Fr. John Francis Conoley is the founder of Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Florida. His story is one of conversion to Catholicism and tragic heroism in its defense. The only child of Frank Hamilton Conoley and Jeannie Kilpatrick, Conoley was raised an Episcopalian, attended the University of Florida, and became a Catholic on August 28, 1905, at the age of 21. Fr. Conoley received a degree in sacred theology from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and was ordained a priest on March 19, 1915, by the Right Reverend Michael J. Curley, the new bishop of St. Augustine. Fr. Conoley was appointed pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jacksonville.Bishop Curley achieved national attention for his out-spoken opposition to anti-Catholic prejudice, which had begun to appear in the South after 1910. Publications such as the Jeffersonian Magazine and The Menace succeeded in exploiting the widespread fear of Catholics, particularly in rural Florida communities. Father Conoley answered with a thirteen-page article titled, “The Present Position of Catholics in Florida” in the June 22, 1917, issue of The Catholic Mind, a national Catholic publication.
In World War I, Fr. Conoley entered the Chaplain Corps on August 7, 1918. He was discharged in 1919 with the rank of major in the army reserve.
Upon his return to Florida, Father Conoley was assigned to St. Patrick’s Church in Gainesville. His mission was to establish a Catholic ministry to students at the University of Florida, with the full knowledge and approbation of Bishop Curley. At this time, only a few dozen Gainesville citizens identified themselves as Catholics and ten students at the University of Florida called themselves Catholics. Fr. Conoley established a warm friendship with University president and prominent Baptist layman, Albert Alexander Murphree.
President Murphree was encouraging Christian denominations to build campus student centers which would have dormitories close to UF. This would preclude the University from having to pay for construction of new dorms. Bishop Patrick Barry, who replaced Bishop Curley in 1922, explained to Fr. Conoley that the diocese could not afford the project and reminded him that many Catholics did not want their children studying at secular/public universities. Bishop Barry approved the creation of a Newman Club at UF but told Fr. Conoley he was “on his own” securing financing for anything else.
Fr. Conoley persuaded Mrs. Mary A. Crane, a St. Patrick’s parishioner, who spent summers in Gainesville, to underwrite his project. On June 2, 1921, Julia Turner put her two lots across from UF up for sale. Fr. Conoley encouraged Mrs. Crane to give him the $1,587.00 purchase price. Fr. Conoley wrote the bishop telling him about the purchase of property and asking him to approve Fr. Conoley’s plan to build a $25,000.00 chapel and dormitory across from the University. Mrs. Crane contributed a total of $40,000.00, and Crane Hall was dedicated on the site of our church and student center on May 28, 1923. The first students moved into the dormitory that fall. Among these students was Stephen C. O’Connell as well as future Florida Governor, Fuller Warren, who was not a Catholic. When he became governor, Warren invited Fr. Jeremiah P. O’Mahoney to give the benediction at his inauguration on January 4, 1949.
In subsequent years the Ku Klux Klan would accuse Fr. Conoley of “…using Crane Hall to seduce….” students to Roman Catholicism. More sinister allegations would follow.
Fr. Conoley created a drama club on campus known as the Masqueraders, the forerunner of the Florida Players. The group was extremely successful and traveled the state in 1922, playing to enthusiastic audiences in “…Gainesville, Ocala, Tampa, Ybor City, Lakeland, Orlando, Palatka, St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and Quincy….” During Fr. Conoley’s first three years in Gainesville, Catholic enrollment at UF increased from ten to forty students.
Fr. Conoley had become a well recognized and respected figure in the Gainesville community. A charter member of the Gainesville Kiwanis Club, he gave a brief presentation there on September 12, 1923. Fr. Conoley spoke on behalf of UF students whose parents could not afford to pay much of their college expenses. Some could pay nothing. Fr. Conoley’s presentation to this community service organization was to raise awareness of these students who had to support themselves in school and to ask the Gainesville businessmen to assist these college students in finding work. The Gainesville Daily Sun picked up the presentation and billed Fr. Conoley as a “fluent and gripping speaker.” A second Sun article encouraged town and gown cooperation just as Fr. Conoley had imagined it should be.
The local newspaper’s enthusiasm for this Catholic priest caught the interest of local Klansmen who were on another hate campaign against anyone or any group they considered disloyal or anti-American. The Klan created fliers and left them on the doorsteps in several Gainesville neighborhoods. The approach was the old one: it accused Fr. Conoley of subverting the faith of Protestant students in order to convert them to Catholicism. The flier was signed, Alachua Klan No. 46, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Pensacola News reprinted the flier and defended Fr. Conoley, including a statement that the Gainesville community was outraged over the Klan’s actions and the flier. There is no evidence of any such outrage in the official record of the incident. The Gainesville Sun never mentioned anything about it. It was only a matter of time before the “charges” against Fr. Conoley were officially reported to UF President Murphree. They were (i) A Catholic priest controls the president; (ii) A Catholic priest controls the dramatic club; (iii) the priest was proselyting boys to the Catholic faith; and (iv) courses in the Catholic religion were required to earn a degree from the University of Florida. To his credit, President Murphree answered all charges and defended Fr. Conoley.
Pressure on Murphree began to build, however, and he received several letters promising that Murphree himself would be investigated. The Board of Control was receiving complaints about Murphree, and board president P. K. Yonge wrote Murphree, “The board has taken no action but has asked me to write you personally…suggesting Father Connolly [sic] should not be so prominent in student activities….” With this letter from the Board of Control, Murphree was convinced to abandon his support for Fr. Conoley and remove him from involvement with the Masqueraders. The Florida Alligator, which had always advertised Masqueraders auditions, was silent on all issues related to Fr. Conoley. The paper never questioned his leaving the Masqueraders or his “exile from campus.” “The State Board of Control passed a regulation banning all members of the Roman Catholic clergy from any state-supported college campus under its jurisdiction.”
This condemnation of Fr. Conoley was not enough for the Alachua County Klan. On a February weekend in 1924 three hooded Klansmen entered the rectory of St. Patrick’s. The Klansmen left Fr. Conoley severely beaten and castrated on the steps of the Catholic church in Palatka. The complete story of what happened to Fr. Conoley during the trip from Gainesville to Palatka is unknown. He was able to identify two of the three men who brutalized him.
When the bishop learned of Fr. Conoley’s fate, he appointed a priest to fill in for him at St. Patrick. The priest arrived at the St. Patrick rectory, to find the windows manned by the Knights of Columbus armed with shotguns. The Knights were responding to the KKK’s threat to burn St. Patrick Church and rectory. After one year of hospitalization and two additional years in a monastery, Fr. Conoley was accepted as a priest in the diocese of Portland, Maine. He served as a diocesan priest there until his retirement in 1956. Fr. John Francis Conoley died July 25, 1960, and he is buried at the Veterans Cemetery in Togus, Maine.
There was no known public response to the attack on Fr. Conoley. The local paper did not report it. There was no police investigation. It was as though Fr. Conoley never had a life here in Gainesville.
We know Fr. Conoley had a life here. We are here because he was here. For this reason, to honor him, we are dedicating our newly renovated library to Fr. John Francis Conoley.
This information was adapted from a master’s thesis by Stephen R. Prescott, "White Robes and Crosses: Father John Conoley, The Ku Klux Klan, and the University of Florida." Copies may be obtained from The Florida Historical Society through www.jstor.org. Copies are also available for check-out in the Conoley Library at St. Augustine.