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A prodigal daughter returns to her roots

By Shannon Hengen

The grounds of St. Peter’s Abbey and St. Peter’s Press, home of the Prairie Messenger, invite me on this sunny February day. Surrounded by snow covered parkland, stands of spruce, pine, tamarack trees, and tall elms, the grounds themselves are gathered near a handsome bell tower and abbey church.

From those bells, the Benedictine monks’ days here continue to follow a regular pattern of prayer. Ora et labora, says one of the many paintings along the quiet abbey hallways: pray and work. That is why I am here.

More than 40 years ago, freshly graduated from university, I visited the abbey and press for the first and only other time when I was hired by the Archdiocese of Regina to write weekly columns for the PM. The extraordinary helpfulness, energy, and level of commitment of the monks inspired me then, as do those qualities in the paper’s staff now.

The purpose of my return is to consider the question: What does it mean that the Prairie Messenger, housed in this idyllic setting all these years, will discontinue publication in less than two months?

Thanks to the prescience of one of my sisters, I have in an old steamer trunk a musty scrapbook kept by her containing original copies of many of my articles from the year 1974 and late 1973. At my desk in a guest room at the abbey now, attempting to see into the future, I look back by reading the first article in the scrapbook: the passing of the bishop’s crozier from then Archbishop of Regina M.C. O’Neill to C.A Halpin (Dec. 23, 1973, issue).

Having lived away from Saskatchewan for most of my adult life and having only recently resettled here, as I reorient myself to those earlier times I find not only important historical information but also bemusing hints of my younger self in these articles. For example, the title of a piece on aging from June 9, 1974: “Life can be worthwhile even after age 65.” Indeed.

In other pieces, I come to acknowledge that references to Prime Minister Trudeau are not to Justin, but rather to Pierre Elliott. And I begin to wonder: why would mentions of the prime minister or of lectures on aging appear at all in a religious newspaper? Although at the time I sensed no oddity in my choice of material on which to report — encouraged no doubt by my bosses at the Catholic Centre in Regina and the newspaper itself — I see now that the stories I chose to write and those the paper chose to print were largely concerned with social issues: for example, organizations focused on international development; a program allowing Regina lawbreakers to work off fines through community service; encouraging indigenous ministry; supporting Big Brothers of Regina, the Regina Church Basketball Association (interdenominational) and an interdenominational summer program for children ages four through 11 in Regina’s north central neighbourhood; co-operating to undo the damage of the spring 1974 Moose Jaw flood.

To my young mind, such social consciousness became so normal that I equated it with Catholicism. If I failed to attend in some way to those in need, I was not — very simply — practising my faith.

In that year, I also wrote articles about, for example, a religious pilgrimage to Kronau; about Père Murray and Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask.; the 75th anniversary of profession of a Sister of Our Lady of the Missions (Caroline Crosse); a Cana Colony retreat for families at Moose Mountain Provincial Park as part of “an international marriage and family movement” (Aug. 18, 1974); and such pieces on the arts that reflected my undergraduate experience as interviews with Anne Murray and the stars of the Godspell musical. Clearly, Catholic liturgy and education and the upholding of spiritual values in our cultural milieu have remained as central as social activism to the work of the Prairie Messenger since those years.

This newspaper has thus held a unique place in the hearts and minds of its readers, linking our worship with our lives. By reminding us always of our primary commitment to the poor and the forgotten as well as to public witnesses of faith, it has raised us above our dogmatic differences.

As I look from my guest room window to the fields that will produce new growth several months hence, I feel such gratitude for this paper and its home that have so thoughtfully tended us through these many changing years. I do not know what will be born of that careful tending, but I must believe it will be good.

Hengen wrote articles for the Prairie Messenger from the Archdiocese of Regina in the 1970s.