This is the second in a seven-part series on the Prairie Messenger and the past 100 years of journalism by the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey.
The Benedictines came to Canada in 1903 to provide German-speaking priests for second-generation German-Catholic settlers from the United States. One year later, after barely getting a foothold in their new land, the monks established a newspaper — St. Peter’s Bote. The first issue of the German-Catholic weekly rolled off the press in Winnipeg on Feb. 11, 1904. The printing operation became established in Muenster in September 1905 after the Benedictines purchased a printing press.
The first issue of St. Peter’s Bote (Bote) explains that the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the people of St. Peter’s Colony wanted a German-Catholic weekly. The newspaper is “for the instruction and edification of German Catholics in all of Western Canada, and especially for matters of interest in the newly founded St. Peter’s Colony.”
The editors of the Bote were Benedictine priests who were fluent in both German and English. Prior Alfred Mayer, OSB, served as the first editor for four months when he was replaced by Rev. Benedict Steigenberger, OSB. Rev. Bruno Doerfler, OSB, took on the role as editor when the newspaper moved to Muenster. He resigned after being elected prior of the monastery in April 1906. Steigenberger became editor again until 1908 when Rev. Peter Windschiegel, OSB, assumed the editorship, remaining in the position until 1922. Rev. Joseph Sittenauer, OSB, served as editor for the next 12 years. Windschiegel took over the helm again until the newspaper ceased production in 1947. He had served as editor for more than 27 years.
The first editors of the Bote began their terms by announcing they would avoid getting involved in politics. Their goals were to defend justice, freedom and the welfare of Catholics. The Benedictines soon learned that it was impossible to separate religion and politics. It did not take long before they changed their policy of political neutrality.
The Catholic weekly served two important roles in St. Peter’s Colony: it provided news, and information on the Catholic faith and German-Catholic traditions. The first publications encouraged the settlers to persevere. A 1904 editorial reads, in part, “You settlers in St. Peter’s Colony, don’t be timorous. Go ahead with the work; be busy and persistent. Don’t shy away from the burdens and privations of pioneer living.”
The Bote was a strong supporter of the colony and rebuked criticisms of the settlement. Stories were circulating of opposition in the United States to the colony. A 1904 editorial states that many Americans viewed Canada as uninhabitable because of its harsh winters. Yet Americans who immigrated to Canada often found Canadian winters milder than where they once lived. Letters to the editor concurred with the editorials, often expressing surprise at how winter conditions were much better than what they expected.
Encouragement was given to the pioneers, as well, by the correspondents of the Bote who praised the work ethic of the settlers and the quality of their crops and gardens. The correspondents reported conversations with American visitors who expressed their admiration over the progress of the colony. The reports reinforced the importance of the colony as a place where German Catholics could share their traditions. Weekly submissions by correspondents and readers (letters to the editor) spoke of being pleased with the opportunity to live among people who had a common German language and Catholic religion.
The Bote soon became entangled in politics over the issue of education. The Benedictines insisted that children be educated in church-run or separate schools. The Bote urged colonists to support schools that taught the German language and Catholic faith. The provincial government was criticized for enacting a tax system that supported public schools over separate and private church-run schools, and allowing only a half-hour of religious instruction at the end of the school day.
Editorials urged everyone to support candidates in elections who were Catholic and Liberal. The Conservatives, Orangemen and Masons opposed Catholic education and were labelled as enemies of the church. An editorial expressed relief over the 1905 election of Walter Scott as the new Liberal premier. The election ensured the future of separate schools. Editorials were catechetical, as well, often explaining the teachings of the church and encouraging support of Catholic charities and missions.
Readers and correspondents of the Bote were unabashed in their opinions on conflicts and issues. A colony resident, in a letter, wrote of being shocked over people who attended a dance and neglected to attend church on the feast of the Ascension. Other letters were critical of people who went dancing, especially when dancing was condemned by the clergy. Grain companies were accused of being dishonest in pricing and grading, as well as inefficient. Some people were disgusted over colonists who supported public schools over Catholic schools.
The Volksverein (People’s Society) and Katholikentag (Catholic Days) received extensive coverage. The Volksverein, a German-Catholic organization, held rallies and lobbied for the right of German Catholics to open parish and separate schools they believed were essential for teaching religion and German. The Volksverein and Katholikentag encouraged German Catholics to hold onto their customs and to be aware of those who opposed them.
Church life was given extensive coverage through reports of special liturgical celebrations, meetings of church organizations, parish fundraising picnics, donations of furnishing to churches, and the building of new churches. A common experience of settlers was building churches and later replacing them with larger more ornate structures.
Parishioners were strongly encouraged by the Bote to join local church organizations. Catholics were warned against joining “secret” societies with secret ceremonies that were condemned by the church. Readers were informed about beliefs and regulations of the church. The bishop and abbot outlined regulations over indulgences and fasting. It was considered scandalous to become involved with another Christian denomination, and to marry in a non-Catholic church. Dancing was condemned as immoral. Harsh criticism was thrown at colonists who attended barn dances. The roles of the abbot and bishop were highly respected. The abbot or bishop were often referred to as: “Lord Abbot, Lord Bishop or His Lordship.”
Community events were given coverage and some reports made it known that both German and English were spoken at meetings, so there was no excuse for not understanding what was being said. Articles often revealed that life in the colony was far from ideal. There were reports of fires that destroyed homes, businesses, crops and property. Injuries or deaths occurred from freezing weather, blizzards, fires, accidents and illnesses. Families were large and the death or injury of a parent brought hardship. Reports sometimes contained deaths of children through illnesses or accidents. Criminal acts occurred, as well, involving theft, vandalism and murder.
A constant concern of the Bote editors was meeting expenses. Prior Peter Windschiegel, in an address in 1914, said, “St. Peter’s Bote has not been a financial success. Rather, it has been a painful child for its publishers. Were it not for the consolation we get from serving a noble cause . . . the publishers would long have given up.”
Paproski is a monk of St. Peter’s Abbey, pastor, archivist and historian.