This is the column I hoped I would never have to write. As I sit here on Tuesday morning, our final deadline day, my assignment is to close up shop at Catholic New York, my workplace of the past 27 years and the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York since its founding by Cardinal Terence Cooke, then-Archbishop of New York, in September 1981.
As you might imagine, I’ve spent a fair amount of time since the archdiocese announced CNY’s closure on May 19 sorting through files, with many of the paper’s voluminous records in the process of being shipped to the archdiocesan archives at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie. Others, which have sat largely untouched for the past two decades in my office at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan, paint an interesting sketch of the underpinnings behind the establishment and early years of Catholic New York.
My office was also the work home of my two predecessors, first Gerald M. Costello and then Anne Buckley. Both were among CNY’s founding triumvirate along with Arthur L. McKenna, who was the paper’s general manager for its first 25 years. All three were veteran and stalwart members of the Catholic press when they arrived.
Working in concert with the Catholic New York leadership was then-Father Edwin F. O’Brien, as director of communications for the archdiocese. Now Cardinal O’Brien, he would later attain ecclesiastical heights as archbishop of Baltimore and grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
Longtime readers will remember that Catholic New York came into existence shortly after the closure of another newspaper, the venerable Catholic News, a privately owned weekly newspaper published for nearly a century. More than four decades later, some readers still call us by the former name.
Cardinal Terence Cooke wanted a publication that was bigger and better, although he would have never put it in those terms.
He also sought a newspaper that could be a source of unity for a sprawling archdiocese spread over 10 counties, including the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, and extending up to Saugerties at its northern tip in Ulster County.
This is no small matter, especially 41 years ago. New York was a megadiocese in every respect, beginning with the fact it comprised more than 400 parishes—409 to be exact. Other numbers culled from the paper’s 88-page first edition are the 1,900 priests then serving the Church of New York, with 6,000 religious sisters and brothers joining them. One number that has grown appreciably over the years is the size of the Catholic population of New York, from 1.8 million then to 2.8 million now.
Catholic New York’s mission, as defined in the early years, included publishing a credible, professional newspaper; educating an adult Catholic population; providing a ready source of news; being a “point of connection” for Catholics; and evangelizing post-Vatican II generations.
Catholic New York’s supervisors and staff members immediately set about creating a newspaper the whole archdiocese could proudly call its own, with stories reflecting the Church experience as lived in the archdiocese and the wider Catholic world.
In those early years, CNY made a mark in the archdiocese and across the country. Color photography, new to newspapers, graced front pages from the beginning. A vibrant centerfold feature with the photography of Chris Sheridan was another staple. So were Catholic New Yorker personality profiles. The bold approach caught the eyes of others working in the Catholic press.
Ed Wilkinson, a legendary figure for his own 50-year run at The Tablet newspaper in the Diocese of Brooklyn, said in a phone interview last week, “You saw the people they were hiring and you knew it was going to be a professional operation. I knew they were serious.”
“It was well done,” he said. “They set some standards.”
Seeing the professional operation with color photos and quality newsprint made for “a slick publication” that was “a little bit different” from other diocesan papers of the time.
Through the years, CNY captured the coveted first-place General Excellence Award 10 times in the annual Catholic Press Awards competition.
Catholic New York never flourished more than in the 16 years Cardinal John O’Connor served as archbishop of New York, beginning in 1984. It was seemingly always at the center of the action, with his From My Viewpoint column a steady source of news, including a memorable 1989 column in which he called for the institution of the Sisters of Life. (See the story on Page 4 of this section.)
Costello and Sheridan accompanied Cardinal O’Connor on many of his trips to other countries. In one remarkable five-month stretch in late 1984 and early 1985 they traveled with the archbishop on trips to Ireland, Africa, Central America and Rome for the episcopal ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Edward Egan, who in 2000 would succeed Cardinal O’Connor as archbishop of New York.
