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The Boston Catholic Observer launched 175 years ago

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On Jan. 16, 1847, exactly 175 years ago next week, the first issue of the Boston Catholic Observer appeared in print, intended to serve as the official voice of the Diocese of Boston.

The Pilot was initially intended to serve this purpose when founded by Bishop Benedict Fenwick, first appearing as The Jesuit, or Catholic Sentinel on Sept. 5, 1829, but under his direction it failed to prosper and was sold to Henry Devereux and Patrick Donahoe in 1834.

Donahoe remained the majority owner and editor until his death in 1901 but, by 1908, several factors saw it in a period of financial instability once again. Fortunately, that year there was a willing buyer in the form of then-Archbishop William O'Connell, who was seeking an official organ in which to announce plans for the centennial celebrations of the Diocese of Boston.

In the intervening time, several other Catholic newspapers appeared, including the Boston Catholic Observer. With Bishop John Fitzpatrick's blessing, it was founded by Father Nicholas J. O'Brien, pastor of St. Nicholas Church (later Most Holy Redeemer), East Boston, and intended to assume the vacant role as the official newspaper of the diocese.

Joined by editors Father George Foxcroft Haskins and Orestes Brownson, Father O'Brien hoped his publication would instruct readers in the Catholic faith and provide news about the Catholic Church throughout the world. A notice in The Pilot preceding the first issue states that a "new paper, under the 'Boston Catholic Observer,' will be issued on next Saturday ... it will be strictly Catholic, and is to be edited by Catholic clergymen, assisted by distinguished laymen. It will be about half the size of the PILOT; price one dollar a year." This is in comparison with The Pilot, which cost $2.50 to $3.00 per year at the time and was priced low "in order that it may come within the reach of every Catholic in the community."

Although one might expect The Pilot to see each new newspaper as a rival, there was actually a very close relationship between the Observer and The Pilot during the former's brief existence. Patrick Donahoe published the paper during its first year, and The Pilot urged its sales agents throughout the United States to also sell subscriptions to the Observer.

In response to the first edition of The Catholic Observer, editors of The Pilot published an announcement stating, "we wish to have it succinctly understood, that this paper (the Observer) is not started to injure, or oppose any paper. It is to fill up a vacancy much wanted in this part of the country. With the editors, we are on the most intimate terms of friendship."

It seems to have been respected for its position as the official voice of the Diocese of Boston, and features such as death notices, abstracts of lectures, clergy assignments, and other official diocesan business appeared in The Pilot credited as reprints from The Catholic Observer.

By Jan. 29, 1848, barely one year old, The Catholic Observer changed publishers. The Pilot editors noted they were "sorry to part with our contemporary, for we enjoyed its acquaintance the past year with a great deal of pleasure. The Observer should be in the hands of every Catholic family in the diocese."

Carrying on as the Catholic Observer, the publication continued until October 1849, at which time it ceased to print. Diocesan historians place the blame with Father O'Brien, whose strengths, they claim, did not lie with managing the finances of such a venture. It is also acknowledged that Brownson sustained substantial personal losses attempting to prolong its existence.

In The Pilot, on Oct. 21, 1849, appeared a notice feature stating:

"We forward the PILOT to all the subscribers to the late Catholic Observer this week. Those who do not wish to receive the Pilot, will oblige us by returning the paper with their name and residence written on the margin of the paper. Those who do not return the paper we shall consider as subscribers, and book them as such."

- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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