The Story of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Company
The 1930s were
difficult times for Catholics, as for most Americans. The climb
up the economic social ladder for the Catholic immigrants was
temporarily halted by unemployment; Al Smith’s resounding defeat
had left them down in spirit. The pages of Our Sunday Visitor
reflected the general malaise in the country. At the heart of
the nation’s economic woes, wrote Bishop Noll, was a simple
fact: America had turned its back on spiritual values.
The paper became
more and more concerned with living one’s faith in a secular
society that was growing more lax every day. During the 1930s,
Our Sunday Visitor strongly reflected its longstanding emphasis
on rooting the lives of the laity in their Catholic identity.
It was during the
1930s, too, that a name first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor
that would soon be known worldwide: Fulton J. Sheen. The future
bishop, already famous as a radio personality, discussed the
problem of living the faith in an increasingly secularized
world. A line from his 1938 article was all too prophetic: “The
vision of the cross is fading; the borderland between light and
darkness is growing dimmer and the world is about to pass over
into the hinterland of darkness and ruin.”
The paper did take time out to mark its silver anniversary in
the May 2, 1937, issue. Bishop Noll noted in an editorial that
every cent the paper had ever made was invested in the Church,
including a new order of nuns in Indiana he had supported with
Our Sunday Visitor income.
The main object
of Our Sunday Visitor’s charity, he wrote, is the maintenance of
the motherhouse and training school of the Society of Missionary
Catechists (popularly known as the Victory Noll Sisters), which
now has 200 members working in the most difficult home-mission
fields. The editorial noted that Our Sunday Visitor used all its
earnings for the support of religious, educational and
charitable works, and pointed out that the firm was the nation’s
largest producer of religious pamphlets and the first to promote
the use of and to manufacture and print the Every Sunday
Collection Envelope for Catholic churches.
Our Sunday Visitor Dedication
moved toward war as the 1930s wore on. Our Sunday Visitor wanted
peace, but it dreaded the seemingly unstoppable communist
advance. The paper forcefully opposed Nazism, but feared that
the U.S. would be drawn into battle against Hitler and allied
with Godless Russia. When the war broke out in 1939, Bishop Noll
kept Our Sunday Visitor totally isolationist. The bombing of
Pearl Harbor two years later ended the debate. The paper called
for an early victory and a just peace.
war years, Bishop Noll’s newspaper focused on fighting the war
of moral armament on the home front. Evils such as birth
control, divorce, indecent literature and movies were the target
of editorials and features.
But the war in
Europe was ever present, too. Many issues featured letters from
soldiers. One, signed “A Grateful Soldier,” praised the work of
Catholic nurses in preserving the faith in battlefront
hospitals. Priests wrote columns of Tips for Soldiers. Many
issues contained letters from chaplains at the front, filled
with details of Catholic heroism. Editorials urged readers to
“send your copy to a boy in the service.”
Catholics read about how Americans were backing the war effort.
An Illinois bishop donated the bumpers from his car to the
nation’s scrap drive, painting their wooden replacements with
aluminum. Bishop Noll praised such efforts. But the paper found
fault with the general drift of the times: “Society adrift from
God: If the world doesn’t return to Him in spirit of repentance,
it is doomed,” read a banner headline in early 1942.
As the year came to an end, the bishop wrote: “The year that is
coming to a close has probably been the saddest year in the
history of our nation. Nearly 5,000,000 of the flower of our
manhood . . . are either scattered over the globe to fight or .
. . are in training."
With the Nazi war
machine pressing forward relentlessly, Our Sunday Visitor
editorialized: “Religious liberty is the most important of all
freedoms, and it is important to keep this thought before the
minds of all Americans during the period of the war.”
As the years
passed, the Allies turned the tide overseas. But Our Sunday
Visitor and its writers worried about the United States. We were
losing the war at home, proclaimed one columnist. Birth control,
divorce and godless communism were deliberately undermining the
strength of the nation, our families.
