Less than a month later, three men try to blow up St. Mary’s Catholic church in Barrie.
Total of five burning crosses in front of 6,000 spectators…judge sees the bombing as a “foolish Hallowe’en escapade”.
Ku Klux Klan
As a community, Barrie was never wracked by continuing ethnic, religious, or sectarian violence. For the most part, any intolerance was neither greater nor worse than in any number of southern Ontario towns. This made the events of May and June 1926 stand out as unusual.
On Saturday night, May 22, 1926, thousands of curious Barrieites watched hundreds of the white supremacy organization, the Ku Klux Klan of Kanada, raise a fiery cross in a field at the north end of Toronto Street. The Klansmen had arrived from all over central Ontario for the afternoon’s speeches. The evening saw “a large class of candidates from many parts of the province…initiated into the order.” Speakers included the Rev. Dr. C. Lewis Fowler, Imperial Secretary of the Klan, who spoke of the “supremacy in the land of the white, Gentile, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon people.” The evening’s highlight was the burning of five crosses before a crowd of up to 6,000 spectators. The Advance captured the scene:
The field tops the highest promontory of the circle of hills protecting Barrie from the north. And from it the 83-foot-high fiery cross shone like a beacon over Barrie and Allandale and the surrounding countryside. It was, in fact, visible for miles across Kempenfeldt Bay. Four lesser crosses and a flood of light from the automobiles added to the blaze from the great cross, provided sufficient illumination for the weird scene.
The tone of the newspaper’s report is one of subdued embarrassment. There was no editorial on the Klan’s visit, except to say that: “It is reported that some citizens have been double barricading their doors every night since the Ku Klux Klan meeting here in Barrie.” Later, it carried the opinion in the Newmarket Herald: “The Ku Klux Klan celebration at Barrie on a recent Sunday is what might be termed a doubtful distinction.
Within weeks, the “doubtful distinction” descended into the realm of the dubious, if not infamous. About 11:45 p.m. on Thursday, June 10, someone tried to blow up St. Mary’s Roman Catholic church on Mulcaster Street. Within a week, William Skelly, William Butler, and Clare D. Lee were behind bars. The Advance reported that: “Various theories are advanced by local citizens as to the cause of the explosion in St. Mary’s church. The best of feeling had always prevailed among the religious bodies in town, and all are working in harmony for the common good.” For his part, Skelly, an unemployed Irish veteran, implicated the KKK. The group vehemently denied the charge.
Skelly, Butler, and Lee were tried in October 1926. Each was found guilty and sentenced to five, four, and three years in Kingston penitentiary respectively. Evidence during the trial showed that Skelly had fallen in with local members of the KKK. Looking to make a point, a plan was hatched to blow up the Champlain monument in Orillia. Lots were drawn and the deed fell to Skelly, who was unable to obtain a car. Lee and Butler then counseled him to blow up St. Mary’s instead. In sentencing butler, Justice Logie explained that he gave a lesser period in jail because “I feel in my mind that this was done in a spirit of bravado, more like a foolish Hallowe’en escapade.” Both the Advance and the Orillia Packet and Times agreed that the outrage only served to damage the KKK’s cause. As the Orillia paper put it, all that “Skelly, the Barrie dynamiter…succeeded in doing was to blow up the Ku Klux Klan.”
— Beautiful Barrie: The City and Its People, Su Murdoch, BES Rudachyk and KH Schick, 2005, p.218-9.
Here is a description of a 1917 attempt to burn St. Mary’s church down.