“I told the abbot that I want you to be the next editor of the Prairie Messenger.”
When Rev. James Gray, then editor of the Prairie Messenger, declared this to me in early 1972, I was both delighted and surprised. Delighted, because he had confidence in my abilities to be editor, and surprised because his method was a drastic change from the way things were done in a monastery.
Previous ways of making appointments were top down. The superior at the top might confer with fellow monks about teaching or pastoral work, but the final decision always came from the top. Not this time.
Gray told Abbot Jerome Weber that there was an international press conference in Banff, that he wanted someone from the Messenger (PM) to attend, and that it was logical that the his designated successor be present.
I had previous associations with the PM and St. Peter’s Press beginning in 1952, my first year of high school at St. Peter’s College. On press day, each boarding student received his own copy of the paper. I and fellow students also had opportunities to work for the paper, doing such jobs as helping to label addresses or place insertions.
When I was editor of St. Peter’s College yearbook, The Petralogue, my fellow student predicted that in 25 years I would be editor of the New York Times. Later, those of us studying for ministry wrote letters to the editor or reviewed books. After ordination, I was appointed assistant editor (by the abbot!) and was responsible for writing the weekly column, Liturgy and Life, reviewing books, writing feature articles, proofreading galleys, editing the many Catholic Women’s League reports, and taking and developing pictures. During two summers I was acting editor.
Before I received Gray’s directive to be editor, he had asked me what I thought of his idea of becoming a hermit, joining those who already inhabited the bushes north of the abbey. I encouraged him to try this radically new lifestyle, little knowing then that I was in the line of PM succession.
At the time of my appointment, I already had many tasks in addition to responsibilities in my monastic community. I had just completed graduate philosophy classes at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and was writing my doctoral dissertation, teaching an introductory philosophy class, directing a high school French class and serving as co-pastor of the parishes of Muenster and St. Gregor.
But Gray’s was an offer/directive I could not refuse.
One of my own first appointments was Rev. Peter Novecosky (now abbot and present editor) to be my assistant. I gave Novecosky several jobs: act as adviser for policy and decisions, write engaging articles, serve as editor when I was absent, and promote the PM, for already in 1972 it announced on its front page a yearly loss of $51,000. Rev. Damian Yaskovich, OSB, became the official photographer and layout artist and Rev. Andrew Britz, OSB, Liturgy and Life columnist. We retained the youth page and joke section. Quite a clerically managed paper!
However, I wanted the PM to be a vehicle of dialogue, a movement not only from the top down, but especially from the bottom up, from church authorities but also a vehicle especially for the laity in the post-Vatican II ferment. The result was numerous letters to the editor, mostly positive.
To encourage grassroots input, I visited each of the Saskatchewan bishops, hoping they would appoint communication officers to work with the paper. I bought a black suit, used a clerical collar and trimmed my beard. Archbishop Michael O’Neill of Regina was very supportive, appointing Rev. Stan Slezak as press liaison, and contributing a sizeable financial amount to the press to update its equipment. Bishop James Mahoney of Saskatoon appointed Rev. Ralph Kleiter as communications manager for his diocese.
Cardinal George Flahiff of Winnipeg was most welcoming and appointed Rev. Ken Bernard to work with the PM. Consequently, I extended the Messenger’s official outreach into the archdioceses of Winnipeg and St. Boniface, making the paper more representative of the prairies. The outreach into Manitoba also included part of western Ontario. I felt these hierarchical appointments were key in making the PM more relevant to the readership with reports such as: input from Saskatoon highlighting lay parish leadership in the Coteau Hills Pastoral Region; the news story of Archbishop Maurice Baudoux blessing the newly built cathedral in St. Boniface, and naming him patriarch of the West; Slezak co-ordinating the PM lenten series with radio broadcasts.
As editor, I realized then that although the PM espoused fair wages to employees, we were paying our contributors a pittance. I doubled and tripled the amounts, though they were still inadequate.
My years as editor, 1972 - 76, were challenging and sometimes tumultuous. During this time of change there were a number of criticisms from lay readers, from the Vatican, and from the Saskatchewan hierarchy. Weber never criticized the PM but gave me free rein. In fact, he gave me some indirect compliments by relaying them from his conversations with co-travellers.
Although the editor’s office was in the abbey building, Weber visited me on only one occasion. Then, he humbly gave me a copy of a letter from the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Canada (the pope’s representative) that took serious issue with an editorial specifying that some early church fathers espoused local involvement in appointing bishops, and agreeing with this method. I told him I would suggest ideas to respond to this censure. I heard no more of the issue.
As I sat in the editor’s chair, I realized I was not entirely prepared for the job. Like several monastic editors, either part or full time, I had not received any formal journalistic training. We learned on the job, leading John Stewart, linotype setter, to remark that it was he who had to train us “green horns.” To help remedy this lack of formal training, I took a multi-level communications program at the University of Manchester, England. During the course, I examined national Christian and Jewish papers for their approaches to communication. This became the basis for my master of divinity thesis.
During my tenure the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (now Development and Peace - Caritas Canada) invited and sponsored me to represent English-speaking Catholics in a development mission to Vietnam. This mission by the Canadian Catholic Church was to ascertain the needs of this U.S.-ravaged country. The Paris-led endeavour, initiated just before the war ended, was a controversial and to some degree a secretive one since Vietnam had a Communist and mostly atheistic government.
I was pleased to participate in the trip and wrote editorials and several articles with photos depicting my experiences, a series sent to 40 countries. A light moment occurred during one of many visits to co-operative farms around Hanoi. As one meeting dragged on, I walked to photograph some rice farmers ploughing their fields with oxen. What a great picture that would make for the PM, I mused. The distance to the rice paddies, however, was greater than I thought. I got some great photos, but when I returned the van and delegation had departed without me. I envisioned spending some time on this farm, but then the van returned to pick me up.
I am saddened that the Prairie Messenger will cease publication. However, I warmly applaud Rev. Paul Paproski’s series on the Bote (German-language publication) and the Messenger, covering 43 and 95 years respectively.
While Paproski’s articles focused mostly on the role of the editors, PM staff and production personnel played a vital part in the weekly editions. These staff and personnel, both monks and lay, served with great dedication. They are among the papers’ unnamed and unsung heroes.
Michael Pomedli was the editor of the Prairie Messenger from 1972 - 1976.