They honed skills and gained wisdom

| January 5, 2011 | 1 Comment

We asked former employees to reflect on the time they worked at the Catholic Bulletin or Catholic Spirit.

Tom Hauser

Former: Intern reporter, The Catholic Bulletin, 1981-1983
Current: Chief political reporter KSTP-TV

“Hello, folksies . . .!”

That was the enthusiastic greeting we received in the Catholic Bulletin newsroom every day when I started work there as an intern reporter in 1981.

No surprise to anyone with knowledge of the history of the newspaper, that greeting emanated from a journalism dynamo named Bernard (OK, we called him “Bernie”) Casserly. Bernie was nearing the end of his journalism career while I was just embarking on mine. He was a fine writer and journalist, but that’s not what I remember most about him. I was always amazed by his enthusiasm and zest for life even after more than 40 years in the newspaper business. I can still hear Bernie’s footsteps getting louder and louder as he bounded down the hallway that connected his office to the newsroom. Maybe he’d just gotten off the phone with someone about a possible news story. Bernie would rub his hands together like a mad scientist with a gleam in his eye and tell us what he knew. Then, order one of us to find out more and get it in the paper.

Or maybe he’d just gotten a call from a priest or a reader about a story they didn’t particularly like. If we had the story right, Bernie would always back us to the hilt and he’d come and tell us so.

A start in journalism

Bernie was the editor who signed off on hiring me. But the man who hired me was Bob Gibbons, the news editor at the time. Bob gave me my start in journalism by taking a chance on a rookie intern reporter with just a few, shall we say, “unpolished” pieces of work from the student newspaper at the University [then-college] of St. Thomas.

Bob ran the day-to-day newsroom operation and instilled in me the notion that while we worked for a newspaper focused on news about the Catholic Church, our journalism goals were the same as any newspaper. Get it right, get it first and get it in the paper.

When Bernie and Bob left, the news operation was taken over by a new editor, Dan Medinger. Dan also had a major influence on me even though he didn’t quite know what to make of me. He comes aboard as I’m entering my third year as an intern reporter. I haven’t Googled this yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s an internship record at any newspaper that stands to this day.

Anyway, there I am typing away at my ancient Olympia typewriter, preparing that week’s Bulletin Board calendar of parish events. Dan calls me into his office, sits me down and just stares at me for a few seconds. He’s looking at some piece of paper, probably a printout of my paychecks, pushes his reading glasses down his nose, looks over them and says, “So what’s your situation? You ever plan on graduating?”

Writing what matters

It was kind of his way of saying the budget might be getting a little tight to keep an “intern-for-life” on staff. But he did keep me on until I graduated from St. Thomas in 1983, after one extra semester to get my double major in journalism and political science.

Dan had a combination of Bernie’s enthusiasm for his work and Bob’s demand for accuracy and accountability. He had us step up our efforts through the “Every Home Plan” to find stories that mattered to other Catholics at the parish level and tell them in a way that went beyond just a recitation of the facts.

I also had the opportunity to cover broader issues at the State Capitol, everything from abortion to the farm foreclosure crisis. The Bulletin even gave me a chance to cover the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their stand on nuclear disarmament.

It couldn’t have been better training for the job I now have as the chief political reporter at KSTP-TV.

At my going-away party, I was given my old Olympia typewriter because the newsroom had upgraded to “video display terminals.” I still have that typewriter . . . and I can still hear the echo of Bernie Casserly’s footsteps bounding down that hallway.

Christina Capecchi

Former: Intern, summer 2003; staff writer, May 2004-October 2005
Current: Freelance writer

I felt a sense of purpose and pride when I walked up the steps of The Catholic Spirit in May 2004 to begin my job as a staff writer. I had just graduated from college and was about to turn 22, eager to formally launch the journalism career I’d dreamed about most of my life.

And what a place to start! My first week there the staff celebrated a first-place “General Excellence” award from the Catholic Press Association. They treated me as a peer, welcoming me into rigorous front-page debates — minutes that sealed years of study.

I jumped into a routine Relevant Radio “Morning Air” phone interview one of my first Friday mornings. When I hung up and walked into the lobby, my colleagues broke into applause.

