A Brief History of the Boston Pilot

Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick, a Jesuit priest and the second bishop of Boston, founded the newspaper that is now known as the Pilot in September 1829. Bishop Fenwick’s congregation consisted mainly of French and Irish immigrants. During his tenure Bishop Fenwick would see Irish immigration numbers grow. The average number of Irish immigrants to the United States was approximately 5,000 per year between 1821 and 1830. Most settled in New York and Boston.1

Early settlers in Boston were predominantly Protestant and while relations between Protestants and Catholics had enjoyed improvement after the revolutionary years and the alliance with the French, by 1829 prejudice was on the rise, perhaps due to fear on the part of the local population of the influx of large numbers of Catholics.2

Local newspapers of the time carried printed sermons delivered in area churches of different denominations. Many reflected strong anti-Catholic sentiment. The destruction of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown in August of 1834 by an angry mob is one of the most convincing demonstrations of such strong misunderstanding and prejudice towards Catholic beliefs.

In light of such animosity Bishop Fenwick’s title for the first Catholic newspaper in Boston, The Jesuit or Catholic Sentinel, which referred to both the Jesuit order and the Catholic faith, was a clarion call as was his reason for publishing the paper. He stated on the front page of the first issue that the rapid rise in the number of Catholics in the Boston area fostered the need for a publication in which doctrines of the Church could be explained and defended. Bishop Fenwick wrote pieces in defense of the Catholic Church and her teachings in the Jesuit.

The paper’s evolution and change of focus is evident in its various titles. These include The Jesuit or Catholic Sentinel (1829), the United States Catholic Intelligencer (1831), The Jesuit, the Literary and Catholic Sentinel (1835), The Boston Pilot (1836), and finally its current title, the Pilot (1858).

In its early years, the paper offered guidance to a sometimes disoriented and insecure immigrant population.3 Though it served all nationalities of immigrants, it had a particularly Irish focus, especially after Bishop Fenwick turned the paper over to H. J. Deveraux and Patrick Donohue. Deveraux and Donahue had both been employed by the printing firm that had published the Jesuit. Deveraux had worked closely with the Bishop in the role of publisher of the paper in the early years. Bishop Fenwick had found that a strictly religious paper did not sell well as a weekly publication. Very early on, about 1831, a new section that included political news from Europe was added to the paper to appeal to a wider readership. This section added another dimension, particularly under the editorship of Reverend Dr. O’Flaherty, who covered much more about Irish political news. Even so, circulation remained small. Difficulties such as low readership and Bishop Fenwick’s reluctance to use clergy to edit a publication that catered mostly to one ethnic group resulted in the Bishop’s decision to put the paper into the hands of Deveraux and Donohue with George Pepper as editor.

In 1838 Patrick Donohue became editor. Donohue had immigrated with his father at age eleven from Ireland to Boston. He attended two to three years of school in Boston. As an apprentice working for The Columbian Sentinel, a journal published in Boston, he developed a taste for journalism.4 He later worked for the Boston Transcript and left his employment there as a full journeyman. He was 27 years old when he became editor of the Pilot, and the paper had become closely associated with the Irish RepealMovement, the movement in Ireland spearheaded by Daniel O’Connell who had recently secured Catholic Emancipation there. The Repeal Movement was an initiative to repeal the Act of Union, an act that had abolished a separate Irish Parliament and joined Ireland and England under the name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The name of the Boston paper, the Pilot reflected this association, as the official organ of the movement in Dublin was called “The Pilot.”

Under Donahue’s editorship in the 1840’s, when immigration grew to over 78,000 per year and in the 1850’s, when it grew to over 90,000 per year, the circulation of the Pilot reached close to 50,000 per week; the paper circulated nationally and was “the great Irish paper in America”.5

Donohue maintained control of the Pilot until his death in 1891, except for a brief period after the great fire in Boston in 1872, when the Pilot offices burned down and two succeeding fires at new locations caused Donohue such financial hardship that he had to sell the paper. Editor John Boyle O’Reilly bought one fourth of the business and Boston Archbishop John J. Williams bought three fourths. Once Donohue recovered financially, he purchased the paper again.

