Catholic Register obituary recounts:

The Klan took such a trimming from him that fanatics in it planted a woman at the St Rose Residence, his home, to trap him. Although it was known that she was a Klan spy and that she bad ransacked his apartment looking through his papers, he instructed and baptized her as a Catholic before she left St Rose’s.

On another occasion, he was summoned on a fake KKK sick call, but went to a hotel room accompanied by his husky brother Hubert at a time when the woman did not expect him. They found her dressed in evening clothes ready to go out. She was not even a Catholic. The obvious motive had been to set a trap for him in order to involve him in a scandal.

Suspected Klansmen even tried to run over Father Smith in their cars. But their organization quickly fizzled after only a few years of influence.

He had foreseen this in 1924, when a Klan-friendly candidate won office as Denver mayor, he had written:

Such a movement cannot last… Founded on hate, which is naturally repulsive to the human heart; built on principles which must inevitably bring discord among its own members, it may get a temporary hearing … but the air of America is too friendly to permit such a disease to last.

In the 1940s Smith said that former Klan leaders would later come to him and ask how many spies he had inside the organization. His response was that he had no spies, just good sources.

The Klan was not the only story. We should take into account Father Smith’s Catholic opponents!

Once, a Catholic businessman who did not like to see the Catholic press becoming so Catholic objected to a friend that Father Smith was too ‘damn’ clean to trip up; that he had had him shadowed but there was no vice in which he could be trapped! The friend immediately reported the conversation to Father Smith, who relayed it to Bishop Tihen. The veteran bishop took chuckling satisfaction in watching the proofs of his young editor’s power.

Such was the power of good journalism. It is almost like a tale out of Hollywood.

The Smith obituary continues:

“Smith was showing himself too Catholic to suit a little group of businessmen, members of the Church who thought Pope Leo XIII had made a fool of himself when he wrote Rerum Novarum (an influential work on the faults of both capitalism and socialism.)

“Champion of Catholic Press in U.S.” Denver Catholic Register, June 16, 1960

Smith’s obituary recounts the high drama of his life.


“These men tried to bribe Matthew Smith to get out of the Catholic editorial field. They offered a huge price.

Bishop Tihen was then in charge of the diocese and told the young editor that he was one of a group of bishops approached by wealthy corporations of the nation that offered to pay off every single debt on Catholic parishes and institutions if the Church would adopt an anti-labor stand.”

Now that is a topic for further investigation! John Podesta wasn’t the first to conspire for a “Catholic Spring”!

Father Smith’s obituary in the Register says he “made a violent crop of enemies, some of whom printed outrageous libels against him in other Catholic publications. (Mostly privately owned.) He refused to defend himself against these slurs, on the principle that his friends would not believe them, and he could safely leave the enlightenment of the rest in the hands of God.”

In 1931, Archbishop Vehr and Monsignor Smith established the Register College of Journalism to train young editors.

The Register system peaked in the 1950s, with 35 diocesan newspapers and a national edition. This was a combined circulation of 850,000 weekly.

In December 1954 Time Magazine called Msgr. Smith a “Catholic press lord” who ran “the biggest and most successful chain of religious newspapers in the world.” He met three Popes in private audience. He was a friend of the famous Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, and a personal guest at the cardinal’s investiture in Rome.

At the 1953 gathering of the Catholic Press Association, he was presented with a plaque saying that as an editor “he has fought bigotry with courage and intelligence and in him the Ku Klux Klan had one of its most effective adversaries.” The association praised his “prophetic vision, pioneer energy, and devotion to Church and country (that) have created the largest Catholic newspaper system in the world, and won for him an unparalleled place in Catholic journalism.”

His hometown remembers him still. The priest is one of many 1950s-era journalists commemorated in a mural in the basement poker room of the Denver Press Club, the longest continuously existing press club in the country. It’s just across the street from where the Klan’s Grand Dragon had an office in the 1920s.

His legacy continues. In 2017, the same Catholic Press Association named National Catholic Register its Newspaper of the Year. (Perhaps you should subscribe today.)

As a working Catholic journalist in Denver, it is an honor and a privilege to be part of the same EWTN Global Catholic Network as the Register. May Father Smith continue to inspire good journalism today!

Further Reading:

“Irish Denver” by Dennis Gallagher, Thomas Noel and James Walsh. Arcadia Publishing, 2012.
“Champion of Catholic Press in U.S.” Denver Catholic Register, June 16, 1960.