By Matthew E. Bunson - The Priest, 9/1/2012
As Our Sunday Visitor celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2012, the legacy of its founder remains as remarkable as ever. The father of OSV was a priest, pastor, journalist, apologist, catechist and publisher. He was also a bishop and then an archbishop and is honored especially as one of the great pioneers in Catholic publishing: Archbishop John Francis Noll.
He was, as Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Co. president Greg Erlandson wrote, “what is now known as an early adopter. He embraced the communication tools of his day — print, radio, and television — with an eye toward how they could best serve the mission of the Church.”
“A Chance to Speak for Itself”
John Noll was born on January 25, 1875, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and studied for the priesthood at Mount St. Mary of the West Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ordained to the priesthood at the age of 23, he was named pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Ligonier within a year and served his flock by walking or riding a horse.
Within a short time after he started in active ministry, Father Noll discovered that there were very determined enemies of the Church across the country, including in Indiana, who were spreading the worst kinds of lies about Catholicism. In particular, Noll was moved to refute the traveling speakers posing as ex-priests or ex-nuns and who appeared in circus-like tent meetings to defame the Church. Noll fearlessly attended the gatherings and calmly asked the speakers to prove that they were actually former priests and nuns. Very often, people came up to him after the spectacle to ask about the Church and what was actually true.
At the same time, Father Noll realized that Catholics wanted to defend the Church, but they knew so little about their own faith that they were reluctant to speak out. Nor were there books and pamphlets readily available to hand out to non-Catholics who wondered about the veracity of the horrid accusations being made against Catholics. Ever practical, Noll did not wait for someone to write them. He gave himself the task. It was the start of what proved a vast enterprise.
Father Noll created the first in a series of pamphlets on Catholic teachings that he titled “Kind Words From Your Pastor.” Given the overwhelmingly favorable response, he began offering them to pastors in the area and soon across the country. From this, in 1908, he moved on to a more formal periodical, The Parish Monthly, a magazine that is still published today as The Family Digest.
To keep up with the demand for subscriptions, Father Noll purchased a local print shop in Huntington, Indiana, where he was assigned in 1910, and hired a staff to help him. The importance of his burgeoning publishing venture was driven home in 1911, when a new wave of anti-Catholic publications began appearing, including an infamous anti-Catholic magazine called The Menace.
Noll realized that more Catholic publications were needed as some kind of an antidote, and in 1911, he helped found the Catholic Press Association to give technical and material support to Catholic publishers and publications. Next, on May 5, 1912, he officially launched a new national weekly newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor, with an initial print run of 35,000 and a determination to serve the Church by offering in each edition a strong, steady and authentic Catholic voice.
The newspaper cost a penny and was an instant hit. By the end of the year, subscriptions had grown to 200,000; by the end of 1913, the circulation was more than 400,000; it eventually reached more than one million. For the next 40 years, the priest served as editor and came to be known to the staff simply as “The Bish.”
Meanwhile, in 1912, Noll had started a series called “Father Smith Instructs Jackson,” a useful means of introducing non-Catholics to the teachings of the Church. The next year, Our Sunday Visitor offered a reward that became a recurring challenge by offering to pay $10,000 to anyone who could prove the anti-Catholic accusations then being spread by the Ku Klux Klan and others. The reward was never claimed.
Noll’s goal in all of this was simple. He wrote, “Many people who are literally steeped in prejudice would become disposed to embrace the Catholic Faith if they were approached with charity and kindness, and if the Catholic Church were given a chance to speak for itself.”
As the newspaper had proven immensely successful, Father Noll embarked on several new projects. Catholic organizations around the country were much impressed with Noll’s operation, and they approached him with offers of contract printing jobs. The initiative brought the unexpected problem of earning large amounts of money. As such profits made the priest uneasy, in 1915, he started a fund to support charitable, spiritual and educational programs that became the modern Our Sunday Visitor Institute that continues his vision today.