Support from colleagues

Members of the newsroom took their work seriously but not themselves. Mike Krokos, the editor-in-chief, strolled through the newsroom with his sweater vests and easy jokes, leap-frogging from bishops to quarterbacks and bemoaning all the trouble sure to come from his quiet, disciplined writer Julie Carroll. Working with Mike made me a wittier person and a more confident employee.

As managing editor, Pat Norby was an unfailing advocate for us writers. I studied her response to difficult situations, admired her silver locks and gold necklaces and hoped to grow up to be like her.

Emilie Lemmons and I shared a cubicle wall and periodically wheeled to its end to confer. Her mind moved as quickly as her fingers. She was graceful and feisty, a combination that allowed me to imagine my career in unrestricted terms.
Bob Zyskowski took me under his wing, calling me “kid” and making my contribution to the Catholic press feel important. He taught me to use single quotation marks in headlines and to keep the faith when an angry caller made my cheeks burn.

All the tools to share faith

It’s amazing we all fit into a newsroom that contained so many books and such chunky Macs. But we had Internet and a laser printer and a western view of the Cathedral, whose St. Cloud granite looks regal under a dropping sun and resilient behind snow flurries.

We held weekly editorial meetings in the Bernie Casserly Library, where maroon hardback archives held stories of my great-grandfather, Joseph A. Capecchi, a Florentine who had arrived in St. Paul a few years before The Catholic Bulletin began.

The Bulletin-turned-Spirit has been there for it all, chronicling the people, places and events that mattered to five generations of Capecchis. It is a paper of record and a scrapbook of faith, public and personal, knitting families and parishes and schools into an archdiocese.

My favorite charge was to tackle a centerpiece package with Dave Hrbacek. We’d travel together — from Victoria to Rush City — turning hundreds of pictures and notes into a strong two-page spread.

I remember schlepping around St. Thomas and St. Kate’s to ask students about their thoughts on the 2004 presidential campaign, recognizing the weight of the decisions we make as Catholics and the range of factors that inform them.

Newspaper still connecting

As an editor-less newsroom, we eagerly awaited Mike Krokos’ excellent replacement Joe Towalski. Then, we covered Pope Benedict’s election. It was the second pope of my lifetime, and I grew as a Catholic and a reporter when that white smoke rose.

I got to see faith in action, to witness the live music that comes from ancient black-and-white sheet music — from Maria Bona, a stillborn who regained life, to Joe Pexa, who is now 101 and still writes me. Catholic spirit, indeed.

My favorite edition was March 24, 2005, a paper that carried my centerpiece on the resurgence of the nearly-closed St. Bernard’s School and a column on the clarinet duets I’d taken up with my grandpa. He saw our color picture teased on the front page and called my cell phone: “I nearly fell off my chair.”

I have no doubt the Holy Spirit works through The Catholic Spirit — from keyboard to mailbox. Today, Facebook and Twitter accelerate the transfer, but I believe there will always be room for a paper to hold in your hand and save in your heart.

Mike Fitzgerald

Former: Photographer at The Catholic Bulletin, 1982-1997.
Current: Owner of Fitzgerald Photography in Woodbury.

The reason I got the job is he quite correctly ascertained about one minute into my interview that (1) I would probably work cheaper than anyone else he had interviewed, and (2) there was an outside chance I actually knew how to do the job. Interview skills, I might add, that have served me quite well through the years.When Bernie Casserly hired me back in 1982, he wanted someone to develop the reporters’ film and produce prints.

When I was in the newsroom, the reporters were interns, or newly hired “post interns” mainly from (what was then called) St. Thomas College, and one “old school” reporter that could write well on any subject. The room was crammed with a variety of “vintage” metal and wooden desks (drawers missing/scrounge your own chairs) and there were none of the modern office partitions.

All the desks faced each other so everyone was “out there,” facing off and constantly chatting, gliding paper airplanes across the newsroom, and enjoying whatever other nonsense could replace actual work. And here’s a bonus, the sound of manual typewriters striking letters to a page to create a story. The closer to the weekly deadline, the louder and faster the typing. No paper airplanes and very little chatting as the weekly deadline came due.

How things changed

The newsroom lost that sound within a few years of my arrival, and what a change. At first, stories were typed out, the copy then walked to composing where the story was physically laid out and printed. All of that changed fairly quickly to quiet rooms with computer screens where buttons were pushed to transfer files and layout was completed on another computer screen.

