How Catholic Digest was born

By Edward A. Harrigan

It started with three priests,
a basement steam plant,
and a dream

In 1941, five years after Catholic Digest was founded, Digest assistant editor Edward Harrigan wrote about the magazines beginnings ...

"How would you like to work for me, Nick?"

Father Gales was speaking to the boy who was driving his car that afternoon, Nick Tschida. Nick, one of his young parishioners, thought it would be great. From that time on, he strove mightily for Father Louis A. Gales, then assistant at St. Agnes 'Church, in St. Paul, Minnesota, taking dictation, typing letters, running errands - doing the thousand and one tasks that must be done for a priest who is getting ready to put out the first issue of a new magazine.

All through the summer of 1936, Father Gales worked hard fulfilling his duties as assistant in a large and active parish (and he's one who would see to it that none of them be neglected), all the while preparing for the launching of Catholic Digest, and in addition seeing to the smooth functioning of his Catechetical Guild, which supplies Catholic teachers with educational material and publishes books and pamphlets.

The initial surveys made, the necessary cooperation of other magazines obtained, a small but promising list of charter subscribers secured, Father Gales decided the venture was too great for one man. Curiously, but characteristically, he didn't worry about financing; his chief concern was to find competent associates. He found them in the persons of two other St. Paul priests, Father Paul Bussard and Father Edward F. Jenninings then the publishers of the Leaflet Missal. Father Bussard became Digest editor, Father Jennings, business manager, and Father Gales, managing editor.

All three are products of the St. Paul Seminary; none are beyond early middle age; all are energetic in the cause of the faith. Father Gales is chaplain of the City Hospital, a I,000-bed institution. When it is considered that Catholics constitute something like half of the city's total population, it can be realized that the chaplaincy of this hospital is no light nor negligible task. Besides that, Father Gales is also chaplain to the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Father Bussard is the youngest of the Digest triumvirate, but has had long and intensive preparation for his duties as editor and parish assistant. He won't alfw himself to be described as "brilliant:' but that's what everybody says about him.

I owa contributed Father Bussard to the St. Paul archdiocese; Wisconsin, Father Gales. Chicago-born, Father Jennings is a heavy-set, whitehaired, not always soft-spoken but greathearted Irishman who is well known and loved by his associates and fellow priests. He is pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, at St. Croix Beach, Minnesota. Besides his duties (and worries) as a pastor, he carries the business burdens of the Digest, financial, promotional, circulation, and otherwise.

The fact that the Catholic Digest today commands a position among the leading Catholic magazines - for that matter, among all magazines - does not mean that there were not difficulties aplenty in the early days. Father Gales found his two associates in their Leaflet Missal office in the basement of the chancery building, immediately behind the cathedral. It would be no understatement to say that these quarters were unpretentious; in fact, space was shared with the heating plant.

Father Gales brought his principal assets, the labels bearing the  names of his subscribers, to the Leaflet office in bushel baskets. Leaflet desks were moved, a few more (used) wooden desks were lined up against one wall. Tschida, two of the Leaflet boys, Jim O'Toole and Dan Hartnett, and a new kid, Paul Hogan, just out of high school, were put to work on the baskets of subscribers. The Catholic Digest was on its way!

The three priests had been praised, in correspondence from other editors, for their zeal, encouraged by some to go ahead; but there were also some who, having lived the difficult lives of Catholic editors, said the project couldn't possibly succeed without an initial capital of at least $50,000. The reverend trio read the letters, considered the advice, loosened up their Roman collars, and went ahead with a capital of exactly one-fiftieth of the stipulated minimum.

Pastors constitute the backbone of support. It is they who order it in quantities, and speak of it to their people from their pulpits, and the Digest executives readily and gratefully agree that were it not for the pastors' good will, the publication could not exist. The Digest is now distributed in 1,200 parishes.

It has never been, and never will be, the policy of the editors to sling mud. The Digest is distinctly and definitely a Catholic digest, but it can be read, and is read and enjoyed, by many non-Catholics. This policy has resulted in many inquiries about Catholic doctrine and practice, and instances of conversions through its influence are known. Ministers sometimes write in, demonstrating a keen interest. It is read by many bigots and by some hypercritical Catholics, too, the files show; some of the carping received was not fit to go through the mails. Rarely, however, are names signed to correspondence of such nature. 

The editors every month glean the very best and most interesting of Catholic writing from more than 300 publications. No topic is barred, provided that it be ably presented from the Catholic viewpoint. Naturally, religious subjects bulk large in the total material used, but no sickly, pseudopious writing is admitted.

Realizing that Catholics are American citizens, with the same interest in art and science, in their government, in foreign affairs, in making a living, as their non-Catholic neighbors, in addition to their interest in their faith, many articles of a non-religious nature, provided they are not anti -Catholic, are included. In a word, the Digests policy is to draw upon all Catholic magazines and upon non-Catholic sources as well, when they publish Catholic articles. The editors are careful to point out, however, that the selection of material from secular magazines cannot be taken as a general endorsement of everything appearing therein - for quite obvious reasons. For instance, an article illustrated with a picture of the pope, hand raised in benediction, might be perfect Digest material; an illustrated feature on the latest technique in petting on an opposite page, quite the reverse. In this: said Father Bussard, we follow the advice of St. Paul: For the rest, brethren, all that is true, all that is seemly, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovable, all that is winning - whatever is virtuous or praiseworthy - let such things fill your thought:

The spirit of the three priests who launched the Digest and keep it in the forefront of the Church's battle with the forces of paganism pervades the entire organization. Everybody speaks his or her mind, and is encouraged to do so. It may be on a matter of policy; an idea for boosting circulation, improving office procedure, or for the betterment of the magazine itself - or just an ordinary Monday-morning squawk. Mailing matter is passed around among the older heads in the organization, each making suggestions. Editorial and business departments take suggestions from each other. In this way many valuable ideas come to light, to benefit the magazine and its readers.

[Postscript: 1942: Today The Old Guard have all departed in response to their country's call for defenders, together with many others who followed them into the organization. Sixteen stars embellish the Digest service flag. One member of the editorial staff, Father Frands B. Thornton, is a chaplain. Father Gales, Father Bussard, and Father Jennings still walk the bridge of the Digest craft, along with their regular parochial duties.] CD

Catholic Digest

November 1936
First issue (taken to the post office on November 11) .

February 1937
First article from a non-Catholic
source : (When love comes my way
 from Good Housekeeping)

January 1938
First book excerpt (Georges Bernanos,
Diary of a Country Priest)

April 1946
First illustration inside

December 1948
First "The Open Door"

May 1949
First picture appears on the cover

July 1949
First color photograph on cover

May 1956
First What Would You Like to Know About the Church?
(changed after Vatican II to
 What Would You Like to Know About Changes in the Church? and continuing today just as
What Would You Like to Know?)

November 1983
First "Words for Quiet Moments"

November 1985
First "Be Well"

November 1987
First visit to "Patrick's Corner"

Ũҡ : Catholic Digest  Nov. 2006, p. 45-50.

: СýԪҡ .