'To Serve the Church'
The History of Our Sunday Visitor
To the thousands of Catholics who read a copy every week, the words Our Sunday Visitor mean a bright, informative, entertaining Catholic weekly newspaper that has been around for longer than they can remember.
Some of them would be surprised to learn that Our Sunday Visitor is also the name of one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the U.S. -- involved in the production of religious books, catechetical materials, numerous periodicals, and offering envelopes -- as well as the home of America's favorite Catholic weekly.
But most know that the story of Our Sunday Visitor -- the newspaper and the firm -- begins with the vision of one Indiana parish priest shortly after the turn of the century.
Father John Francis Noll
Father John Francis Noll was a small-town pastor in the first decade of the 20th century who had grown weary of the anti-Catholic literature flooding his people. To combat a widely circulated anti-Catholic newspaper called The Menace, Father Noll began to write a parish bulletin. From his work as a defender of the faith grew the most successful Catholic newspaper the United States has ever seen. The Menace is long since dead, while the newspaper that he founded is still read cover-to-cover by thousands of Catholics nationwide who rely on its strong, steady, authentic voice to help them view life from a Catholic perspective.
Today, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing and Offering Envelope divisions are housed in a modern 250,000-square-foot plant on 14 acres in northeastern Indiana. Our name and our high standards are recognized worldwide.
Our Sunday Visitor newspaper
The first 35,000 copies of Our Sunday Visitor rolled off the press with an issue dated May 5, 1912. Within a year the paper's circulation had skyrocketed to 160,000; by 1914 it had reached 400,000 and shortly after World War I it was being read by more than 500,000 Catholics a week. Copies were sold at church doors for one cent apiece; pastors could get discounts by ordering 100 copies for 60 cents.
From the beginning, the paper was fortunate enough to document the most extraordinary years in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. It's a story that we're still documenting today.
From the first issue, Our Sunday Visitor has followed the simple, clear editorial policy established by Father Noll: combat anti-Catholicism, work to educate Catholics in their faith, help them to preserve their Catholic identity in a sometimes hostile environment, and combat social and political trends contrary to the faith.
Through the decades
Throughout the decades, Our Sunday Visitor has been a welcome weekly visitor in millions of Catholic homes, serving as a comforting Catholic presence in a secular world. And it has never forgotten the legacy of Father Noll. "To serve the Church" is both our motto and our belief.
The period between the founding of the publication in 1912 and the beginning of the 1920s were years of unprecedented growth for Our Sunday Visitor. The paper, born in an era of grim and widespread anti-Catholicism, immediately assumed the combative, unabashedly Catholic stance that would be its trademark in the early years.
Father Noll was determined to answer each and every critic of the Church. His energy infused the work of the fledgling paper, and he wrote almost every word of every issue in those first years.
In 1912, the priest began a series on Catholic doctrine entitled "Father Smith Instructs Jackson," realizing that many Protestant readers of his publication were interested in learning more about the Church. Over the ensuing decades, the lessons would be collected into a book by the same title that, used as a Catholic catechism worldwide, sold millions of copies.
On March 30, 1913, Our Sunday Visitor offered for the first time a reward that it would repeat frequently during the coming decades: to pay $10,000 to anyone who could document the anti-Catholic charges then circulating. The reward was never claimed.
Convert stories were favorite reading in the paper's early years. The stories reaffirmed to Catholics that their faith was not alien to America. The stories the readers most enjoyed were those of lifelong Protestants brought into the fold. The 1918 coverage of the deathbed conversion of Buffalo Bill Cody was a particular favorite.
Our Sunday Visitor had relatively little to say about World War I. But Father Noll celebrated when the war was over with an editorial on the importance of maintaining the hard-won peace. The soldiers who had gone overseas would, he knew, return to a radically different society. It was a society that Our Sunday Visitor would speak out boldly against in its second decade. Especially disturbing was the gathering moral storm brewing over the birth-control movement. Father Noll and Our Sunday Visitor fought the trend at every turn.
As the Twenties dawned, Henry Ford put America on wheels. The population began to shift from farms to the cities, and Catholics - most of whom had arrived as penniless immigrants scant decades earlier - began to move up the social ladder.
Father Noll's flourishing publishing business had already outgrown the first offices and plant, the old Jefferson Street Roche building, located in downtown Huntington, Indiana. To handle the increased demand for his publication, a printing establishment designed to Father Noll's specifications was built at the corner of East Park Drive and Warren Street in 1924. The building was dedicated in April 1925, shortly before Father Noll was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne.
Across America, workers were agitating for fair wages and unionization. The latter idea seemed communistic to many Americans. But when the Catholic bishops issued a document strongly affirming the rights of workers, Our Sunday Visitor defended it, calling for an end to the antagonism between capital and labor.
