Fr. Seamus Hogan has used The Register’s archive to gain a sense of attitudes and aspirations of previous generations. Photo by Michael Swan

The Catholic Register is 125: In the beginning

By 
  • January 5, 2018

The Catholic Register is 125 yearsold on January 5. Since 1893, it has strived to reflect the opinions and the events that have been important to Canada and its Catholic citizens.

The Catholic Register was born into a city where Protestant was proper and Catholic was contemptible. 

If Catholics in English Canada were going to have a political voice or any sway at all 125 years ago, they needed a newspaper. Founding editor Fr. John R. Teefy made no bones about that.

“We are not strangers who came yesterday and who are leaving tomorrow,” he wrote in the first issue of the newspaper, Jan. 5, 1893. “We do not purpose entering the ranks of party politics, but we do not propose being silent when the interest of our religion or its members are at stake; for we are not Helots (the peasant class in ancient Sparta) whose sole right consists in being allowed to serve and pay taxes. We ask no favours; and we fear no wrong. The end we aim at is ‘Our God’s, our country’s and truth’s.’”

Teefy wanted the world to see Catholics, particularly Irish Catholics, as loyal, engaged citizens of this young country at a time when Toronto’s Irish Catholics were derided as Canadians of convenience, an alien hoard, obsessed with the far-off, violent politics of their benighted “Emerald Isle.”

“The fact that we are a Catholic journal will not by any means lessen the interest we take in the institutions, the growth and prosperity of our country,” he wrote. “We are one with every patriot whatever be his creed.”

Almost 6,000 issues later, The Catholic Register, Canada’s oldest Catholic publication, contains within its pages something more than just 125 years of Church history chronicled. For professional historians, the newspaper’s rich archive brings the nation’s Catholic past into the present.

“The Catholic Register was, for me, just an obvious place to go,” said Fr. Seamus Hogan. “What I was able to do with The Catholic Register is go back in time.”

The St. Augustine Seminary professor of Church history is up to his elbows writing a book which traces the Archdiocese of Toronto’s history since 1847 through the biographies of its first 10 bishops and archbishops. Though the title is still in doubt, Hogan hopes the book will be published next spring.

When he began the project he had to shlep down to the Kelly Library at St. Michael’s College, the University of Toronto to search through dusty reels of The Catholic Register on microfilm — reels that are available at only four locations in Canada: the Toronto Reference Library, the Kelly Library, the Parliamentary Library in Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Toronto archives. 

Halfway through his research, Hogan was able to gain access to a work-in-progress version of The Register’s digital archives. After a year of scanning and indexing the complete digital archive of The Catholic Register will soon officially launch for public use. Instead of scanning library microfilm, Hogan could do his research from his computer in the comfort of his office.

“With that I could just use the handy search bar to find everything I needed,” Hogan said.

What Hogan found in The Register’s back issues was something more valuable than just the facts. What Hogan discovered in the newspaper was attitudes, insights, conventional wisdom, common fears and shared aspirations of Canada’s Catholic community through almost 13 decades.

“There are realities that were going on 30 or 40 years ago, even 15 years ago, that I wasn’t appreciating,” Hogan said.

Catholic newspapers are an extremely valuable resource for any historian studying modern Catholic history, said Edmonton’s St. Joseph College historian Indré Cuplinskas.

Cuplinskas’s own PhD thesis, written long before digitization and easy word search capabilities, was based on newspapers produced by the Jeunesse Étudiante Chrétienne, the Catholic Action youth movement in Quebec which fostered the ideals of Pierre Trudeau, Jean Sauvé, Romeo Leblanc and Marc Lalonde.

“You use it, not so much to get particular facts about an event (though occasionally it might be useful for that), but more to see what people are thinking at the time,” Cuplinskas said. “You can look at newspapers and see how a group even constructs its identity by the things it chooses to write about.”

Newspapers were a slow-developing phenomenon in Canada. The notion that anyone had a right to know anything would have been laughed out of court.

The first newspapers around the turn of the 18th century were gazettes which printed official government notices under license. Any publisher who strayed from official notices was very likely to find himself in jail.

Canada’s first Catholic journalist, Francis Collins, began as a court stenographer and official reporter of debates in the Upper Canada legislature. From there he evolved his enterprise to become publisher of the Canadian Freeman in 1825. When he took to referring to Lt.-Gov. Sir Peregrine Maitland’s administration as a “reptile band” and accurately quoting some of the worst outbursts in the legislature, Collins was cited for contempt and made to apologize at the bar of the house. He was less than truly repentant and in 1829 wound up in the York jail for libel.

Collins was a defender of the freedom of the press. But in the 19th century that freedom was controlled by powerful political actors who owned a press and used it to tear their rivals to shreds on the public stage.

“Newspapers in that era and earlier were so much more political,” said Ryerson University journalism professor Joyce Smith. “There was no pretence at objectivity.”

When The Catholic Register started publishing in 1893 it launched into a newspaper sea of non-objective, politically-slanted mudslinging, intrigue and posturing, and in a city openly under the control of the Protestant Orange Order. Catholics, who were at least one-quarter of Toronto’s population, had since 1878 been banned from honouring the patron saint of Ireland with a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The ban stood until 1988.

Founded in 1876, the Toronto Telegram was a mouthpiece for the Orange Order. George Brown’s Globe, founded in 1844, was an outlet for Brown’s Presbyterian Free Kirk convictions. Religion was politics and vice versa in Canada’s English press at that time.

“A newspaper that served a community that at the time was facing significant discrimination was kind of a mark of legitimacy,” Smith said of The Register. “But also a way of organizing and rallying — especially for a community that was and continues to be so ethnically diverse.”

The Catholic Register in 1893 wasn’t just a news source for Catholics. “It’s projecting a Catholic presence, but it’s also trying to construct a Catholic presence for themselves,” said Cuplinskas.

As Teefy said in the debut issue, The Register works in harmony with the Toronto archbishop and the newspaper bears his imprimatur, but The Register, both then and now, operates independently of the archdiocese. The news its editors print is selected without interference and the opinions it expresses are its own.

“It continues to be important for people to see their communities represented,” said Smith. “And for there to be a channel for information sharing, particularly in an era where the religion beat within Canadian news organizations has all but disappeared.”

For the historian, there’s more to gauging the temperature of the times than reading a newspaper’s editorials. The layout, opinion columns, selection of news, even advertising are all part of the picture, said Cuplinskas.

“Another interesting thing about newspapers in general is that they tend also to give a bit more voice to the laity,” she said.

Today, Canada’s Catholic press must also address a digital dynamic. Smith believes it “makes perfect sense” that newspapers are less defined by the geography they cover than by the topics they report on. That could be good news for the religious press.

“This idea of news being filtered through the lens of your religious community makes total sense, in a way more so than prior to the Net,” she said.

CR125 file photos

Photos of Catholic Register editors in the 1980's. 

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