By Fr. George McDaniel
For The Catholic Messenger
(Editor’s note: The following article is from a talk Fr. McDaniel gave at the Oct. 14 celebration of The Catholic Messenger’s digital archive, which contains 130 years of the weekly diocesan newspaper. Fr. McDaniel funded the digital archive project.)
I am a fan of newspapers. In our family drugstore we sold the local Washington Evening Journal, the Des Moines Register, the Davenport Democrat, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and Herald American. I read as many of them as I could each day and the Sunday editions were a special treat. I still read three papers each day, even though they are pale reflections of the papers I grew up reading. Sometimes I look at the e-editions on my computer, but I still prefer the feel of the paper in my hands.
When I began my career as a historian the importance of newspapers as a research resource was made clear early in my graduate work. I was writing a seminar paper, which became my master’s essay, then my doctoral dissertation, and finally my first book. It was a study of a U.S. senator from Washington, Iowa, Smith Wildman Brookhart. Since he was a public figure, I knew that newspapers would be a principal source of information about his life and career.
To find out about him I read the Washington, Iowa, papers. During a part of Brookhart’s life there were three newspapers in Washington, two weeklies and a daily. I read the Des Moines Register; for the years Brookhart was in the Senate (1922-1933) I read every issue. I also read selected issues of other Iowa papers if I knew he had been in a particular town. For a more national perspective I read the New York Times. Unlike the other papers I read, my reading of the Times was easier because it was indexed. Each year the Times published a large volume that had a name and subject index.
When I began the research for the history of St. Ambrose I knew The Catholic Messenger would be an important resource. Unlike the New York Times, however, it was not indexed and so I knew I would have to read every issue of the paper. I was lucky that the library at St. Ambrose had the entire run of the paper on microfilm. That meant I did not have to use the bound copies of the paper in the diocesan archives, the earliest years of which have long since been in a death spiral as the acid in the paper literally eats itself up. The former St. Ambrose library director, John Pollitz made a room available to me with my own microfilm reader, and the circulation folks looked the other way when I took several rolls at a time from the stacks upstairs to my reading room.
I began with issue one, number one. I took lots of notes on four-by-six cards and made copies of longer articles. Slowly over many weeks I made my way through the Messenger, week by week, year by year from 1883 through 2003.
The first 30 years of the Messenger were the most helpful. For many of those years a regular weekly column was filled with St. Ambrose news. In addition there would often be longer articles about events at St. Ambrose, especially when a building project or other major event was in progress.
By reading the Messenger year by year I was able to notice the changes in the content of the paper.
During those early years the paper had long articles about the Church in the United States and around the world that often filled several columns on a page. There was a good deal about Irish and German immigrants. There was always news about the parishes, schools and other institutions in the diocese. There were often obituaries of Catholics that I suspect were taken from the local newspapers. In time, obituaries rarely appeared unless you were a priest or a very prominent Catholic individual. Papers in those early years sometimes ran fiction, usually serialized as was the 19th century custom for newspapers.
In the years after World War I the regular St. Ambrose column no longer appeared and news about the college appeared only when there was something special to report. Still, the Messenger was a valuable resource for my research about our diocesan college.
With the rest of the country the paper struggled during the Great Depression. Circulation fell dramatically and the Sharon family, founders and long-time owners of the paper, were concerned whether it could survive. So in February 1936, the family sold the paper to a consortium of Davenport attorneys and businessmen. The content of the paper changed dramatically under their ownership. It was more oriented to Davenport society and civic events. However, Bishop Henry Rohlman wanted something different so he convened a committee of senior priests to formulate a plan to take over the Messenger and make it a paper that would better reflect his role as the principal teacher of the diocese. Upon their recommendation, in 1937 the Diocese of Davenport purchased the newspaper from the ownership group.
Rohlman appointed Father Leonard Boyle to be editor and Father Benjamin Barnes to be the business manager. They sought out experienced journalists to do the news and provide editorial content. A primary source for these journalists was the Marquette University journalism program. Through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s a succession of Marquette graduates came to Davenport to write for the Messenger, many of whom later went on the careers around the nation.
During those years the Messenger achieved a national reputation. Each issue had the usual diocesan news but also book reviews, music reviews and thoughtful articles and commentary on contemporary Church events. It published papal encyclicals, often the complete texts, which study groups around the diocese used. The Messenger also published articles about the theological currents flowing through the Church of those pre-conciliar years, ideas that later found their way into the documents of the Second Vatican Council. During the years of the council it published all the major documents in full.
That was the Messenger that I began to read when I was in high school and college. I can’t say I read each issue completely but two things I never missed were the Persons, Places and Things column on page two, which was a thoughtful piece on a current issue. The other never-to-be-missed item was Msgr. Donald Conway’s Question Box, still the best question box man ever.
The quality of the paper that began in those post-World War II years continued under the leadership of Father John Boyle and then the long-time editor Msgr. Francis Henricksen and the long-time reporter Frank Wessling. I finished my week by week journey through the Messenger with the 2003 issues and since then I have approached the Messenger as a reader, not a researcher.
As I read through the paper I was focusing on news about St. Ambrose, but it was easy to get lost in the paper and find myself spending time I didn’t have reading other stories. Occasionally my search became personal. In the June 2, 1938 issue I found my mother’s picture with her graduating class from the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. Six months later I was surprised to fine the obituary of her father, my grandfather Keifer. And in the June 4, 1970, issue there was a wonderful article, with pictures, about the extraordinary ordination class of that year.
A newspaper is a journal of the life of a community. By reading it each day, or as I did, many issues over a long period of time, you can perceive the ebb and flow of life of that community. The Catholic Messenger has chronicled the life of the people of the Diocese of Davenport for 131 years. With this new digital version of the Messenger that story will be available to historians, genealogists, and the curious in electronic form which will be far more useful that those New York Times index volumes I used years ago. It would have been nice to have been able to enter “St. Ambrose College” into the computer and have a list provided that told me date and page numbers for articles about the college, but I would have missed the larger context of those articles that came with paging through each issue. I hope those who use this wonderful tool to look up a specific reference, will not miss what else is on the page and allow themselves to get lost in the story of the Diocese of Davenport … It is our story.