By 1922, Father Noll and Our Sunday Visitor were putting their weight behind another crusade for justice - the education and acceptance of America's forgotten blacks. Columns called for a campaign to provide them with a Christian education.
There were other battles to be fought. The reborn Ku Klux Klan was the largest and most organized anti-Catholic group in the U.S., openly calling for "one hundred percent" Americans. Their argument: anyone not a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant could never be a true American. Our Sunday Visitor fought the Klan.
The major focus of the organized public attack on the Church at the time, however, was the parochial schools. Bills and initiatives aimed at making private, Catholic schools illegal were introduced on a number of occasions in state legislatures. Our Sunday Visitor blasted such injustices in editorials and stories throughout the mid-1920s, helping to end this discrimination.
In 1925, the issue on everyone's mind was the Bible versus evolution. The Scopes Monkey Trial dominated the news. Bishop Noll put the situation into perspective: Nothing was determined other than whether the State of Tennessee had the right to prevent the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools. At home, Father Noll had become Bishop Noll in late 1925. Despite his demanding schedule, he remained completely involved in the production of each issue of Our Sunday Visitor.
The 1926 International Eucharistic Congress held in Chicago was a highpoint for Catholics. It signaled they had arrived in U.S. society. But in the midst of the euphoria as millions gathered, few realized how difficult the coming years would be for Catholics.
When Al Smith, the popular Catholic governor of New York, ran for the presidency in 1928 against Herbert Hoover, the campaign reawakened every anti-Catholic smear imaginable. The situation provided Bishop Noll with an opportunity to respond with great force to the absurd anti-Catholic charges, but the paper, pledged to neutrality in the campaign, did not endorse Smith.
As the Twenties came to a close, the Jazz Age reigned supreme: fast cars, easy money, loose morality. Our Sunday Visitor decried the trends. But readers soon faced a more immediate problem: The decade ended with a crash on Wall Street that brought the near-fatal blow of the Great Depression to the immigrant Catholics still working to gain a foothold in their new country.
Our Sunday Visitor and the Great Depression
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.
Overseas, Europe 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.
Throughout the 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 "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."
At home, 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.
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."
Reflecting the 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.
Our Sunday 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.
Reflecting its interest in family life and problems, a 1953 headline asked, "In your moviegoing, do you encourage stars who do not live morally?"
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 newspaper.
As America 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 his actions.
Our Sunday Visitor and the decade of change
Beneath the 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 Noll'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.While America could celebrate landing a man on the moon by mid-1969, it had little else to celebrate back on earth. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 abruptly shattered the peace of the 1950s. What had begun as a small intervention in Vietnam cost Lyndon B. Johnson his presidency. What had begun as civil-rights progress for America's racial minorities -- staunchly supported by the paper -- ended with the burning of American cities in 1967 and the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Robert Kennedy's death that same year increased the sense of national tragedy. American students began wholesale revolts against the American presence in Vietnam. Demonstrations, marches and tear-gas became commonplace. It was a grim time for America, reflected in grim commentary in the pages of Our Sunday Visitor.
The Church, too, was going through one of its most divisive decades. Early on, the Second Vatican Council convoked by Pope John XXIII had been the source of high hopes, as reported in numerous articles in Our Sunday Visitor. A reader poll found that 60 percent of the paper's readers favored having the Mass in English. Hopes ran high with an upbeat mood as each new Council decree was reported.
Even the death of the Pope on June 3, 1963, had been the occasion for rejoicing about his accomplishments. Wrote Joseph Breig: "John XXIII made Catholics feel completely at home with their fellow man of other faiths. He made the laity realize that they had a voice and status in the Church that was their right. He relaxed tensions among Catholics themselves, making Catholics aware that they were not alone in possessing truth."
But what had begun in high hopes soon disintegrated into an atmosphere of factionalism and discontent. One writer asked, "Is this the Church of joy or of anger?" Catholics used to a lifetime of unchanging security suddenly faced numerous changes: Mass was no longer in Latin, the priest now faced the people, old hymns were abandoned in favor of folk Masses. Our Sunday Visitor wavered from whole-hearted endorsement of the renewal in the Church to questioning the direction such renewal was taking. It initially endorsed the anticommunist crusade against Vietnam, then turned against that ugly little war. It experienced a decline in readership as it alternately alienated the traditional and liberal Catholic reader.
On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical forbidding artificial contraception. Overnight, birth control became the hottest issue of debate among Catholics. Our Sunday Visitor supported the Pope's decision; columnists asked why dissenting theologians should still be teaching at Catholic universities and seminaries.