What a change from working with chemicals in the darkroom and film in the camera to downloading images that can be transferred to composing within minutes, rather than “rushing” a photo to them within an hour or two.

Of course, I was always on top of my deadlines, providing those striking images that editors live and die on and are happy to “run big” while cutting back the fat on a reporter’s story. As any photographer can tell you, and certainly one of the real advantages of working at the Bulletin, is that the editors understood readers are always more interested in visually striking images that tell the story at a glance rather than having to plow through a dry story with a lot of words.

That brings me to North Dakota. The Bulletin always had one overriding concern: staying afloat. The obvious solution: why not expand into North Dakota? It was decided that I would visit a list of local churches, take pictures for use in future publications, and otherwise project a “hands across the prairie” attitude, forming bonds and cementing a cooperative, Catholic spirit. I want everyone to know I really tried, and I would like to go on record as stating that the incident involving a pickup, three Native Americans, and a herd of buffalo was all a complete misunderstanding.

Securing a shot of pope

What has really changed is security. One example comes from covering the pope. The paper flew myself and cub reporter Bob Zyskowski to Canada to cover Pope John Paul II during the ‘80s.

The mission was to get a picture of the pope saying Mass. There was one indoor Mass that the press was allowed to cover, and we were not allowed inside. I had met a few other photographers, and we knew which door the pope would exit the church. There was a two-story house right across the street from that door with a second-story window perfectly placed to get a picture of the pope coming out of church and working the crowd.

The three of us managed to talk our way into the house, go up to the second-story window, take apart the window so we could shoot through it, then hang out the window so we could get the shot. You could never do that shot today. That house would have been crawling with security and we would have all been turned away.

The paper was a great incubator for a lot of us just getting started. I hope it still is. I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank Bernie for bringing me on board and helping me learn how important it is to just take a deep breath when the buffalo are coming at you and hope everyone else has the sense to do the same. And if not, then just get the shot and run.

Adam Robinson

Former: Ad sales, then webmaster for The Catholic Spirit.
Current: Organizer with Catholic Charities’ Office for Social Justice.

Shortly after I got married to Annie in 2003, we moved to St. Paul from Iowa City, Iowa. At the time, I was playing music for a living and had decided to take some time off to get settled in my new life with my wife in our new hometown. I figured I’d take six months off from my rock and roll lifestyle, play some gigs around the Twin Cities, then get back out on the road full time.

Soon after we got moved in and unpacked, though, I realized that I really liked being at home with Annie and didn’t want to spend the early years of our marriage out traveling all the time. I needed to take my parent’s advice: I needed to get a job.

I had done some advertising sales work for the weekly paper in Iowa City and for my college newspaper. I typed “Ad Sales Jobs” into Google and the first result was for a classified advertising sales representative at The Catholic Spirit.

Finding friends and faith

I applied, was interviewed and got hired all in the space of two or three days. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think I might have been the only applicant. After I interviewed with the sales manager, Janet, she asked if I’d like to meet the other ad sales guys. A few minutes later Michael Pytleski, Craig Moen and Chris Pierskalla walked into the room and after a few minutes of chatting we’ve been friends since.

As I got to know the rest of the staff, I realized I was going to be very happy during my time at The Spirit. I was surrounded by faith-filled, smart, funny people who were thinking, talking and writing about interesting and engaging aspects of our Catholic community. The reporters and columnists for The Spirit were (and still are) writing about our lives as Catholics in our world with wit and intelligence.

The advertising and business office folks were trying to support the mission of the paper, and the production team was consistently putting out a fantastic looking product. Being part of The Spirit family was something I was really proud of.

Most importantly, working at The Spirit was a great place for me to learn and grow as a Catholic. My time at The Spirit reinvigorated my faith, but how could it not? We spent our time talking with each other and other Catholics about their businesses, their parish lives and their relationship with God. The articles in The Spirit encourage you to live your faith in the world, and the environment around the office did the same.

Catholic role models

I was lucky to spend time with amazing co-workers and colleagues during my time at The Spirit: Joe Towalski is the model of a Catholic newspaper editor: fair, conscientious and deliberative. He has since become my daughter’s godfather.