The next year, Noll embraced an originally Protestant idea. In lieu of paying pew rent, members of the congregation were provided with offering envelopes that they could hand in each week at Mass. Noll found that using offering envelopes was a very effective means of improving collections, and he promoted the idea to other pastors. Today, Our Sunday Visitor prints the offering envelopes used in more than 90% of America’s parishes.
“Visit the Minds of Your People”
Noll received the title of monsignor in 1921, and through his accomplishments as a publisher, he was fast establishing himself as a nationally known priest and an influential voice in Catholic publishing. Given his prominence and the level of respect he had earned in the Church in the United States, few were surprised by the news that Noll had been named bishop of Fort Wayne by Pope Pius XI on May 12, 1924. He was ordained a bishop on June 30 and took as his episcopal motto, “Mentes Tuorum Visita,” from the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, calling upon the Holy Spirit to “visit the minds of Your people.”
Even as he entered into his episcopal ministry, Bishop Noll continued to promote Catholic publishing. In 1925, he introduced a magazine for priests called The Acolyte. Still published under the title The Priest, it was only the first of a host of periodicals over the next decades that were to be published by Our Sunday Visitor. On January 3, 1926, Bishop Noll introduced a diocesan newspaper, essentially a local edition of Our Sunday Visitor. The bishop also used Our Sunday Visitor facilities to print the newspapers for other dioceses who found his model of Catholic communications a powerful means of evangelization.
Bishop Noll’s prominent national status also made him a valued voice in wider Catholic affairs. He was appointed secretary of the recently founded National Catholic Welfare Conference (the early form of today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) and used his role in the conference to help start the Catholic News Service and the Catholic Hour on NBC radio. In 1933, he helped to begin the Legion of Decency to resist the growing threat of pornography.
Bishop Noll next led the national fund-raising campaign to complete work on the National Shrine (later Basilica) of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., using Our Sunday Visitor as a means of galvanizing donations. The shrine was dedicated on November 20, 1959, and Noll was honored for his leadership with the title “Apostle of the Shrine.”
Even as Noll guided Our Sunday Visitor and served as a national Catholic leader, he was a beloved shepherd of the diocese of Fort Wayne. As the Great Depression struck northern Indiana, Bishop Noll used Catholic Charities to provide families with help, and in the years after World War II (1939-1945), he became a great builder–bishop, opening parishes, schools, hospitals, an orphanage and a seminary. He was committed as well to the role of laypeople in the life of the Church, declaring in 1937 that “The Church of God must depend upon her laity to infiltrate society with the right principles of morality.”
During his years as bishop, he also confirmed 133,000 people, ordained 500 priests and was key in founding the Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters, even purchasing the land on which they established their motherhouse, Victory Noll, where Noll asked to be buried.
The Noll Legacy
On September 12, 1953, Bishop Noll was granted the personal title of archbishop by Pope Pius XII, meaning it was bestowed on him alone and would not be continued by the succeeding bishops of the diocese of Fort Wayne. In 1955, Archbishop Noll suffered a stroke that left him with severe challenges in communicating. For a master communicator, it was time of great frustration, but he dealt with the disability with immense fortitude. His passing on July 31, 1956, was greeted with immense sadness across the diocese and the nation. His funeral was attended by more than ten thousand people, 500 priests, 30 archbishops and bishops and two cardinals.
The legacy of Archbishop Noll was already set, however. He left behind a diocese that was spiritually and financially sounder than the one he inherited, he helped the American Church grow in the areas of evangelization and catechesis and above all, he bequeathed to the future the publishing giant of Our Sunday Visitor. At exactly the time he was needed most by American Catholicism, Archbishop Noll provided imagination, strength, love for the Church and a willing embrace of innovation in publishing and social communication that are still being felt today. TP
DR. BUNSON is editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac and Our Sunday Visitor’s The Catholic Answer magazine. He is also the author or co-author of more than 40 books and is on the faculty of The Catholic Distance University.
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