Welcome to the online edition of The Catholic Telegraph,
the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati

Serving 500,000 Catholics in the southwest Ohio counties of:
Adams, Auglaize, Brown, Butler, Champaign, Clark, Clermont, Clinton, Darke, Greene, Hamilton, Highland, Logan, Mercer, Miami, Montgomery, Preble, Shelby and Warren.

A seven week series
175th anniversary of The Catholic Telegraph


Bishop Edward Fenwick, blessing Ohio Catholic settlers who are gathered, some on bended knee, near a log church or cabin on the frontier.

Back to the Beginning

As the 175th anniversary of the founding of The Catholic Telegraph approaches, we realized that we have at other anniversaries told stories of the paper's history, and listed its editors and its awards over the past decades. But we have never placed the paper in history, in the context of the times in which it was published.

On October 22, 1831, just five days after the opening of the Athenaeum, the Catholic seminary in Cincinnati, Bishop Edward Fenwick determined a good use for a hand printing press he had received while in France. A diocesan newspaper, dubbed The Catholic Telegraph, was established, with Father James Mullon the seminary rector, as editor.

The 8-page weekly was the first Catholic newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains, the first diocesan newspaper, and the second Catholic newspaper in the United States.

Intense anti-Catholic sentiment was prevalent throughout Ohio, and Bishop Fenwick felt a need to communicate with the far-flung flock of his 10-year-old diocese, who were spread wide in a diocese which at the time included part of Kentucky, all of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota
"The primary object in issuing The Catholic Telegraph," Father Munnon wrote, "is to aid in diffusing a correct knowledge of the Catholic faith and to correct false notions about the Catholic faith often seen in the public press and heard from the public platforms."

David Merkowitz, a doctoral student in history at the University of Cincinnati, says, "The Catholic Telegraph has long been a valuable resource for historians. The paper has witnessed dramatic transformations in American society since 1831. Throughout the Telegraph's first century, the paper was considered an influential part of the American Catholic press. It served as the leading voice of Catholics and their church throughout the Ohio Valley and into the Great Lakes region."

"It has been widely cited in works ranging from a history of Catholic opinion on slavery to a work on the religious and cultural life of the 1920s. As a public voice for American Catholicism, the Telegraph took a prominent role in broadcasting an American Catholic response to wars that involved the United States," he added.

Merkowitz, a graduate of St. Xavier High School, holds degrees in political science and history from the University of Toledo. He has made extensive use of the Catholic Telegraph in his studies of Cincinnati in the 1850s and 1920s. A parishioner at St. Monica-St. George Church, he lives in Clifton with his wife, Jennifer, and his enthusiasm for the vital history of the archdiocesan newspaper made him a perfect choice to write our anniversary series.

By David J. Merkowitz

Over the past 175 years,The Catholic Telegraph has been the local Catholic witness to the dramatic events affecting the world. Though many may not remember, the Catholic Telegraph has often used its prominent anniversaries to look back in appreciation. Now at 175 years of age and again, in a time war, it seems a good opportunity to look at how the paper responded to similar wartime situations.

But let's get a couple things on the table first.

In the 19th century, religion was one of the most important parts of national life, even more than in the 20th century. The direction and definition of what it meant to be an American was deeply tied up in being Protestant; the British had given colonists a deep, abiding hatred of things Catholic. Historians have identified various periods when a Catholic person's right to call themselves an American was called into question. Race and the question of slavery tended to alternate with anti-Catholicism in the public mind; when one was more prominent, the other was less, and vice versa.

Besides anti-Catholicism, American Protestantism in its many diverse forms placed the Bible in the center of its spiritual and religious life in a way Catholics did not until at least the Second Vatican Council. American Protestants believed that everyone could understand the Bible, and more importantly, that they should have access to it. The King James Edition of the Bible was very much a part of everyday life for Americans. It was read widely in public schools, and politicians made widespread use of it in speeches and other public comments.

Out of this context, The Catholic Telegraph was understood by its editors to have as one of its primary purposes the defense of Catholics and the Catholic faith from the slanderous attacks of many of its enemies. It did this by providing explanations for Catholic thought on faith and social issues. At other times, it used the news of the day to make clear to its audience the superiority of the Catholic Church over Protestantism.