I became close with Caron Olhoft and her family, and admire her design eye and her ability to make beautiful art out of words and pictures.

Emilie Lemmons was smart, articulate and fierce. I liked her immediately and continued to follow her writing after I left The Spirit. I was devastated when she passed away, far too young, from cancer just two years ago.

Over time, Bob Zyskowski took a chance and asked me to take over the oversight and production of The Spirit’s website. I jumped in with both feet and tried my best to figure out the best way to take the paper’s content online in dynamic, interesting ways. It was a struggle for me — I’d never taken on a project that big and important before. There were times I was really lost and frustrated. I’m thankful that Bob stuck by me, offering firm guidance when I needed it and nearly endless support. I like to think that I finally learned how to be a good employee during that time, and it’s because Bob took the time to mentor and guide me.

A calling to justice

I’ve always been committed to social and economic justice, so when an organizing position opened at Catholic Charities’ Office for Social Justice, I had to make the effort to get it. Letting Bob know that I was leaving The Catholic Spirit family was one of the hardest conversations of my life, but Bob reminded me that I needed to go where the Lord was calling me.

“The Spirit’s been around for nearly 100 years,” I remember him telling me, “and we’ve had people leave. We’ll miss you, but we’ll survive.”

The Catholic Spirit’s website I once worked on has more than survived — it’s been crafted into an amazing resource for Catholics in our archdiocese. I’m so proud of the work Craig Berry and Michael Pytleski have done on The Spirit’s website. It’s been recognized as one of the nation’s best, and they’re consistently working to make it stronger.

I don’t keep in touch with my friends at The Spirit as much as I’d like. I see them at the annual Christmas party and a couple of times during the summer. I try to grab a beer with Joe or one of the other guys from time to time, but I miss talking with Caron every day or joking around with Michael by the water cooler. I hope everyone at The Spirit knows not only how important they were to me while I was working there, but how important they and their work continue to be to me and other Catholics in our archdiocese.

Terry Griep

Former: North Dakota correspondent, 1985-1988; staff reporter, 1995-2004; 2002-2004 also edited The New Earth
Current: Freelance writer primarily for Catholic publications

The Catholic Bulletin, followed by The Catholic Spirit, years were sweet ones for me. My dream from the age of 5 had been to be a newspaper reporter. And what better way to fulfill that dream than to have it be a ministry as well.

That is exactly what my job was: First as the North Dakota correspondent, and later as a staff reporter, I was able to write about life in the Catholic world while telling the stories of Catholics, both great and small.

My first office was a spare bedroom in our Fargo, N.D., home. I had to send my stories to St. Paul by modem, which meant that I had to learn how to use a Radio Shack word processor, something foreign to me in January 1985. I guess there were free lessons that went with the purchase, but Bob Zyskowski sent me the word processor and instruction manual, and told me the editor who received my stories in the St. Paul office would take the classes. I was so delighted to be writing for a major Catholic publication that I learned the ins and outs of that word processor on my own time.

Interviewing two bishops

The naming of a new bishop is a significant event for any Catholic community, and for me to be directly involved when the Vatican appointed a new bishop to the Fargo diocese was both exciting and somewhat intimidating. I learned about the hopes and plans of two new bishops appointed to the Fargo diocese, Bishop James Sullivan and Bishop Joseph Aquila.

Literally, I was the first person Bishop James Sullivan met when he arrived in Fargo from upstate New York. I was the first local person to interview him one-on-one. And because of those first interviews I always felt like I knew Bishop Sullivan better than most people, and we had an open, friendly relationship. He gave me carte blanche for taking pictures at his installation, an event that filled the Fargo Civic Center and highlighted the diocese’s significant Native American population.

By the time Bishop Aquila was appointed to Fargo, I was working in the Spirit’s home office on Dayton Avenue in St. Paul. But because of my Fargo history (I’d lived there for 18 years), the Spirit editor asked me to interview the diocese’s soon-to-be-installed bishop.

This interview, like the former, was fun for me; it revealed the character and personality, as well as the personal history, of an intelligent and committed church leader.

The Spirit’s newsroom was a crowded, intellectually stimulating, fun place to work. It was usually noisy, with phones ringing, at least one person conducting a phone interview and someone from composing popping in with questions about layout.

