It was the cold morning of Sunday, February 4, 1917, with snow flurries in the air.
The clock at the bedside of Monsignor Peter Masson, pastor of Allentown’s Sacred Heart Church had just chimed him awake. Perhaps he could already hear his sister and housekeeper, Kitty, stirring in the rectory’s kitchen. But Masson had other things on his mind than breakfast. At Mass that morning he was about to give one of the most difficult sermons of his priesthood.
Headlines were screaming that President Woodrow Wilson had decided to break all ties with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany over its unrestricted submarine warfare policy. If he did that, Masson surely suspected war with that country, the land of his birth, would follow. Some of his brothers might indeed have been fighting in the German army.
The congregation at Sacred Heart numbered many German and Austrian immigrants. But they were not Masson’s sole concern. He was also Vicar General of the foreign-born congregations of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia of which the Lehigh Valley’s Catholics were a part.
The Archdiocese included a large number of the 1,400,000 foreign-born foreign-speaking residents of eastern Pennsylvania. Over half a million of that number were under Masson’s care. Any statement he might make would clearly have an impact.
At least some among his parishioners had sons fighting in the German army. At World War I’s start in 1914, local newspapers reported that a large number of young foreign-born men from a variety of nations had received notices to join their regiments in Europe. They were swamping the local offices of steamship lines.
In 1915, one young man had written home to his family from the German side of the Western Front. His parents turned his letter over to the Morning Call which printed it in full. There was no political judgement directed at the soldier then.
But things changed rapidly over the next two years. Unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans, particularly the sinking of the British owned Cunard passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915 with the loss of 120 American lives caused a change in many minds.
The Germans protested that they had printed a large ad in New York newspapers that a war zone existed around the British islands. Those who traveled there on British ships risked their lives. “Anybody can commit suicide,” the German embassy replied. It was a response few Americans were in a mood to hear.
The sabotage of munitions at Black Tom in New York in 1916 and the discovery of other actions by German diplomats raised more concern.
Wilson ran for a second term in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War.” He won by a thin margin against Republican Charles Evans Hughes. Many east coast Republican voters, not waiting up for California returns to come in, went to bed thinking their candidate had won and were surprised the next morning.
Another change in attitudes came as Bethlehem Steel’s transformation into the second largest supplier of arms to the Allied cause. To get around U.S. neutrality laws, Charles Schwab had submarines sent in parts to Canada where they were assembled. Schwab and Winston Churchill, then in charge of the Royal Navy, became close friends. The Germans did not think it was particularly neutral of them. And many other local industries were profiting during the war as well.
Before the war many of the German immigrants had felt a certain amount of pride in the German Empire, the creation of this new dynamic nation out of a collection of feudal states.
Wilhelm II had a tendency to speak his mind a little too loudly and enjoyed challenging the British and the French, but that did not seem to particularly bother most Americans. The German ambassador, Count von Bernstorff, was popular with the Washington social set whether playing golf with the men or bridge with the ladies.
In 1910, former president Theodore Roosevelt had been selected to represent the U.S. government at the funeral of England’s King Edward VII. In black formal wear, he followed near the end of the procession of bemedaled uniformed crowned heads.
At the reception that followed the funeral, Kaiser Wilhelm sought Roosevelt out in order to guide Roosevelt as to whom he should meet. Seeing the former president headed for King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, a relative of Wilhelm and something of a royal joke in family circles, he came between them. “He is of no consequence,” the German emperor responded quickly guiding Roosevelt in another direction.
But since the start of World War I, the Kaiser had become less cordial to American presidents. Whatever Wilson’s hopes, the re-start of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany and the sinking of neutral American ships was too much.
Mon. Masson felt it was his duty to warn his fellow German immigrants where their duty lay between their former Fatherland and their new homeland.
When Masson walked out on to the altar at Sacred Heart, 1,500 faces were looking up at him. It is not known if he had informed the press beforehand, but it is clear reporters were there from the detailed coverage of what followed.
After reading the Gospel, Masson turned to his congregation for his sermon. Here is how the Allentown Leader, one of the 6 newspapers the city had at that time, covered it:
“He started with a prayer that all remain calm and then led them to remember never to forget the oath that they swore to the United States. He asked the members of the congregation to refrain from criticizing the government saying, ‘the government heads in Washington know what they are doing and what is best for our country.”
“Guard your tongue,” said Mon. Masson. “Weigh every word you speak before you speak it. Do not enter into any conferences and argue any cause. Be loyal to your adopted land. Although your heart may think of the Fatherland, you must not forget your oath to the United States.”
“You, who up to this time have remained loyal to the Fatherland, must immediately renounce that sympathy and transfer with all your heart, soul and strength your allegiance to the United States.”
“The monsignor than gave the congregation a comparison. He said when they married, they left their paternal roof. Their parents after marriage are like a second thought. The wife must be first. Thus, it must be with your Fatherland and your adopted country. The United States must come first.”
Obviously, this was a shortened form of Masson’s sermon. The newspaper noted that the congregation had listened in a profound silence. At its conclusion, the press recorded hearing several men sobbing deeply as they exited.
The local newspapers were unanimous in praise. “WONDERFUL SERMON BY MONSIGNOR MASSON; 1500 MOVED TO TEARS BY DIVINE’S PLEA THAT ALL BE LOYAL TO THE UNITED STATES,” read the headline in the Allentown Leader.
Of course, it is impossible to know how many were weeping over this appeal to their loyalty to America or how many were weeping on being asked to renounce the Fatherland. But the press noted that there was discussion outside the church after the Mass and most of it was in favor of Masson’s view.
For whatever reason, the Morning Call did not have a story about Masson’s sermon. However, it did report that on the following Monday the naturalization office was swamped with foreign-born males all wanting their naturalization papers. The previous weekly total of applicants numbered six a week.
The Call attributed it to a rumor running up and down immigrant communities on the east coast that in the event of war with Germany or Austria-Hungary, all foreign-born residents from those nations would have all their property confiscated including whatever money they had in the bank. Not true said the Wilson administration.
Then again maybe Masson’s sermon had something to do with it.