My relationship with the Prairie Messenger began when I was six or seven years old, and I am sorry that, after more than a century of being published, the paper will soon cease to exist. When I was a child in rural Saskatchewan, the PM was one of the few publications in our household. I would faithfully read a section called the Junior Messenger. It contained the letters children would write to someone named Brother Ben along with his replies, which I awaited eagerly each week.
In my teens I attended St. Peter’s College for three years. I was consumed with playing hockey and other sports, and I don’t remember much about the content of the paper at that time. But I do recall something else. We students slept in large dormitories with about 50 or 60 boys in each. Some nights after the lights went out various hijinks occurred, and then the lights would go back on. The priest or brother in charge would march us off to the study hall and our punishment was to copy, in long hand, the entire first page of the PM. That was hardly a way to build a base of loyal future subscribers. I’m convinced the PM’s later problems with subscriptions began right there.
When I took my first year of university classes in residence at St. Peter’s, Father James Gray, OSB, was my English professor and he was also the PM’s editor, having been appointed in 1962. It was he who encouraged me to begin writing for the paper when I was a student at the University of Saskatchewan in the late 1960s. One of my first pieces was about the report of a Senate committee, led by Senator James Croll, studying poverty in Canada.
It was during long conversations with Father James on visits back to St. Peter’s that I learned more about the history of the paper. In earlier years, the editors were mainly interested in church and clerical matters, although the same editors lived in the midst of farm communities and were sensitive to their economic plight, especially during the Great Depression.
It was an era of ferment and political realignment. In Saskatchewan, the creation of farm and co-operative movements, and later the CCF, were responses to the economic crisis. These were trying times for Father Wilfrid Hergott, who was the PM’s editor from 1931 to 1955. The church hierarchy was staunchly opposed to revolutionary socialism, but failed to make the distinction between that and the social democracy espoused by leaders of the CCF, including Tommy Douglas, who was also a Baptist minister.
Father Wilfrid was open to a dialogue, which included ideas put forward by the CCF and others searching for ways to meet the needs of people. He argued in the PM’s pages that society needed “radical change, not palliatives,” and that Catholic social teaching provided the norms with which to evaluate the programs of all political parties. He wrote that Catholics should be free to support the party of their choice. That was a controversial position and he was severely criticized by bishops, lay Catholics and even some members of his own religious community.
Another former editor was Father Augustine Nenzel, who had taught my father when he attended St. Peter’s College in the 1930s. Father Augustine took a prophetic stance in 1962 when Saskatchewan’s doctors went on strike for 23 days to oppose the Douglas government’s plan to introduce publicly financed and universal access to medical care. Former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney used to say that only two newspapers in the province gave editorial support to medicare, and that one of them was the Prairie Messenger.
Father James’ appointment as editor in 1962 occurred as Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, which was to continue until 1965. The council set out to update the church, to prepare it for greater service to the world, to empower lay Catholics, and to promote Christian unity. Despite initial widespread optimism, there was also much subsequent division and opposition to change. It was a momentous time in the church and the debate over the council’s meaning and implementation was to become a preoccupation for Father James and subsequent editors.
It was my good fortune to write for a number of those skilled editors, including Michael Pomedli, Bede Hubbard, and Art Babych. But my closest liaison was with the late Father Andrew Britz, who was the editor from 1983 to 2004. He continued in the prophetic tradition of Fathers Wilfrid, Augustine and James.
Father Andrew was driven by the idea that the post-council church must serve and inform the world, particularly those whom he called the “little people” — the poor, the oppressed, the defenceless, and all of those who are marginalized. Father Andrew was also critical of having authority usurped from local bishops and centralized in Rome. As well, he frequently pointed to the “dysfunction” of the hierarchy in its approach toward women, although he did not advocate for women’s ordination.
Father Andrew had his detractors, particularly among those who believed that in challenging the church and the hierarchy he was being disloyal; but he persisted with courage and conviction. He would not have been able to accomplish what he did had it not been for the excellence and commitment of his staff, in particular Sister Marian Noll, 0SU, and Maureen Weber, who both served as assistant editors.
The Prairie Messenger will be missed, not only, or even mainly, for nostalgic reasons, but because it spoke to the hearts and minds of Catholics, and non-Catholic readers as well. In recent years, a number of other Catholic papers have ceased to publish. They include Toronto’s Catholic New Times in 2006 and in more recent years the Catholic Times in Montreal, and the Western Catholic Reporter in Edmonton.
Following these closures, there have been some attempts to publish information in online formats, but they cannot succeed if there are not reporters, freelancers and editors in place to collect and present the news in a professional and balanced way. A Quebec journalist argued recently that those who say we don’t need newspapers because we have the Internet might as well say that we don’t need farmers because we have supermarkets.
But that is a discussion for another day. For the moment, we grieve the loss of the Prairie Messenger, but we also thank the monks of St. Peter’s for creating the paper and sustaining it for more than a century.
Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer and a former member of Parliament. His blog can be found at http://www.dennisgruending.ca