The reporters critiqued one another’s work, answered fellow reporters’ questions, and shared a camaraderie brought about by close physical proximity (our desks practically touched one another) and spiritual alliance. We shared a love for words (the fewer a writer could use, the better) and proved this by playing Balderdash when we got together socially.

Most memorable people

While interviewing bishops was exciting, the most memorable people I interviewed were those on the margins or those who became life-long friends. I remember their names, their faces and their stories.

John Luna, a 37-year-old handyman, whose only home was a car. He told me he had been “camping out in the snow for three years.” A doctor had told Luna he needed surgery for torn ligaments, but refused to do the surgery until Luna had a place to live. He could not get a place to live from welfare, and was on welfare because he quit a $6-per-hour cleaning job in a dust-filled factory due to asthma. Luna died several years ago.

Greg Horan, a one-time homeless person who slept on park benches, came into my life on two occasions. The first was when I wrote a story about homelessness. Horan went from being a gainfully employed husband and father to a sometimes confused, oftentimes suffering, street person, almost overnight. The death of his daughter from leukemia began a downward spiral that ended with his being hit by a truck, losing his marriage and health, and suffering from bouts with depression.

The second time I met Horan was several years later. Both he and I served on the Listening House board of directors. Horan had picked up the threads of his life to become an advocate for the homeless. He worked on Project HOPE, where he helped others find housing; he was a leader in the Minnesota Justice Foundation, which promotes free legal work; he worked for the St. Paul Area Coalition for the Homeless. He, too, is now dead, but I had the privilege of attending his funeral, where a filled Assumption Church paid tribute to this one-time street person turned advocate, who led a quiet, simple life.

Michaelene Zawistowski is in a different category from those other memorable stories. She’s employed and independent. But, she represents another group of memorable interviews: those who became long-term friends. Michaelene is unique. She appears to be an ordinary woman with ordinary talents and ambitions. Yet, she has a special gift, the gift of prayer. She does not pray constantly, nor does she consider herself a particularly holy person. She simply prays like she breathes — naturally and regularly.

The thing that really impressed me is Zawistowski’s “prayer box.” She writes special intentions on strips of paper that she puts in a box. First, she prays to the Holy Spirit. Then she pulls a paper out of the box and sends up a prayer of the day to match the intention on the paper.

I was passionate about homelessness and poverty in 1999 when I wrote about Minnesota’s kids in poverty. This passion showed up in the series of stories I wrote. I received a Catholic Press Association award for them, and many letters to the editor criticized my liberal stance on the subject. I am not sure which meant the most to me: receiving recognition for my writing or knowing that people were reading what I write.

I do know that the topics about which I wrote have shaped my life and continue to affect my journey. My passion is to be an advocate for the marginalized, to walk with the disenfranchised, and to educate others about the church’s Catholic social teachings. As a Catholic writer, I learned much, and as a senior Catholic I feel I have a responsibility to act on what I have learned.

Mike Krokos

Former: The Catholic Spirit reporter from November 1998-July 1999; editor, July 1999-December 2005.
Current: Editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

His name was Gabriel, and little did I know that his brief life would have such a profound influence on me and be one of the first things that came to mind when I reflected on my years working for Archbishop Harry Flynn at The Catholic Spirit.

Like the first shepherd that I worked for in the church, Bishop William Curlin in Charlotte, N.C., and my current boss, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein in Indianapolis, Archbishop Flynn realized the value of his archdiocesan newspaper.

He knew it was his primary tool of evangelization, and he used it as a catechetical tool by writing a column each week.

His personal reflections always hit home, too. One that stands out to this day was originally published in September 1999.

The column “Gabriel was strong testimony to life” told the story of a family dealing with the brief life of their son, Gabriel, who was diagnosed in his mother’s womb with a fatal heart condition, and the parents’ decision to carry the pregnancy to full term.

Knowing the child had little time to live after he was born that August day in 1999, the baby’s uncle rushed from Children’s Hospital in St. Paul to the archbishop’s residence to see if a priest could come to the hospital to baptize the newborn infant.

Baby Gabriel passed on to eternal life before Archbishop Flynn arrived at the hospital, but the child’s father had baptized him just moments before.

