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Evangelists, Ku Klux Klan sympathizers tied to church sacrilege

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Phil Egan

It’s not often you run across a reference to the hateful Ku Klux Klan in Sarnia. But there it was, in a 1924 Canadian Observer article about the desecration of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church.

After two men from Indiana were arrested and charged with the crime, a “freelance evangelist” named L. J. King knelt on the floor of a south-end Sarnia store and, at an impromptu prayer service, offered up a blessing for the anti-Catholic and hooded terrorists of the Klan.

Religious prejudice was rampant across North America at the time and Sarnia wasn’t immune.

Revivalist brothers George and Roma Garner hailed from Muncie, Indiana. Together with King, the Garner brothers had been holding revival meetings in Port Huron, where their anti-Catholic rants had stirred up trouble.

On Aug. 18, a car containing the well-known evangelists was seen parked suspiciously in front of St. Joseph’s Church, then located on South Vidal Street (the current St. Joseph’s on Stuart Street didn’t open until four years later).

The Garner Brothers were later accused of entering the church, taking a tabernacle key from the sacristy, removing 12 consecrated hosts, and taking a benediction host and the pyx containing it from the altar before fleeing.

A worried parishioner took down the vehicle’s licence number and contacted Father T. J. McCarthy, who was attending a local baseball game. Father McCarthy hurried back to the church, discovered the sacrilege, and notified police.

With the licence number of the escaping car, police quickly arrested the Garner brothers and charged them with the crime.

The trial in Sarnia’s police court on Aug. 26 was a sensation. Supporters of the two brothers, including Masons in polished boots and braces, and Orangemen in coloured sashes, added to the clamour in the full courtroom. A rush of men, women and children scurried forward to shake the hands of the evangelists and wish them well.

The brothers had been heard claiming the right to enter any Catholic church “at any time” to gather “evidence” of the Papists’ supposedly bizarre practices.

His Lordship Justice H.E. Rose presided at the trial, with Colonel E.S. Wigle of Windsor as special Crown counsel and A. Weir, K.C., defending the Garner Brothers.

The jury needed just one hour and forty minutes to render a verdict — not guilty.

Whether the verdict was due to the temper of the times or the fact nobody had actually witnessed the theft, the Garners and their supporters took their place in one of the colourful tales of old Sarnia.

 

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