Forget Town Hall. It might reasonably be argued that for a time in the mid-20th century, the real locus of political power in Provincetown was upstairs in this building, in the hall owned and used by the Walter Welsh Council (Council No. 2476) of the Knights of Columbus, and by the affiliated St. Peter’s Club. This was where the leaders of the Portuguese Roman Catholic community sat. And where they sat, there was the head of the table. For instance, when the Knights of Columbus publicly appealed to every business in town to close for three hours on the afternoon of Good Friday — as they did each year — it’s a safe bet that most proprietors complied, no matter their religious beliefs, if for no other reason than to keep the custom of Catholic shoppers.
The story of the Knights of Columbus in Provincetown begins on an especially painful note, concerning what may have been the most shameful incident in town history: the burning of a cross outside St. Peter’s Church in the early 1920s by the local Ku Klux Klan. It’s an episode so fraught, so unhappily symbolic of the rift that existed between the Yankees and Portuguese, and so likely to offend living descendants on both sides that it is still discussed in lowered voices 90 years later — if it is discussed at all.
For the same reason, there’s very little about it in most historical accounts, though I hope to learn more. Sources don’t even agree on when it occurred. Few, in fact, try to be specific. I Am Provincetown sets the incident in July 1920. In Provincetown: A History of Artists and Renegades in a Fishing Village (2011), Debra Lawless says that a 14-foot cross was burned near the Winslow Street water tank on the night of 11 August 1925, and that a second cross was burned in front of St. Peter’s.
Certainly, there was a strong anti-foreign and anti-Catholic impulse behind the rise of the Klan in areas of New England with large Portuguese or French Canadian populations. The Portuguese “had big families where the New Englanders had not and so they were bound to prevail,” Mary Heaton Vorse wrote in Time and the Town (1942).
And as for Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and Cape Verde, an unhealthy dose of racism must have been added to the witches’ brew, for it’s clear in even “benign” contemporary writings that race consciousness existed. Take just a couple of lines from Alma Martin’s otherwise innocuous poem, The Heavenly Town:
From far-off seas
Their ships in bay
Pass time of day …
Dark laughing boys,
Dark smiling girls,
With here and there a native son,
With blue eyes full of Yankee fun.
“The latent animosity of a dying dominant race, for the more fertile race which is supplanting it, flared up bitterly,” Vorse wrote. The need for an organized response was clear.
And the Knights of Columbus was an ideal vehicle: a lay organization that had been founded some 40 years earlier in New Haven to defend Catholics’ civil and religious rights, among other purposes. The Provincetown chapter, or council, was organized 17 June 1923, as Council No. 2476. Judge Walter Welsh (±1869-1933) was among the founders, and served as the council’s first grand knight. Seven months after his death in 1933, the council was named in his honor. “It listed almost all of the men of the parish on its rolls,” said the centennial history of the Church of St. Peter the Apostle (1974).
Given the extent of their numerical advantage, the Portuguese — once they were effectively organized — became a potent force against nativist intransigence, occasionally leaning too far in the other direction. “The Portuguese retaliated by attempting, and with success, to choose selectmen and tax assesors and to see that the schools, so far as possible, had Catholic teachers,” Vorse wrote. “Some of the larger Portuguese employers refused to hire anyone who did not belong to the Knights of Columbus.”
Critical to this effort was the St. Peter’s Club, which is actually the nominal owner of 277 Commercial Street. The centennial history said:
After the burning of the cross, the St. Peter’s Club was organized, made up of all the members of the Knights of Columbus. Politics could not be discussed at the Knights of Columbus meetings, but when their meetings adjourned, a meeting of the St. Peter’s Club was called to order and politics were in order. … Father [John A.] Silvia [pastor of St. Peter’s] and Father [James A.] Coyle spoke at the meetings of the St. Peter’s Club and explained the political facts of life to the members. The Portuguese of Provincetown were organized and they registered to vote, many for the first time. A slate of officers were put up for the 1925 election and practically the entire Town Hall was cleaned out and replaced by members of the St. Peter’s Club.
In an especially sweet victory, Frank A. Days, a leading member of the Knights of Columbus, defeated a candidate in the school committee race who “was rumored to have been involved in the burning of the cross.” In Life Among the Cape-Enders — a mix of fact, fiction and utter fantasy — Harry Kemp seems to hint strongly at his identity when he refers to a hood being ripped off a Klansman’s head “to reveal general practitioner Dr. Oliver Sanctus.”
The Knights of Columbus purchased the building in 1926 from Mary Silva and transferred ownership in 1948 to the St. Peter’s Club. Storefronts in the building wrap all the way around and along the approach to Fisherman’s Wharf, where some of the spaces are numbered 277A. The largest storefront, now occupied by the Shor home furnishings store, used to be the Stormy Harbor Café.