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Catholic weekly immersed in Gospel more than a century

Prairie Messenger: more than 100 years of journalism

 

By Paul Paproski, OSB

02/07/2018

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

The closing of the Prairie Messenger in May of 2018 will signal much more than the end of a Catholic newspaper. This year brings to a conclusion more than a century of dedicated journalism by the Benedictines of St. Peter’s Abbey. The Catholic weekly was born in a small German-Catholic colony in the Northwest Territories that was opening to settlers. The newspaper served the colony and later expanded to Western Canada and across the nation and its borders to touch the hearts of people struggling to live the message of the Gospel.

PM Colony

The Benedictines came to Canada in 1903 to provide German-speaking priests for second-generation German-Catholic settlers. Only one year later, after barely getting a foothold in their new land, the Benedictines agreed to establish a newspaper. The newspaper, one of the apostolates of the monks, was more than a local source of news. It was an instrument for promoting St. Peter’s Colony and German-Catholic traditions. On Feb. 11, 1904 (114 years almost to the day), the first issue of the German-Catholic weekly, St. Peter’s Bote (Bote), rolled off the press in Winnipeg. The printing operation moved to Muenster in 1905 when the Benedictines purchased a printing press.

Another newspaper, St. Peter’s Messenger, was established 18 years later to meet the needs of the readership who were speaking English. The first issue of St. Peter’s Messenger was published on May 24, 1923. The Bote continued publishing until July 31, 1947.

The Benedictines were grounded in a faith tradition that prepared them for their new life in Canada. They were members of a religious order that had a history of struggle and perseverance. The first photographs of the monastery display a pristine land which was largely prairie and wilderness. Many of the first buildings were made of logs and the roads were primitive trails used by horses and buggies. The Benedictines needed to overcome many obstacles to get their newspaper off the ground. Subscribers, advertisers and correspondents had to be found and they would be among pioneers who were struggling to build their own homes, homesteads, churches, schools and communities.

The coming of the railroad in 1904-05 made it possible to haul a printing press to St. Peter’s Colony. It was more convenient to print the Bote locally and printing costs were lower in Muenster than in Winnipeg. Meanwhile, there were other apostolates to build that would help ensure the success of the Bote. The Benedictines began a mixed farming operation and garden. They provided pastors for churches and strongly encouraged colonists to build separate and private Catholic schools.

The dream of building a monastery and German-Catholic colony could only happen through hard work and income. Prior Alfred Mayer and his successor, Prior Bruno, in 1906, became experts at borrowing from colonists and banks and begging for funds and mass stipends from Abbot Peter Engel of St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. The American abbot was amenable to the requests for financial help. Thousands of dollars in loans, gifts and mass stipends from St. John’s ensured that the Benedictines would have a foothold in Canada. The monastic community was grateful for the support of Engel. St. Peter’s Colony and St. Peter’s Abbey were named in honour of the abbot, as well as Englefeld, a community to the east.

The editors of the Bote and its English successor were all Benedictines. (During a few transition years there were non-Benedictine editors.) All the Benedictine editors had a common baptism and vocation in a religious congregation famous for its promotion of church life and education. The men had an understanding of events within and outside of the colony and they illustrated this knowledge in editorials and articles. The monks were united in a common zealousness for journalism and promoting the Gospel. The zeal of the editors also set them apart. They had strong convictions about church life and politics that were shaped by their environments and the outside world. The formative years of the Benedictines defined how they understood the Gospel and their mission in the church and colony.

The Benedictines came to Canada to live in a monastic community that was immersed in German-Catholic traditions and supported a German-Catholic colony. The Catholic weekly was an important instrument in upholding these traditions. The monks soon realized that the local community was intertwined with the outside world. It was impossible to ignore the rest of the country and the nations beyond Canada’s borders when outside events and decisions affected issues important to the local colony. The vision of each editor was transformed as he came to see the church and its mission in a new light through each passing decade.

There was one issue that united all the editors and journalists from the very beginning and it was “money.” The German and English newspapers were always short of cash and in need of new subscribers. The Benedictines could only keep their publications above ground if they subsidized it. Prior Bruno soon realized income from subscriptions and advertising would be insufficient, not only to meet printing expenses, but also to pay press staff the wages to which they were entitled.

With the inauguration of St. Peter’s Messenger in 1923, there were two newspapers in St. Peter’s Colony, one in English and one in German. The Benedictines did change their German newspaper into an English publication previous to the inauguration of St. Peter’s Messenger. The Bote was printed in English near the end of the First World War in obedience to an Order in Council under the War Measures Act. The Order required that any publication in the language of a country at war with Canada would need a license to continue publication. A request by the Bote to continue in German was denied, so the Benedictines published in English under the name of St. Peter’s Bote until Dec. 30, 1919, when the Order in Council was revoked.

Canada had a strong British heritage with close ties to England. The dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestants wanted all immigrants to become British. The establishment was suspicious of everyone who was not British and tensions were heightened with people of German heritage during the First and Second World Wars. The Benedictines were proud of their German-Catholic heritage and were loyal Canadian citizens. The monks exemplified their loyalty by sending the first copy of St. Peter’s Messenger to Regina where it was delivered, May 22, 1923, to Premier Charles A. Dunning, the lieutenant governor and members of the cabinet. The premier responded, in kind, by a congratulatory letter, but was mildly critical of an editorial taking to task the provincial government for its lack of support for farmers.

The May 22, 1924, issue marking the first anniversary of St. Peter’s Messenger proclaimed that the newspaper was continuing to grow “sturdy and strong.” Its four pages had developed into eight, and the number of subscribers had increased from 37 to many times that number. “The watchword of the Messenger is ‘Service’ — in defence of the church, and the advancement of her interests,” a front-page article read. In 1928, the name of the newspaper was changed to The Prairie Messenger.

Rev. James Gray served as editor from 1962 to 1972. He wrote in his final editorial, “Words become flesh,” his understanding of the mission of the Catholic newspaper: “From the beginning the PM has been its own master, paying court to no power but the power of God’s Word become Flesh . . . The single and simple objective of the editors of the PM has always been to bring Christ and the Gospel’s themes into the day to day life of the Christian people.”

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