When victory was
achieved in 1945, the paper — which had remained remarkably free
of the jingoism of the period — celebrated with the rest of the
country, but feared that the final victory only laid the
groundwork for a communist advance.
With the war
behind us, Bishop Noll kept his eye on the situation around the
globe. Editorials had denounced Franklin D. Roosevelt (and later
his successor, Harry Truman) for selling out to the Russians,
which in the paper’s view doomed Eastern Europe to communist
oppression. The development of the atom bomb, first used against
Japan by the United States in 1945, opened a new and terrifying
chapter in the history of humanity.
By 1947, the
minds of post-war readers were on lighter topics. Popular Notre
Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack answered the mail personally, the
paper reported. But coverage of serious world problems remained.
Pope Pius XII, for example, urged active participation in
politics, saying Christians could not be passive in the midst of
the ruins of war.
John Francis Noll
The cold war between Russia and the United States grew more
intense. The paper stepped up attacks against communism. As
early as November 1947, editorials warned Catholics to be wary
of joining communist organizations that appealed to Americans’
sense of love of country under the name patriotic — a theme to
be repeated often during the next decade.
As the 1950s
arrived, Catholicism entered what many considered at the time to
be its golden age in the U.S., and Bishop Noll (named Archbishop
Noll in 1953 by Pope Pius XII) entered his final years as
editor. The 40th anniversary issue, published May 4, 1952,
carried a banner headline showing that the paper had not stopped
dealing with the topics of the day. It read, “They Do Not Want
God in Our Schools: Secular Trend is Certain to Bring Disaster.”
growing interest in social justice in the Church in the 1940s
and 1950s, that issue carried a flag advertising the paper as
the popular National Action Catholic Weekly.
Visitor called for a day of national prayer as America began the
Eisenhower years on Jan. 18, 1953. Headlines of the day warned
readers that “There is a Hell,” despite wishful thinking and the
paper, in those pre-ecumenical times, noted that the crowning of
Queen Elizabeth II would take place in Anglican Westminster
Abbey, a church built by Catholics.
interest in family life and problems, a 1953 headline asked, “In
your movie going, do you encourage stars who do not live
After four decades as editor, Archbishop Noll’s health began to
decline. A 1954 stroke finally led to his death on July 31,
1956. He died knowing a Church still revered for its
steadfastness of devotion, ever-increasing vocations and
rock-solid optimism, all reflected in the pages of his
expanded, so did its fear of communism. The war against
communism at home and abroad became a benchmark of Our Sunday
Visitor in the 1950s. The paper never officially supported the
anti-Communist crusade of Wisconsin’s Catholic senator, Tail
Gunner Joe McCarthy, but many of the paper’s columnists lauded
Funeral for John Francis Noll
serenity and optimism of the Eisenhower era, major changes were
afoot. The years 1958 through 1963 would change the face and the
direction of the Church worldwide. Following the death of Pope
Pius XII in 1958, Catholics rejoiced at the election of the
jovial, easygoing Pope John XXIII, who soon surprised everyone
with a call for the first ecumenical council since 1870. In 1960 a
Catholic named John F. Kennedy became president. Optimism among
Catholics ran high, as the Pope was expected to renew the Church,
and Kennedy the United States. The pages of Our Sunday Visitor
fairly shouted with exuberance of a new era that Catholics were
expected to lead.
The Jan. 31, 1961
issue of Our Sunday Visitor was the first to reach more than a
million readers. Such unprecedented growth created the need for a
new facility: A new 250,000-square-foot building was dedicated in
1960 and occupied in 1961. Three employees who had been original
members of Father Noel’s staff in 1912 were still working with Our
Sunday Visitor when the firm celebrated the newspaper’s golden
anniversary in May 1962.
Like the nation and
the Church it covered, Our Sunday Visitor of the mid-to-late 1960s
was a newspaper in transition.
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