This is the third of seven articles on the Prairie Messenger and the past 100 years of the journalism of the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey.
Twenty years after arriving in Canada, the Benedictines added another service to their apostolates — St. Peter’s Messenger. The first edition rolled off the press on May 24, 1923, some 19 years after the first issue of the German newspaper, St. Peter’s Bote, was printed. The monks were now publishing two broadsheets, one in English and one in German. St. Peter’s Messenger became known as The Prairie Messenger in 1928.
St. Peter’s Messenger (Messenger) continued the two-fold mission of St. Peter’s Bote in providing news and teaching the Catholic faith. Similar to the Bote, the Messenger often defended the Catholic Church against outside attacks. The first anniversary edition of May 22, 1924, stated the Messenger’s mandate: “The watchword of the Messenger is service in the defence of the church and the advancement of its interests.”
The terms “defence” and “interests” had very different meanings in the 1920s than what would be understood today. The Catholic Church was struggling to find acceptance and legitimacy in a society that was suspicious of Catholics and people of German heritage. Canada was largely British and Anglo-Saxon Protestant and its establishment wanted Canada to remain that way. The Messenger became a vehicle to explain traditional Catholic values and defend them against criticisms and false accusations.
The first editor of St. Peter’s Messenger was Rev. Lewis Gwynn, a Benedictine Oblate who served briefly in 1924. He was followed by Rev. Cosmas Krumpelmann, OSB (1924-26), and Rev. John Hable, OSB (1926-31). The first two Benedictine editors had a common zeal for promoting Catholic teachings and pulling no punches in defending them.
Krumpelmann has the distinction of being not only the first member of the monastic community to serve as the Messenger editor, but one of the most outspoken. His frankness got him into conflict with a person who later became a well-known public figure. John Diefenbaker, a future prime minister, was a Conservative candidate in the Prince Albert constituency during the 1926 federal election. Diefenbaker became incensed over an editorial Krumpelmann had written about one of his campaign speeches. Diefenbaker threatened to sue St. Peter’s Messenger.
In his editorial Krumpelmann expressed annoyance when Diefenbaker addressed an audience of Orangemen, whom Krumpelmann considered to be fanatics and bigots. The Orangemen were opposed to separate schools and were suspicious of the Catholic Church and Catholic-run institutions. The Conservative candidate told the Orangemen that Canada should always remain British. This statement, Krumpelmann said, proved Diefenbaker could not be trusted as a representative in Parliament. Canada, he said, was an important friend and trading partner of England, but Canada must remain an independent nation.
The Messenger was born in a society where there were sharp divisions along denominational and ethnic lines. The Catholic weekly made it known in front-page stories and editorials who the friends and foes were of the church. Conservatives, Masons and Orangemen, who opposed separate schools, could not be trusted. Communists were agents of the devil who were trying to destroy the church, especially in Russia. Masons proved they were opposed to Christianity by supporting the persecution of the church in Mexico, and the American media exemplified its anti-Catholicism by largely ignoring the persecution.
The editors of the Messenger were well-informed about local, national and international news events and were outspoken in sharing their views. The editors pointed out how the Catholic press was essential in counterbalancing the bias of the American and Canadian press toward the Catholic Church and Catholic immigrants. Front-page stories told of bigotry toward the church and how the church was under siege in Mexico, the Middle East, Russia, China, and in Italy where fascism had taken root.
Attacks on the church in Canada grew during the 1920s when immigration from Eastern Europe fuelled bigotry and racism. As Saskatchewan became more multicultural, the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan rose among the Anglo-Protestant establishment. The Klan held rallies throughout the province. The rallies attacked the French and Catholic presence in Canada and accused Catholics of being disloyal citizens who owed their loyalty to a foreigner, the pope. In an editorial Hable warned readers to ignore all the statements against the church. “History shows us this practice is not new. Their methods are repulsive and their logic fallacious.”
The Messenger conveyed loyalty to the country during elections by encouraging readers to be good citizens and vote. Canadians were urged to join the Catholic hierarchy in offering prayers for His Majesty King George V when he became ill.
The Messenger was not a friend of the temperance movement, which had support among Protestant churches. Both Krumpelmann and Hable believed the notion of forbidding people the right to a drink was outrageous. There were bigger issues to worry about, one being racism which was especially rampant south of the border.
A growing concern for the Catholic press was sexuality in movies, reading material and advertising. The Messenger reminded parents of their responsibility for teaching children religion. Parents were warned to stay away from barn dances and to keep their children away from them. Barns were for cattle, not dancing.
Editorials presented opinions on issues and events, and they were used to teach religion. Readers were reminded that the church was a divine institution and its hierarchy was the leadership of the “one true church.” Editorials praised church leadership for maintaining the unbroken apostolic line, which did not compromise beliefs through dissension and division. The church was commended for withstanding the assaults of the world against morality, believing some Protestant churches had given in to secular values and had become more accepting of birth control and divorce.
There was a new wave of thinking in liturgy (public worship) through the liturgical movement, which encouraged public participation at mass. Hable expressed his admiration for Pope Pius X, who encouraged daily eucharist and renewal in liturgy. A new mass book enabled people to be more consciously aware of the parts of the mass, and a Catholic missal was available in English to help parishioners follow at a time when mass was celebrated in Latin.
The Messenger was a family newspaper. There was a Letters to the Editor page and pages devoted to international, national and local news. Columns explained faith issues. Front-page stories were always complimentary to the church, often reporting on addresses of church leaders or successful church projects and missions. Stories reminded readers of the struggles and persecution of the church. A Juvenile Page was devoted to youth, where pious stories were written on saints and topics that taught morality. Editorials to youth explained morality and proper behaviour.
The Messenger struggled over the issue of needing more subscribers and income. Readers were reminded, at the end of every year, to pay their annual subscription fee of $2. The editors often expressed their dismay over the lack of appreciation for the local press. Lack of interest in the Catholic newspaper, they said, is a symptom of a lack of interest in faith.
Paproski is a monk of St. Peter’s Abbey, pastor, archivist and historian.