The last run of the Prairie Messenger at St. Peter's Press April 25. Photo courtesy of Prairie Messenger

Prairie paper publishes its final edition after 114 years

By 
  • May 7, 2018

Catholics on the Canadian Prairies have just lost an important voice. 

The publication May 9 of The Prairie Messengers final edition marks the end of a 114-year run for a newspaper that always kept the social gospel near to its heart when reporting on issues of the day.

“Like many readers of the PM, I’m disappointed that after more than 100 years, the progressive Catholic newspaper that served so many in Saskatchewan and Manitoba will no longer be published,” said Art Babych, a former Messenger editor. “Like so many, I’m going to miss reading the PM each week. And when it’s gone, a part of me will have gone with it.”

Social justice was always the calling card of the little Prairie paper that operated out of St. Peter’s Abbey, the oldest Benedictine monastery in Canada, in the small central Saskatchewan town of Muenster, east of Saskatoon. It gained a nationwide reputation for its concern for the poor while also being open to dialogue, “not just from the top down but from the bottom up,” said Abbot Peter Novecosky, the Prairie Messenger’s Editor.

The Messenger has sponsored a viewpoint that sometimes is not in sync with the current political or societal view of development,” said Novecosky. “We’ve been open to looking at an alternate view from what perhaps the societal, cultural view is.”

That outlook is rooted in the Rule of St. Benedict, who lived during the fall of the Roman Empire, days not much different from the chaos of our day. Benedict was a moderate voice of his times, and Novecosky sees the similarities.

“Living in community is part of what our whole society is about, so I think by trying to adjust and call attention to the wounds in our societal community we try to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus that way,” he said.

But like many newspapers in Canada, paying the bills became a challenge. For many years, a trust called the PM Sustaining Fund, established in the 1990s by the late Fr. Andrew Britz, its former editor-in-chief, breathed life into the paper. But the monastic board of the abbey concluded it could no longer carry a debt that had ballooned to more than $200,000 annually. The paper’s subscriber base fell below 4,000, too low to sustain the operation.

It wasn’t an easy decision. The Benedictines of St. Peter’s have been associated with the paper since 1923, when the English Messenger was first printed. And its roots go further, to 1904, and the German newspaper The St. Peter’s Bote. But a critical point had been reached as the Internet and social media changed the way people access their news.

Maureen Weber, a long-time editor at The Prairie Messenger, praised its adherence to independence and said it served its purpose to the Church by offering all sides of the story.

“If people want to hear only one side, if they are not made aware there is another side, they will risk falling prey to the praying of extremist bloggers,” said Weber. “Catholic journalism is not doing its job if people are not able to engage the issues and think about them. The Prairie Messenger fostered that dialogue.”

Babych joined the Messenger in 1989, when Britz hired the Moose Jaw, Sask., native to be editor, a role Babych held for three years. Saddened at its closure, yes, but Babych is also thankful for “the important role The Prairie Messenger played in promoting the Catholic Church’s authentic social teaching.”

He continued to contribute to the paper as the first Parliament Hill correspondent for Canadian Catholic News. The co-operative of Catholic newspapers from across the country, including The Catholic Register, was founded in the late 1980s, and The Prairie Messenger under Britz was key in its establishment.

Eric Durocher, editor emeritus of the Catholic Times Montreal, was around in those early days. He said Britz had a vision of sharing Catholic stories from across the land “which fuelled the dream of a national news service.” It took some time to get the Catholic papers on board, but today, when you open any Catholic newspaper you can see what is going on in the Church nationwide.

Canadian Catholic News has become indispensable to what we do,” said Catholic Register publisher and editor Jim O’Leary. “The Prairie Messenger was a vital member of CCN, which is just one reason this fine Catholic newspaper will be greatly missed.”

The loss of The Prairie Messenger will create a void that, according to Novecosky, is not being filled through the transition to the digital age.

“I don’t see it taking over the role we had… that voice is being lost,” he said. “It’s going to be a loss to our province, to our readership and our society in the West.”

The bishops of Saskatchewan are in the early stages of finding a digital medium to get that voice out. 

Novecosky cannot express enough gratitude to The Messenger’s supporters. He thanks them for their support and wishes them well “in their continued efforts to support their journey in the Church and be informed and critical” of the issues of the day.

(Conlon is a writer in Regina.)

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