In addition to its battles with anti-Catholicism, the paper served as a source of collective conscious for the Catholic community in Cincinnati and, to some degree, Catholics across the nation. The events of the Catholic world, particularly news from Europe about Catholics, were well covered. Italy, Ireland, France, England and Germany filled as many pages of The Catholic Telegraph as that of more local interest. The Catholic Telegraph in the mid-1800s served at various times as the Catholic paper of record for most of Ohio and Kentucky, so that its understanding of "local" was much broader than the archdiocese.


An 1853 anti-Catholic cartoon, reflecting the nativist perception of the threat posed by the Roman Church's influence in the United States through Irish immigration and Catholic education. The "Propagation Society" is probably the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. "Young America," a boy in a short coat and striped trousers, stands at left, holding out a Bible toward Pope Pius IX, who steps ashore from a boat at left. The latter holds aloft a sword in one hand and a cross in the other. Still in the boat are five bishops. One holds the boat to the shore with a crozier hooked round a shamrock plant.

Finally, the Telegraph included items such as Lenten regulations, reflections on being a good Catholic, biographies of prominent living Catholics and stories of saints that might be a source of inspiration to the Catholic community.

While one can make claims of the paper's significance and influence on Catholics in the diocese and later Archdiocese of Cincinnati, it is true that clergy were probably the largest bulk of readership. However, a substantial portion of literate Catholic population probably came in contact with the paper or one of its sister Catholic newspapers.

All the various positions along the political spectrum were often identifiable simply by the paper they associated with. Even single-issue voters could find a newspaper that would fight for them in the public space of 19th-century life. Newspapers played a key role in the political and intellectual life of the nation during the 1800s. There was a voice for every position, and they competed constantly for attention and influence.

The Mexican-American War was the first national war that occurred on the Catholic Telegraph's watch. The paper has very rarely favored American involvement in war. It rarely saw American military action in isolation from broader developments in American and Catholic life, and it constantly had its eyes on the Catholic perspective of the action. Sometimes this concerned the treatment of Catholic soldiers; other times, it was the behavior of the Catholic Church in the enemy nation.

The Catholic Telegraph and Catholics trod a thin line when it came to opposing American wars. Given the pervasive anti-Catholicism, the newspaper had to balance its desire to vigorously argue its position on the war and not damage the already questionable reputation that Catholics had in the United States. The Catholic community had a large immigrant component that could be accused of having greater loyalty toward home nations than their new nation.

After the Mexican-American War, the issue of slavery eventually drowned out all the other competing issues for national attention. However, along the way to Fort Sumter, anti-Catholicism reared its head yet again in the form of the Know-Nothing Movement.

The 1850s were also Cincinnati's peak of national influence. Cincinnati was the leading trading and manufacturing center in the West. It was at the center of the substantial north-south trade. It was an important stop for migrants - foreign and domestic - as they headed west.

Catholic immigrants continued to pour into America's ports and heartland, and many of the new immigrants who stopped in Cincinnati in the 1850s were German. Fleeing economic and political unrest in Germany, they joined many Irish, who, starting in the late 1840s, swept out of their island to escape famine and political domination. They, too, came to Cincinnati in search of a better life.

If the anti-Catholics of the 1840s were worried about the stream of immigrants, the 1850s was a nightmare for them. The stream turned into a flood. The German immigrants after 1848 were not just Catholics. They included a variety of Protestants and liberals or, in the phrasing of the day, "republicans." And these groups of Germans did not suddenly get along just because they lived along the Ohio River instead of the Rhine.

Cincinnati became a boiling cauldron of social tension. The city was wracked by every sort of politically motivated violence throughout the 1850s. There were riots during the Christmas visit of Gaetano Bedini, the papal representative. Another round of riots arose during the election of 1855. This sort of urban violence would continue into the Civil War period as well. Cities across the nation were hard-pressed to keep order under the intense pressure of social and economic change.

To further complicate the picture, the American political system was dramatically transformed. During the 1850s, the nation saw the creation of new powerful political party, the Republican Party. This party had all of its support in the North and made its first priority to stop the expansion of slavery into the territories. As a result, in the presidential election of 1860, the nation could elect a president with absolutely no support in half of the country.

The Catholic Telegraph would become notorious, as it was the first prominent Catholic newspaper to strongly support emancipation (though not until the spring of the 1863.) To put it mildly, the Civil War was a complicated affair, and The Catholic Telegraph had a complicated response to the whole situation.

(Next week: the Telegraph is the only Catholic paper to oppose slavery.)

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