Anne Buckley was not a world traveler, but she was a formidable editor, a tireless striver who paid attention to details and demanded excellence and urgency from her co-workers.
In 1991, she succeeded Costello as editor in chief. Even before then, they alternated weekly turns with the Editor’s Report, and both wrote with elegant prose and sure reporting at the heart of the subject.
I am speaking from personal experience about Miss Buckley, as she was known, having worked under her, first briefly as news editor and then as managing editor. I saw firsthand how much she wanted to bring first-rate material to our audience. When she thought our weekly issues contained too many routine items, she quickly made it known in no uncertain terms. Those weren’t easy lessons, but they were valuable in shaping me.
By the time I came on board as editor in chief in 2001, Cardinal Edward Egan was the new archbishop. Months earlier, faced with bringing diocesan finances into better order, he had made Catholic New York a monthly publication.
Our staff of more than 30, including a full roster of six or seven reporters, four editors and a full-time photographer was trimmed by more than half. It was a trying time, as the remaining staff, under my supervision, tried our best to do competent work under difficult circumstances.
Fortunately, in 2005, Cardinal Egan agreed to expand CNY to a twice-monthly schedule. Our circulation of 135,000 enabled us to claim the title of America’s Largest Catholic Newspaper, a fact the cardinal enjoyed promoting.
When Cardinal Dolan was appointed to New York in 2009, one of the first things he agreed to do was further expand CNY to biweekly distribution. That helped to give us a surer footing and brought better timeliness to our work. By then, various forms of social media were beginning, and keeping our website current was an important consideration.
As editor, I had the good fortune to inherit a successful operational model. While we did not have the personnel to do what those before us had accomplished, the Catholic New York formula was a good one.
We’ve kept a focus on the photography of Sheridan, Maria R. Bastone, Mary DiBiase Blaich and others. Our layout and design, the domain of production manager Leah Bossio and before her, Molly Gallegos, tells a story of its own. Columns and editorials are another high point; I would match ours with those in any diocesan publication across the Catholic Press.
For innovation, we had to pick our spots. One of our more recent accomplishments was being able to bring Católico de Nueva York into the fold on a monthly basis, beginning in 2018. Reporter Armando Machado has played a leading role from the outset.
Cardinal Dolan strongly urged that the Spanish monthly take our name and be published as a supplement to Catholic New York as a sign of unity in the archdiocese. His pertinent request, in keeping with Cardinal Cooke’s earlier call for CNY to act as a unifier, was a good one. I hope the archdiocese finds a way to build on the initial effort in its own digital undertakings.
Our online efforts may not be earth-shattering, still some things are worth noting. Since 2013, we have published a digital version of CNY. The audience grew during Covid-19, doubling in size to some 10,000 readers. Many readers, sometimes in personal tones, told us how much they appreciated that CNY never missed a beat, or an issue, during the most serious part of the pandemic when churches were closed for several months. We offered a lifeline, representing normalcy, when many felt isolated.
Our website, cny.org, especially in its latest evolution, has done much to build on the good work we do in Catholic New York. Our news editor for the past 10 years, Christie Chicoine, has worked tirelessly and effectively to upload daily Catholic News Service articles and photos to keep a fresh tone.
I should add a word of thanks to Matt Schiller, our advertising and business manager, who set my service as editor on a different trajectory when he accepted an offer to join us 16 years ago. His selflessness, service and quiet Christian witness has made him a standard-bearer here and throughout the Catholic press.
There are many others who deserve mention, so I hope it suffices to say how grateful I am for our entire CNY staff rallying over the last six months when it would have been much easier to throw up their hands. They did this at a time when they were also busy charting futures changed by the closure.
Instead, they did what they always do. They stayed the course and did the job well.
Lastly, a word to you, our readers, for the literally hundreds of letters, emails and calls of support over these months. Thank you for telling us how much you appreciate our work. We owe you one. God bless you all.