The family’s story, albeit an extremely sad one, was a testimony to all life’s sacredness, the archbishop wrote.

“The parents knew that the child would not live long after birth. They could have terminated the pregnancy. They did not. They believed in life and believed in eternal life.”

As I reflected on the archbishop’s poignant column back then and do again now, it reaffirms for me our faith tradition’s unwavering commitment to all life — from conception to natural death.

Whenever the archbishop spoke — whether it be through his column, during a Mass or at any sort of public gathering — I knew there were lessons for me as well. I just needed to listen closely and reflect on his words.

I will never forget hearing Archbishop Flynn speaking to a new group of catechists that he installed in October 2001.

The archbishop told youth ministers, religious education directors and coordinators, high school religion teachers, campus ministers and pastors that they must serve as leaders on the “breathtaking adventure of teaching the young about the kingdom of God.”

He also encouraged the new catechists to give youth the sustenance they need in learning about the faith; to be witnesses to the truth of the Gospel and the life of prayer that we all need; and to give clear messages of what the church teaches.

He added, “You are the extension of the teaching arm of the bishop.”

That last phrase really hit home for me as a Catholic journalist. Our vocation provides us the privilege of being an “extension of the teaching arm of the bishop.”

Thanks to the leadership of Bob Zyskowski, the associate publisher, and a very committed staff, I believe that was our primary mission during my years at The Catholic Spirit. I also believe that commitment continues to this day.

There were some challenging stories to report: priestly sex abuse, the challenges facing our immigrant brothers and sisters in Christ; Archbishop Flynn’s pastoral on racism and Sister Joann Lucid’s work with the archdiocesan AIDS Ministry outreach.

The church needed to be front and center addressing those issues. And I believe The Catholic Spirit staff did that each week.

Matt Kane

Former: Staff writer at the Catholic Bulletin from 1982-84.
Current: Director of policy and research for Growth & Justice, a non-profit organization that researches and recommends public-sector investments and policies to make Minnesota’s economy simultaneously more prosperous and fair.

With St Paul’s own Archbishop John Roach in the lead, the U.S. bishops in the early 1980s boldly called out to Catholics and the country to reject nuclear weapons as appropriate tools for national defense.

The political and moral message was a dramatic one from leaders of our one-time immigrant church, and it was a great news story.

At the time, I was a staff writer for the Catholic Bulletin, having successfully spun the rotating internship slot for a journalism student from the College of St. Thomas into a full-time job. And I drew the “peace beat” that gave me a front-row seat to the truly memorable events as they unfolded.

Strong and vocal proponents and opponents of the U.S. approach to nuclear weapons policy debated about Defense Department priorities and approaches. Those who supported the use of nuclear weapons for deterrence laid claim to the title “patriots.”

The Nation Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in with discussions of their own and a powerful pastoral letter on “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” Archbishop Roach — a skilled church leader and a strong advocate for peace and justice — put the discussion of nuclear weapons front and center on the bishops’ agenda.

A hostile response

The move drew attention, much of it hostile. Many saw action by the bishops on questions of war and peace as a direct challenge to President Ronald Reagan. And of course, it was.

The bishops joined the public debate not for political reasons but for moral ones. As captured in summary notes from a 1983 consultation with Rome on peace and disarmament, Archbishop Roach and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin delivered a message “that it is necessary to build a barrier against the concept of nuclear war as a viable strategy of defense and to draw a strong and clear line politically and morally against resort to nuclear weapons.”

Collectively, the shepherds of this nation’s Catholic Church made clear to Rome, the faithful and the nation “that the U.S. bishops cannot approve of any policy deterrence which involves an intention to do what is morally evil.” (“A Vatican Synthesis: Rome Consultation on Peace and Disarmament, Jan. 18-19, 1983.) Nuclear weapons did not mesh with the Catholic notion of just war.

Locally, Catholics became active and visible leaders in the peace movement. I was assigned by the Catholic Bulletin to cover the protests that Catholics helped organize at Honeywell headquarters — then in Minneapolis — against weapons production. I wrote stories about parish-based peace activities, including one frightening presentation by an expert speaker on the devastating destruction that modern nuclear weapons would cause if used.

