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Prairie Messenger begins its focus on social issues

Prairie Messenger: more than 100 years of journalism

By Paul Paproski, OSB


This is the fourth of seven articles on the Prairie Messenger and the past 100 years of the journalism of the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey.

This is the fourth of seven articles on the Prairie Messenger and the past 100 years of journalism by the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey.

Wilfred Hergott was the longest-serving editor of the Prairie Messenger, managing the editor’s desk for 24 years from 1931 to 1955. Under Hergott’s tenure the Prairie Messenger became more focused on social issues. Concern for the rights of the individual came to the fore during the economic depression of the 1930s.

The term “new social order” entered into discussion following the Second World War as world leaders struggled to rebuild Europe and prevent future conflicts. Hergott and his successor, Augustine Nenzel (1955-1962), were well versed in political and social issues, which become the subject of commentary in editorials.

Dark clouds were on the horizon when Hergott became editor. Stories began to circulate of an economic depression that was costing millions of workers their jobs. Unions were seeking better wages and working conditions. North America was hit by a drought that turned fertile fields into dust bowls. Extremist right- and left-wing political movements came onto the scene offering simple answers to society’s complex issues.

The Prairie Messenger portrayed a church that was often under attack. Front-page stories told of hostile governments, politicians, other churches or educational institutions lambasting the Catholic Church. The church had come under siege in Europe where Communism had a tight grip on Russia. Fascists had Italy under their thumb and the Nazis were on the rise in Germany. Nationalism had swept Europe where nations became entangled in political alliances that competed in an arms race.

The church was struggling, as well, in North America. The Mexican government was trying to erode the church’s power after failing to destroy it in the 1920s. Catholics were under suspicion in the United States, where religious and ethnic tensions were strong and racism was rampant.

Pope Pius XI and the church’s bishops pleaded for peace and reconciliation in Europe. Their voices were ignored and the church was placed on the defensive as it continually became the target of aggression. As the 1930s dragged on, front-page articles detailed persecution of the church and society by the Nazis, fascists and communists. Spain, in 1936, erupted in a civil war that brought death to thousands of clergy and religious. The Nazis in Germany eventually solidified their grip on power by closing Catholic schools, Catholic organizations and imprisoning and killing clergy. The “church militant” (church on earth) had become the “church persecuted.”

Aware that the Catholic Church opposed atheistic socialism and communism, the Prairie Messenger was cautious in its analysis of new social movements in Canada, such as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Hergott agreed with the stance of the CCF on issues of social justice and the rights of workers. He reminded readers of Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labour), a ground-breaking encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, and Quadragesimo Anno (Reconstructing the Social Order), an encyclical of Pope Pius XI, which defended the rights of workers and families while condemning unbridled capitalism, communism and atheistic socialism. Readers were encouraged to be informed about political issues and to vote.

Society was in flux, not only politically, but morally. New social movements were challenging traditional church teachings. The Prairie Messenger, an important voice of the church, criticized the increasing acceptance of contraception, divorce, sterilization, mixed marriages, immoral movies, reading material, false modesty (improper dress) and euthanasia. Hergott took umbrage with J.S. Woodsworth, the MP for Winnipeg North Centre, who wanted criminals to be sterilized. He disagreed with temperance movements that wanted to ban alcohol.

Editorials not only expressed opinions, but explained church teachings on moral issues, feast days, sacred celebrations and the lives of saints. Rev. Norbert Schwinghammer, OSB, often submitted guest editorials on church teachings, relating them to daily living.

The importance of Catholic schools and the teaching of religion were continually emphasized. Parents were warned that children who lacked proper religious education could become delinquent. Readers were made aware of the importance of the Catholic Church as the one true church founded by Christ. They were cautioned to avoid getting caught up in modernism, which was condemned by Pope Pius X in 1907. Modernists were “freethinkers” who wanted to decide truth for themselves. One outcome of modernism was the evil of communism.

The Catholic Church had its share of critics and Hergott and Nenzel were staunch defenders of the divine institution. Hergott reminded the readership that the media, particularly the American media, was biased against the Catholic Church. He cited an example of this in the persecution of the church in Mexico, which was largely ignored by the American media. He was saddened by the death of Austria’s chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, who was murdered in 1934 by Austrian Nazis. The Canadian media, Hergott said, portrayed Dollfuss as a dictator when he was actually a devout Christian who tried to keep the country out of the hands of racist extremists. Similarly, the media disregarded the atrocities committed against the church in the Spanish Civil War.

The Prairie Messenger emphasized the authority of the church as an essential moral and spiritual guide. The church hierarchy and church organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Women’s League, were praised for their roles in upholding church traditions.

The church hierarchy was held in high esteem and it was often the subject of headline stories that praised achievements of church officials. Front-page articles spoke of conversions to the church, the building of new churches, schools and other institutions. Stories brought forth the popularity of church missions, pilgrimages and rosary crusades.

The term “new social order” became part of the discussion among world leaders involved in rebuilding Europe after the Second World War. Hergott and Nenzel explained that the groundwork for a new social order was outlined in papal encyclicals. The editors supported the proposal of a more universal health care system in Canada, as well as co-operative movements.

The 1950s brought a stronger economy and a new wave of optimism in Canada where dioceses fundraised to build new Catholic schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Church attendance was strong and pilgrimages and rosary crusades were popular. Church leadership was looked upon as a moral guide and it began to address new moral issues such as euthanasia and mercy killing. Pope Pius XII worked tirelessly to promote peace as fear of an atomic war arose between countries allied with the United States and Soviet Union. The issue of modernism continued to manifest itself in the media through immoral reading material and movies.

The Prairie Messenger continued to appeal to the family. Pages were set aside for local church and community news, and news briefs with national and international news. Feature articles explained church teachings and gave advice on family life. Youth pages included pious stories of saints and articles on Christian living. Special feature articles and editorials instructed youth on proper conduct and moral living. Teenagers were encouraged to write letters to ask questions, which were answered by someone named “Brother Ben.”

Paproski is a monk of St. Peter’s Abbey, pastor, archivist and historian.