by Ann Carey
The founder of Our Sunday Visitor weekly newspaper was John Francis Noll, a remarkable priest and bishop who transformed Catholic publishing and, to a large extent, the Catholic Church in the United States during his 58 years of priestly ministry. With remarkable energy and inspired foresight, he was not only a towering figure in Catholic publishing, but also an esteemed leader among the United States bishops and a generous benefactor to Catholic causes.
John Francis Noll was born Jan. 25, 1875, in Fort Wayne, one of 19 children. He was baptized at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, next to which he also attended grade school. When he was 13, he entered the preparatory seminary at St. Lawrence College, Mount Calvary, Wis., and went on to Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Cincinnati for his theology and philosophy studies.
Though priests generally weren't ordained before the age of 24, the diocese had a great need for priests, and his mentor, cathedral rector Father Joseph Brammer, was gravely ill and worried that he would not live to see the first boy from his parish ordained. Consequently, John Noll was ordained at the cathedral at the age of 23 on June 4, 1898. Father Brammer died two weeks later.
Within a year, Father Noll was named pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Ligonier at age 24. His parish was 30 square miles, which he covered on foot or horseback. In 1900, Father Noll became interested in mission work among non-Catholics and began to offer popular public lecture courses on Catholicism. When traveling speakers who posed as ex-priests or ex-nuns conducted revival-style tent meetings to spread false stories about Catholicism, Father Noll attended the programs to defend the faith. He reportedly engaged the speakers in debate, prompting the crowds to ask him for more information about Catholicism.
Bishop Noll as a seminarian
As he would write later: "Evidently, as possessors of the truth, and, moreover, as commissioned teachers in Christ's worldwide school, we are bound to bring the Catholic faith to the attention of the non-Catholic. Our commission is to preach the Gospel to every creature. The command must be more imperative now than in the past because every agency of publicity is being used to misinform people concerning Catholic teaching and practice. The harder the enemy works, the harder we must try to nullify his efforts."
In 1902, Father Noll was assigned to a new parish in Besancon, where he became more aware that many of his parishioners knew very little about their faith and had no opportunity for religious instruction outside the Sunday sermon. He also realized more information about Catholicism needed to be readily available to non-Catholics who might be attracted to the faith and to those who were misinformed about Catholicism.
So, with this spirit of evangelization, in 1903 he embarked on his literary career with no idea that he was launching an enterprise that would become one of the largest Catholic publishing houses in the world.
Father Noll's first publication was a series of little pamphlets about various aspects of the faith titled Kind Words From Your Pastor. The pamphlets were so well received by his parishioners that Father Noll sent copies to priests in other parts of the country, thinking they might be helpful to other pastors. He subsequently received many requests for his pamphlets and had to hire a local printer to handle the orders.
The History of Our Sunday Visitor
As pastor of St. John Parish in Hartford City (1906-1910), Father Noll remained concerned about catechesis and, with an instinctive anticipation of the future importance of the printed word, he became more convinced that Catholic periodicals were the best way to spread knowledge of the faith. By 1908, Father Noll was writing an original, 32-page periodical called The Parish Monthly. (It continues to this day as The Family Digest.) Other pastors asked for copies, so he sent samples around the country, and subscription requests came rolling in. After Father Noll was assigned as pastor of St. Mary's Church in Huntington in 1910, a local printer offered to sell a nearby state-of-the-art print shop he no longer needed. Father Noll bought the shop and hired a team to print The Parish Monthly.
Around 1911, a socialist organization began to publish The Menace, a periodical devoted to propaganda against the Catholic Church. Other publications of the same ilk sprang up in an effort to profit from the prevailing anti-Catholic sentiment, publications with patriotic-sounding titles such as The Guardian, The Liberator and The Sentinel of Liberty.
Since the Catholic press at that time was operating mainly on the diocesan level and the Catholic hierarchy did not yet have a national organization, the Church had little organized defense against these attacks. Father Noll consequently decided that a national weekly publication was needed to defend the Church and to serve as a clearinghouse for information on anti-Catholic activities.
The first issue of the newspaper
After polling priests across the country, he believed his idea had support, and on May 5, 1912, Father Noll's printing plant turned out 35,000 copies of the first issue of the national weekly, Our Sunday Visitor. The newspaper sold for 1 cent. By the end of 1912, circulation was 200,000, a growth rate that confirmed Father Noll's keen business instincts. The next year, circulation climbed to 400,000. At its peak, Our Sunday Visitor would go on to have a circulation of more than one million, and Our Sunday Visitor Inc. would become one of the world’s largest Catholic publishers.
As circulation grew into the hundreds of thousands, Father Noll expanded his publishing operation and soon was doing contract publishing for other Catholic organizations. This success caused a problem, however, for the priest found himself in the uncomfortable position of making money. Hence, in 1915 he formed an eleemosynary corporation to distribute all profits to religious, educational and charitable causes, an endeavor that would go on to fund many projects of the growing Church in the United States. That corporation continues this work today as Our Sunday Visitor Institute, and revenues from Our Sunday Visitor Publishing and Our Sunday Visitor Offering Envelopes continues to be given back to the Church in America through the Institute.
Always a man ahead of his time, in 1916 Father Noll experimented with a Protestant plan to give parishioners a box of weekly contribution envelopes instead of charging pew rent and taking up a monthly collection. He discovered that his parish received more than twice as much money with this method, so he spread the news, and soon Catholic churches across the country adopted the envelopes, most of which were printed by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
Growing business necessitated building a larger headquarters for the publishing house, completed in 1924. One year later, Father Noll started a magazine for priests, The Acolyte, still published under the title The Priest.