Expanding peace efforts

Catholic involvement on issues of violence and conflict reached beyond the issue of nuclear weapons in those years, too. Repressive governments in Central America were targeting priests, nuns and brothers who worked with the poor, drawing the ire of U.S. Catholic leadership.

Christian Brother James Miller, who had strong ties to St. Paul, was gunned down days after objecting to Guatemalan officials about the illegal and forced conscription of an Indian student of his into the country’s armed forces. That was another national and local story for readers of the Catholic press.

The NCCB released its pastoral letter on “The Challenge of Peace” in May 1983. Bishops, parish leaders and other committed Catholics then engaged in outreach and education to spread the message of the letter and advance the interests of peace.

The careful thought and significant attention that the bishops gave to the moral dilemma of nuclear weapons and to the broader challenge of peace had an impact on the national debate. It was a proud moment for American Catholics.

Dennis Heaney

Former: The Catholic Bulletin/ Catholic Spirit general manager/associate publisher, 1979-1997, leaving to oversee The Tidings in Los Angeles, then The Christophers in New York.
Current: Retired in Minneapolis.

As I thought about my 18 years with the newspaper, two names fixed in my mind: Father Tom Comber and John Wolszon — two  individuals who positively impacted the role of the Catholic Bulletin/ Catholic Spirit in the archdiocese and, by extension, me.

My first meeting with Paulist Father Tom Comber was in late 1979. He had recently been named pastor of St. Lawrence parish in Minneapolis, and Archbishop John Roach had also named him publisher of The Catholic Bulletin. Father was looking for someone to fill the newly created position of general manager at the paper and he called me at the recommendation of a mutual friend.

Our meeting went on for over two hours, during which time I said 20 words at most, a new record for me.  Father talked about growing up in Philadelphia, his time in the U.S. Navy, his Paulist seminary days and his eventual work as a vice president of Paulist Press. He spoke of his vision for the Catholic Bulletin.

He asked me a few questions about my newspaper background, a bit about my family and said he was interviewing other candidates and would get back to me in a few weeks. He called me the next afternoon and offered me the job of general manager of the Bulletin. He had no problem making decisions!

Full of ideas at all hours

Father Comber never stopped coming up with new ideas for the paper, not always well thought out; so if they were problematic, I would distract him until he had the next idea. He had no concept of time, so a phone call at 6:30 in the morning or 10:30 at night, with another new idea, was the norm.

Over the years we became close friends and I finally told him how I handled the “Comber Idea Machine.” The first time he had a new idea, I’d listen and forget. If that idea came up a second time, I’d note it as “possibly serious” and, if it came up a third time, it moved to my “action item” list.

When Father Tom became publisher, the Bulletin’s circulation was about 22,000 and he started a campaign of parish-sponsored circulation called the “Every Home Plan.” We visited with almost every parish council in the archdiocese, and Father Tom enthusiastically delivered his talk on the importance of the newspaper to the archdiocese and the Catholic Church. He literally never stopped working to rejuvenate the Catholic Bulletin, and his commitment left it a stronger paper for those of us who followed him.

At about the same time I met Father Tom Comber I also met John Wolszon, the production supervisor of the Catholic Bulletin. John is a man of few words, so in our first months of working together our conversations were pretty one sided; I’d talk a lot and John would say “Yes,” “No,” “OK” and invariably, when it was about changing something, he’d respond, “Sure, we can do that.”

A master mechanic

John’s job included keeping the Bulletin’s antiquated type-setting system working. Almost like clock-work, the system would “crash” on Tuesday, our deadline day. My office was on the opposite end of a long hall from the production department, and when those crashes took place I’d hear John “erupt,” watch him stroll across the hall to the water cooler, take a long drink of water, then calmly walk back and invariably he would fix the complicated machine.

In my years of working with John, he never sought the spotlight. Quite the contrary, he avoided it. But it was his brilliance and patience that led the paper into the then-new world of computer production. I marveled at how quickly John learned each new system and, in a short time, he would be patiently tutoring other staff members as they protested that “this system is terrible and we should send it back.”

John has never received the public credit he truly deserves for making the Spirit the outstanding paper it is today and he’s quite happy with the anonymity. However, most of us who have worked at the Catholic Bulletin/Catholic Spirit know that the paper would not be the quality publication it is without the work of Father Tom Comber and John Wolszon.

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Category: 100 Years