The late 1960s witnessed the low-point for the Church in the United States: priests and sisters by the thousands left their ministry; the number of converts plummeted; vocations began to decline at an alarming rate; disagreement was widespread over whether priests and Religious should be involved in politics. Catechetical materials seemed to abandon much of the traditional faith, a development Our Sunday Visitor decried openly in print.
The 1970s were the years when the newspaper that Father Noll founded regained its direction and stability. This was also the era in which the company that evolved around that newspaper grew so large it became necessary to split it into two separate entities: the not-for-profit Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. and Noll Printing, formed in 1978 as a wholly-owned subsidiary.
The decade began with the editors determined to do battle with those who appeared to be attacking the Church. No longer was the enemy nativist anti-Catholics. The paper focused on what it saw as on those fomenting trouble within the Church structure: dissenting theologians, laissez-faire catechists, clergy and Religious who taught that doctrine was whatever you wanted it to be.
The Vietnam War would end in early 1973, but a new battle began. The U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion-on-demand on Jan. 22 of that year, marking the beginning of an endless crusade on the part of Our Sunday Visitor to overturn a court decision that has led to the deaths of millions of unborn children.
As the decade progressed, the battles within the Church grew less strident. None had been truly concluded, but there was a growing consensus that the true enemy was outside the door - the forces engineering the attack on unborn (and born) human life, the escalating threat of worldwide nuclear catastrophe, the secularization of American society, political oppression of the Third World, and the poverty at home.
The paper became concerned with these issues, particularly with the growing secularization and indifference to religion in America. The death of Pope Paul VI in August of 1978 ended an era, but the newly elected pontiff, Pope John Paul I, survived only 34 days before the College of Cardinals was forced back into session to elect his successor. They chose Karol Wojtyla, the first Polish-born Pope, who immediately became a media superstar and the most-beloved Pope in centuries.
He also became the most-traveled pope ever. Our Sunday Visitor's documented the papal trips to Poland, Latin America and the U.S., with first-person reports from correspondents and photographers.
Our Sunday Visitor today
Today, Our Sunday Visitor's publishing and offering-envelope divisions employs more than 300 people. The publishing division has three main product lines: Religious periodicals, religious books and religious-education materials.
In addition to the weekly Our Sunday Visitor, the periodical division publishes several other publications:
- The Priest Magazine is a monthly magazine edited expressly for priests, seminarians and permanent deacons;
- The Catholic Answer, founded in 1987 and edited by Father Peter Stravinskas, is a popular bimonthly apologetics publication that answers readers questions about their faith;
- Grace In Action was founded in 2002. It is a stewardship resource intended to provide a stewardship message to parishioners every month, and it is distributed primarily as a weekly bulletin insert distributed by the parish.
- Take Out: Family Faith on the Go -- Aimed for a busy family, with an emphasis on catechesis.
Long known for its periodicals, within the past decade Our Sunday Visitor has also become one of the leading publishers of Catholic books. We offer more than 500 titles on a wide range of subjects: apologetics and catechetics reference, prayer, heritage and saints, family and parish materials.
The company's religious education line includes the first, and still the most popular, preschool religious education program in the country. It also includes sacramental-preparation programs for baptism, confirmation, first Communion, and first confession. A popular new product line is Parent Letters, a program that helps parishes to keep in touch with new parents for three years after their child has been baptized.
Our Sunday Visitor also publishes adult religious-education materials and has recently produced a successful series of pamphlets called What the CHURCH Teaches on current issues such as cloning, stem cell research and terrorism. In 2000, Our Sunday Visitor was chosen by the U.S. bishops to be the primary distributor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Along with our publishing efforts, the Our Sunday Visitor Offertory Services Division serves more than 6,000 parishes in this country and in Canada.
Both divisions belong to a nonprofit corporation. Its earnings are disbursed to a variety of Catholic projects in the United States by the Our Sunday Visitor Institute. The institute is dedicated to combating religious illiteracy by working with those U.S. Catholic organizations listed in the Official Catholic Directory. The Our Sunday Visitor Institute is just one more way that the company lives up to Archbishop Noll's founding mandate "to serve the Church."
We are proud of our past, but the past is history. Committed to two goals: serving the Church today, and anticipating and meeting the needs of the Church of tomorrow ... we are busy developing new products - publications, religious education materials, religious books - to meet the evolving needs of a demanding Catholic market.
Our Sunday Visitor has grown beyond the wildest dreams of the young Father Noll. But some things have not changed.
We are still committed to communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church. Our Sunday Visitor is still working to encourage development of spirituality in the lives of our readers. Through our publications, our books and our religious-education materials, the company continues striving to bring about a greater understanding of the Church and its role in modern society.
We think Father Noll would be proud.