As the success of Father Noll's publications became known, more Catholic publications sprang up, and Father Noll helped found the Catholic Press Association, established in 1923.
In addition to periodicals, he also published several books, generally devoted to teaching the faith. Among the best-known is Father Smith Instructs Jackson, which originally appeared in serial form in Our Sunday Visitor. The book presents doctrinal instructions in dialogue style, following the order of The Baltimore Catechism. Still published in a revised edition today, the book has sold more than a million copies and been translated into several languages.
Through his various publications and generous financial assistance to Church projects, Father Noll became well known for his astute understanding of Church issues and his deep knowledge of current events. Consequently, he was asked to join the boards of many national organizations. One of these was the Catholic Church Extension Society, dedicated to supporting mission churches in this country.
In 1920, the Extension Society urged Father Noll to establish a home mission seminary near Huntington to prepare priests for mission territories. Father Noll subsequently bought 135 acres west of Huntington, but interest in the project dwindled when bishops decided local priests would be better suited for such work.
An early copy of the famous book.
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Three years later, Peter O'Donnell of California suggested the same concept for women Religious, for he saw many uncatechized Catholics in the Southwest. O'Donnell promised to contribute money toward building a motherhouse and training school if Father Noll would help recruit catechists through the pages of Our Sunday Visitor.
Father Noll knew of a new society of missionary catechists in Chicago, so he offered to help provide a facility if the group's founder, Father John Sigstein, would agree to transfer the novitiate and motherhouse to Huntington. The group was operating in borrowed space, so the Society of Missionary Catechists of Our Lady of Victory gladly agreed, and in 1925 moved into the striking Spanish-style motherhouse Father Noll and O'Donnell constructed on the acreage Father Noll had purchased in 1920.
Father Noll publicized the work of the catechists through Our Sunday Visitor, and published a weekly column in which one of the catechists detailed their work of visiting homes, locating children in need of religious instruction and even starting new parishes. The society grew, received canonical recognition as a religious institute in 1932, and now ministers in 70 mission centers in the United States and Bolivia. Our Sunday Visitor Institute continued to help fund the order's operating costs, and Bishop Noll made no secret of his special affection for the Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters, even selecting their motherhouse, Victory Noll, as his final resting place.
The title of monsignor was conferred on Father Noll in 1921, when he was only 46, so few people were surprised when he was named fifth bishop of Fort Wayne in 1925, after the death of Bishop Herman Joseph Alerding. On Jan. 3, 1926, just six months after his installation, Bishop Noll launched his diocesan newspaper as the local edition of Our Sunday Visitor. Our Sunday Visitor Inc. also took on the job of printing newspapers for several other dioceses.
Because of his experience with national and international issues, Bishop Noll immediately became an influential leader among U.S. prelates. He was named secretary of the fledgling National Catholic Welfare Conference (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), and was a longtime member of that body's administrative committee. In his role with the bishops' conference, Bishop Noll again demonstrated his foresight about the coming information age, helping to launch Catholic News Service and the "Catholic Hour" on NBC radio.
Bishop Noll was named to a team of four bishops responsible for starting the Legion of Decency in 1933 and began his own diocesan drive against lewd magazines in 1937, convinced that the magazines were part of a communist plan to destroy the morals of youths. Thereafter, the bishops took up the drive nationally, and named Bishop Noll chairman.
Bishop Noll likewise headed a fund-raising campaign to finish the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and promoted this and other worthy causes through Our Sunday Visitor. Similar efforts brought in funds to erect a 50-foot-tall statue of Christ, the Light of the World, in Washington, D.C.
In spite of all these outside activities, Bishop Noll never neglected his own growing diocese, and reportedly turned down assignments to more prominent dioceses.
He began Catholic Charities to aid families and children who were devastated by the Depression, and he oversaw a massive building program — often aided by money from Our Sunday Visitor Institute — of churches, schools, hospitals, a seminary and an orphanage. While in office, Bishop Noll confirmed 133,000 people, and ordained 500 priests. He also maintained his lifelong dedication to evangelization, often conducting Sunday evening information sessions in the cathedral to teach the Catholic faith.
As a sign of Vatican esteem, Bishop Noll was given the honorary title of archbishop in 1953, even though his see was not an archdiocese.
In 1955, Archbishop Noll suffered a stroke that left him unable to communicate with anyone except his niece, Cecilia Fink, who had been his devoted secretary and had assisted him in his numerous writing projects. His surviving relatives recall his year of disability as a difficult time for a man who had spent his life in communications, but he endured his condition graciously until his death on July 31, 1956.
Archbishop Noll was a man of his time, a builder bishop who helped transform the face of Catholic America. He was a visionary who saw the need for a national presence by the Church, and he was a defender of the faith who never failed to answer attacks made on his beloved Church.
Today, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. — its publishing division, its offertory solutions division and its institute – carry on his legacy: always supportive of the Church and its leaders, committed to educating the Catholic faithful and helping Catholics to see the world through the eyes of faith, and resolute in defense of the Church and its teachings.
Entrepreneur, Defender of the Faith, Teacher, Writer, Speaker, LeaderFollow the journey from a small-town, horse-riding pastor ... to one of the most influential prelates in the history of the United States.Order the book by Ann Ball today!
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