The Pilot, America’s oldest Catholic newspaper, was established in September 1829 by Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick, who saw the need for the “publication of a newspaper in which the doctrines of the Holy Catholic Church ... may be truly explained and moderately but firmly defended,” he wrote in the first edition of the newspaper.
Its purpose, as was also stated in that first edition, was to defend the “crying calumnies and gross misrepresentations which in this section of the country have been so long, so unsparingly, so cruelly heaped upon the Church.”
Beginning as The Jesuit or Catholic Sentinel, the newspaper’s name was changed several times in it’s first seven years. The Jesuit, The United States Catholic Intelligencer, The Literary and Catholic Sentinel and several combinations of those names.
In 1834, unhappy with the paper’s progress, Bishop Fenwick sold the publication to two lay men — Henry Devereux, the publisher, and Patrick Donahoe, an employee who quickly became the newspaper’s sole proprietor and editor.
By 1836, Donahoe changed the title of the paper to The Boston Pilot, both as a tribute to the Dublin Pilot newspaper, and, as Donahoe himself wrote in a prospectus, “to suggest that we would do our best to ‘pilot’ our readers through rough waters, the rocks of doubt or the quicksands of error.”
Although the newspaper began with modest circulation, readership of The Boston Pilot steadily increased, in 1854 boasting over 1.5 million subscribers worldwide.
In 1858, the newspaper’s Old English nameplate “The Pilot” appeared for the first time, under the editorship of Father Joseph M. Finotti, along with the motto, “Be just and fear not, let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy God’s, thy Country’s and Truth’s.”
However, the history of the newspaper was not without its setbacks. The Pilot offices burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1872 and then twice more at new locations — all within one month. In the wake of these fires, editor John Boyle O’Reilly penned an editorial saying, “When a fire comes to Boston nowadays, it comes looking for its friend The Pilot. It is evident that the fire has a rare appreciation of a good newspaper.”
Insurance companies’ failure to cover the losses from the fires, coupled with the failure of the bank and publishing house, prompted Donahoe to sell The Pilot. In 1876 Archbishop John J. Williams, Boston’s first archbishop, purchased a three-fourths interest in The Pilot. The remaining share was bought by O’Reilly. Fourteen years later, Donahoe once again purchased the newspaper and resumed its management until his death in 1891.
In 1908, Cardinal William H. O’Connell bought The Pilot from the Donahoe family and made it the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.
(Adapted from “The Pilot enters 175th year,” by Donis Tracy. The Pilot, Sept. 3, 2004)