“Even a cursory glance at his record makes us wonder how one man, even a great, good man, could have done so many things for the Church. The answer is clear; Bishop Noll has one passion, one vehement passion, one almost boundless passion, and that is his love for the Church.”  

That single-minded pursuit, outlined by the late Cardinal Samuel Stritch, then archbishop of Chicago, in the quote above, indeed drove Archbishop John F. Noll to accomplish a dizzying array of projects in addition to the founding of OSV. 

Born in 1875 in Fort Wayne, Ind., Archbishop Noll was ordained a priest at age 23 on June 4, 1898, at Fort Wayne’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. In 1903, he published a series of pamphlets on the Faith titled Kind Words from Your Pastor and in 1908 started The Parish Monthly. In 1910, he became pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Huntington, Ind. Soon after, Father Noll purchased a print shop to publish The Parish Monthly. 

It wasn’t until spring of 1912, in response to the anti-Catholic publication The Menace, that Father Noll launched Our Sunday Visitor. The newspaper sold for 1 cent (compared with $3 today). By the end of 1912, circulation was 200,000. The next year, circulation climbed to 400,000. At its peak on Jan. 1, 1967, Our Sunday Visitor’s circulation would hit more than 1.36 million.  

In 1916, Father Noll began printing weekly contribution envelopes, which many Catholic churches across the country began using, most of which were printed by Our Sunday Visitor. Several periodicals and books followed (see OSV time line). 

However, printing was not Archbishop Noll’s only passion. A tireless champion of the Church, he made several contributions to American Catholicism. An overview follows.

Victory Noll sisters

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Archbishop John F. Noll boats with Victory Noll sisters during a stay at his lake home in Rome City, Ind. OSV archive photo

Bishop Noll’s first public act after he became bishop in 1925 was the dedication of the new motherhouse for the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Victory. 

In the early 1920s, Father Noll asked Father John Sigstein, a young Chicago hospital chaplain who had begun a group of men and women to aid the missions, if he would consider moving the order to Huntington, Ind. 

On Dec. 7, 1924, Father Sigstein, nine catechists and a postulant arrived on the train from Gary, Ind. Father Sigstein decided to call the motherhouse Victory Noll, in honor of both Our Lady and the priest who was to become their greatest benefactor.  

The society grew and received canonical recognition as a religious institute in 1932, changing its name to Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Victory.  

For the rest of his life, Bishop Noll had a special place in his heart for the sisters, choosing to be buried at their motherhouse instead of at the Fort Wayne cathedral. 

Bishops’ conference

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John Noll is ordained a priest at the age of 23 on June 4. OSV archive photo

At the beginning of World War I, under the influence of Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore and the direction of Msgr. John J. Burke, a National Catholic War Council (NCWC), made up of all the bishops of the United States, was established to consolidate the contribution of American Catholics to the war effort. After the war, the council was renamed, and the W was changed to “welfare.”  

Bishop Noll walked into his first meeting of the NCWC in 1925, but no sooner was he seated than he noticed Cardinal William O’Connell of Boston signaling him to come to the rostrum. 

Knowing the newly ordained bishop’s prolific journalistic output, he whispered to Bishop Noll,“Sit here, we need you to be the secretary.” 

At that same meeting, Bishop Noll was elected treasurer of the American Board of Catholic Missions. He would serve as a member of the board for 25 years, and used Our Sunday Visitor to appeal for support of the missions. 

In his role with the bishops’ conference, Bishop Noll also demonstrated his foresight about the coming information age, helping to launch the Catholic News Service and “The Catholic Hour” on NBC radio. 

National shrine

During the early part of the century, Catholics had been enthusiastic about building a national shrine to Our Lady under her title of the Immaculate Conception. With the advent of the Great Depression and World War II, the project languished. 

Then, in 1953, Bishop Noll joined with Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., to revive it once more. The bishop often wrote of this project in the pages of Our Sunday Visitor and enlisted the schoolchildren of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese to collect their pennies for the shrine. Through these efforts, he was able to raise about $7 million. He used his influence with his fellow bishops to get them to pledge their support to secure the funds required for completion of the Great Upper Church. Unfortunately, this portion of the project was not dedicated until after his July 31, 1956 death.

Light of the World statue

In 1936, Marjorie Russell of Topeka, Kan., sent Bishop Noll a $1 bill with a note suggesting that OSV begin a drive to erect a huge statue of Christ as “Light of the World” in the nation’s capital. 

Her dollar was to be considered the first donation. She believed that, since Washington had statues of many famous people, one should be there to represent the greatest person who had ever walked the planet. The idea appealed to Bishop Noll, and he published the letter in the paper. The idea appealed to the readers as well. Soon, donations for the project totaled more than $150,000. Knowing the NCWC needed new headquarters, Bishop Noll suggested to the board that the donations he had collected be used to help defray the cost of the façade on the new headquarters building, as long as it was made to show off the statue. 

Legion of Decency

Bishop Noll was named to a team of four bishops responsible for starting the National Organization for Decency in Literature (NODL) in 1933 and began his own diocesan drive against lewd magazines in 1937. Thereafter, the bishops took up the drive nationally and named Bishop Noll chairman. He was also a board member of the Legion of Decency that classified motion pictures in terms of their moral values. 

Despite his many good deeds for the national Church, Archbishop Noll remained dedicated to Our Sunday Visitor, serving as editor until he had a stroke in 1954, two years before his death. 

Read his full biography here.

For more information, see “Champion of the Church,” by Ann Ball (OSV, $14.95), from which some of this information was adapted.