Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Archbishop John Francis Noll
By Heather King
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” Porta Fidei 15
Archbishop John Francis Noll (1875–1956) founded Our Sunday Visitor, the most popular Catholic newspaper of the 20th century. Among other accomplishments, he co-founded the radio and TV show The Catholic Hour and helped establish a religious order, the “Victory Noll Sisters.”
One of nineteen children, Noll was born and bred in Fort Wayne, Indiana, attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati, and was ordained in 1898.
He became pastor at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Huntington, Indiana, and in 1912 founded the weekly newspaper Our Sunday Visitor as a local publication.
Within two years, its circulation had grown from 35,000 to 400,000, and it soon became the nation’s most popular Catholic newsweekly.
Noll’s aim was to help Catholics preserve and promote their faith in a secular culture. He was vehemently anti-Communist and spoke out against birth control, divorce, and indecent films and TV shows.
He did not suffer fools gladly. He was known to trip up anti-Catholic provocateurs claiming to be former priests or religious by posing questions to them in Latin: their inability to answer would expose them as frauds.
His paper also supported workers’ rights, inveighed against the Ku Klux Klan, and lobbied for a campaign to provide African Americans with a Christian education.
His popular catechetical column, Father Smith Instructs Jackson, was collected into a book of the same name that eventually sold millions of copies. “Since Catholics are taught to revere people, places, and things that are consecrated to God, we look upon the mistreatment of such persons, places, and things as the sin of sacrilege,” he bracingly observed. “From the Nazis down to our time, we have heard the excuse, ‘But I only did what I thought was right.’ Saint Thomas does not accept this argument, saying, ‘Your wickedness is greater that you would not recognize the evil of your acts.’”
This emphasis on the obligation of the follower of Christ to form a correct conscience undergirded all of Archbishop Noll’s work.
He built schools, a seminary, and an orphanage. He fundraised to support construction of Washington, D.C.’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during the Depression.
All proceeds from Our Sunday Visitor went directly back to the Church. In 1925, some of those proceeds made possible the building of the Central House of the Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters. Headquartered in Huntington, Indiana, the order had been founded by Father John Joseph Sigstein and would henceforth be known as the Victory Noll Sisters. “Rooted in our charism, we proclaim the Gospel in solidarity with all persons, especially those living in poverty and oppression,” the Sisters’ current mission statement reads. “We commit ourselves to ongoing prayer, study, and action on behalf of human rights, justice, and peace.”
Though he had never presided over an archdiocese, he was appointed archbishop ad personam by Pope Pius XII in 1953.
Archbishop Noll died in 1956 at the age of eighty-one.
“Every Catholic should be an apostle,” he observed, “representing his Church creditably before his neighbors and the people among whom he works.”