Fr. John Fierens, an ardent supporter of the new Oregon Catholic paper, is photographed circa 1888, likely during a trip to Jerusalem. The donkey appears to feel the photo is an affront to its dignity. (Archdiocese of Portland archives)
Fr. John Fierens, an ardent supporter of the new Oregon Catholic paper, is photographed circa 1888, likely during a trip to Jerusalem. The donkey appears to feel the photo is an affront to its dignity. (Archdiocese of Portland archives)

“It is the task of the Catholic press to balance, to complete and, if necessary, to correct the news and comments about religion and the Christian life.”

These words, from the 1971 “Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication,” were published at the direction of the Second Vatican Council.

Almost exactly 100 years earlier, on a late-winter day in Rome during the First Vatican Council, Oregon Archbishop Francis Blanchet opened the first issue of the Catholic Sentinel.

The cleric was shocked to learn that his archdiocese now had a Catholic newspaper, yet he likely smiled perusing its pages.

“It was altogether unexpected, but was most heartily welcomed,” the archbishop wrote to the papers’ two bold editors. “Many warm wishes for its success and long life!”

Henry Herman, a sharp-minded grocer, and J.F. Atkinson, a skilled printer, couldn’t know how long their paper would survive. But they likely would raise a glass, of Irish whisky perhaps, to the contents of the pastoral instruction penned a century later. For the editors viewed their newspaper as a risky but noble endeavor, one that would correct misperceptions and defend their beloved faith from iniquitous attack.

Anti-Catholic fears

The Sentinel’s founding was vitalized by several trends of the late 19th century. There was a burgeoning newspaper industry nationwide, support for Catholic publications by laity and clergy, and a desire for methods to defend a frequently maligned church.

Anti-Catholic rhetoric in the United States at the time was rooted in the legacy of the Protestant Reformation and years of faith-based wars in Europe. There also existed a nativist distrust of immigrants.

Between 1879 and 1900, nearly 12 million immigrants arrived in the country — with many Irish and German Catholics in the mix — and it was not uncommon for respected statesmen to warn about the dangers of these papists. A famous political cartoonist regularly derided Irish Catholic immigrants as barbarians and drunks.

Oregon had its own frontier brand of anti-Catholic sentiment, enflamed by a tragedy twisted to serve a Protestant missionary’s contempt for Catholicism. A fight for the event’s narrative spanned decades and exacerbated hostility on both sides.

A missionary’s myth

In the late 1830s, a Methodist couple, Rev. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, founded a mission to serve the Cayuse people in southeast Washington Territory.

When mission work faltered, they refocused their efforts on assisting pioneers who’d come via the Oregon Trail. The swelling number of whites entering the region brought new diseases, and an epidemic of measles killed many Cayuse children.

On Nov. 29, 1847, in response to the Whitmans’ connections with colonization and the recent deaths, several Cayuse killed 14 missionaries, including the Whitmans.

A Catholic priest, Father Jean Baptist Brouillet, was in the area and came upon the scene of death. While some Cayuse lingered, he stopped to help the survivors and bury victims — believing he soon could be among them.

“I cast more than one glance aside and behind at the knives, pistols, and guns, in order to assure myself whether there were not some of them directed at me,” Father Brouillet would later write.

The priest hurried to warn another Methodist missionary, Rev. Henry Spalding, that he also might be danger.

Spalding’s deep animosity toward Catholics led him to recast the story and blame his spiritual foes, claiming Father Brouillet provoked the killings. 

The priest responded with his version — eventually printed in pamphlet by a New York Catholic bookseller. In 1854, early in what became a war of words, a government agent visiting Oregon included the pamphlet in his report to Washington, D.C. The result was that Father Brouillet’s account was reprinted at the government’s expense.

Irate, Spalding headed to D.C., determined to have his own version recorded in such a manner. 

Amid this back-and-forth, Herman and Atkinson teamed up to launch the Catholic Sentinel.

In the first issue, dated Feb. 5, 1870, the editors wrote they had feelings of both joy and trepidation as they launched their craft “upon the stormy and often disastrous sea of journalism.” Trepidation “because of the knowledge that we have great difficulties in our path to overcome, and joy because it has been our lot to be the first in this great Northwest to embark in the glorious work of thus espousing and defending our holy faith, and to disabuse the minds of well-thinking people of existing prejudices against our doctrines and practices.”

This tone of charity was the aspiration, if not always the achievement, of the early editors, who’d go on to defend the faith from a range of accusations.

In 1871, almost 25 years after the missionaries’ murders, Spalding’s enduring dream was achieved: Supported by influential Protestants in the nation’s capital, his concocted account had been printed with the U.S. government footing the bill.

The Sentinel stepped up to fulfill its mission and published Father Brouillet’s latest refutation.

The Spalding-Brouillet affair was not quite over, however.

A final boost to the veracity of Spalding’s version came in 1901, when a second government printing was arranged by the Senate.

But it also was the year a Yale University historian discredited the tale, concluding Spalding “invented the Whitman myth to stir up the wrath of the nation.”

An eclectic mix

Herman and Atkinson were both members of Portland’s Cathedral Parish and feasibly conceived their idea for a newspaper while mingling after Mass.

Atkinson, of Irish decent, was a professional printer who’d briefly served as editor of a daily newspaper.

Herman was a business-savvy greengrocer with a market about a block from the Cathedral. He too had some experience in the printing world, working as a correspondent for a San Francisco Catholic paper.

Initial issues of the Sentinel were printed in Herman’s business space. There were 800 copies in the first press run, and Portlanders could secure a monthlong subscription for 50 cents.

The first, six-page issue contained a letter from the editors, a soppy, hackneyed poem, a report on St. Mary’s Academy, a long tale about a Spanish Jew, news of Ireland and an assortment of advertisements.

For more than 30 years, the publication would be the only Catholic newspaper in western North America.

Catholic press advocates

The editors’ enterprise was bolstered by an esteemed Catholic organization and two notably supportive clergymen.

Belgian-born Father John Fierens, a longtime pastor of Cathedral Parish and a vicar general, was an early and ongoing champion of the Sentinel.

When the vision for the paper coalesced, Archbishop Blanchet, first leader of the new Oregon City Archdiocese, was in Rome for the First Vatican Council (1869-70). In his absence, Father Fierens gave the men official archdiocesan support.

“Dear Gentlemen,” begins his December 1869 letter. “In the confident hope that the Catholic journal which you have in contemplation to issue, will be highly serviceable in aiding to promote the cause of truth … we give it heartily our full approval.”

A visiting missionary further buttressed the project by cultivating enthusiasm among the faithful. Jesuit Father Francis Weninger was a pouplar preacher and during his stint in Portland exalted the value of the Catholic press “in the dissemination of sound, moral and religious principles,” the editors recalled in their column.

And finally there was the Catholic Library Society of Portland, endorsed by Father Fierens, which wetted and sustained Catholics’ appetite for the faith-based printed word.

‘With the blessing of God’

The Sentinel emerged during a favorable age for Catholic publications as well as an auspicious era in the history of newspapers.

In the second half of the 19th century newspaper barons dominated the secular press industry while new printing technologies pushed newspaper circulation to new highs and made publishing big business.

Herman and Atkinson were no newspaper barons, but the paper went on to survive and to flourish for 150 years.

“With the blessing of God upon our joint efforts,” the editors wrote in the first issue, “we do not doubt but that the hopes of its projectors and its friends will be realized to their fullest extent.”