One of the Pilot’s most famous editors, John Boyle O’Reilly was born in County Meath, Ireland on June 28, 1844. He apprenticed at age eleven for a local paper, the Drogheda Argus. In September of 1859 John sailed with his uncle to Preston, England. He stayed in Preston with his aunt and uncle and found a place as an apprentice and ultimately became a reporter for the Guardian, then published in Preston.

In 1863 he returned to Ireland, thoroughly committed to an Ireland free of British rule. John became a member of the Fenians. One strategic initiative of the Fenians, those who planned to oust the British from Ireland, was to set the seeds of revolution among the Irish soldiers in the British Army. Irish men made up more than 31% of that army in 1860.6

When the British government realized the widespread Nationalist sympathies across its ranks -in 1865 there were approximately fifteen thousand British soldiers enrolled in the ranks of the Irish revolutionists - the government cracked down.7

O’Reilly was found out and arrested in 1866 for being a conspirator. Before his trial British authorities pressured O’Reilly to reveal names of fellow conspirators. Despite offers of a pardon and taunts that his silence was tantamount to suicide, O’Reilly revealed nothing. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison. The court was lenient in consideration of his youth.

After time spent in various English prisons, including some time in solitary confinement, O’Reilly was transferred to an Australian prison, from which he escaped in 1869. With the help of strangers and friends O’Reilly made his way to Boston and began an illustrious career as writer and editor, all the while remaining faithful to the cause of Irish independence. O’Reilly’s poems record memories of his time spent in prison and in Australia. O’Reilly’s journalistic philosophy is reflected in this quote from him, “Never do anything as a journalist which you would not do as a gentleman.”8

William Cardinal O’Connell, an 1881 graduate of Boston College, the second archbishop of Boston and the first native cardinal of Boston, purchased the Pilot in 1908, and it served then as it does now as the official voice of the Archdiocese. The Cardinal set out to put in writing the Catholic viewpoint on issues and instill the value of such in members of his congregation. He coined the phrase, “A Catholic Paper in Every Catholic Home.” He very closely guided editorial policies and in managing the Pilot he broadened the coverage of the paper to add current news and moved the publishing operation to a new plant with modern equipment.

Throughout its early years the Pilot, in various iterations, guided an immigrant readership by presenting knowledge on religious and political matters and by providing opportunity for debate on both religious and political issues; it defended and sometimes attacked in matters of religion and politics; it entertained with poems, short stories and sometimes hyperbolic satirical pieces. The weekly paper kept new Irish arrivals informed about life back in Ireland by presenting columns on births, deaths and marriages and, of course, it became the vehicle for finding missing loved ones through its “Information Wanted” advertisements. A reading of early issues of the Pilot offers an invaluable insight into the tumultuous years of a city, a state, and a nation as it grappled with the establishment of a government, a political system, changing demographics and finding a tolerance for new religious and ethnic groups.

Other distinguished editors include Thomas D’Arcy McGee, historian, poet, and a founding father of the Dominion of Canada; Father Joseph M. Finotti, who compiled and published Bibliographica Catholica in 1872; and Katherine Conway, Pilot editor from 1905 to 1908, poet, novelist, journalist, and a female Catholic leader.

In 1979, the Pilot celebrated its 150th anniversary with the publication of “The Pilot: America’s Oldest Catholic Newspaper.” During the time it served America’s immigrants the Pilot had reached a circulation of a million and a half. The newspaper had been in operation for 34 years when Boston College was dedicated in 1863.9

The Pilot, the oldest newspaper to be published continuously in Boston, is still published by the Archdiocese of Boston in Brighton, Massachusetts. In September 2004 the Pilot entered its one hundred and seventy fifth year of publication. Present day circulation is 23,039.

  1. Riley, Arthur. “Early History of the Pilot.” The Pilot (March 8, 1930): Section B, p. 22
  2. Walsh, Francis Robert. The Boston Pilot: a Newspaper for the Irish Immigrant, 1829-1908. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1968, p.1.
  3. Walsh, Francis Robert. The Boston Pilot: a Newspaper for the Irish Immigrant, 1829-1908. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1968, p.vi.
  4. Various. “The Jesuit a Pioneer Effort in Catholic Journalism Makes its Modest Beginning.” The Pilot (March 8, 1930), p. 6.
  5. Riley, Arthur. “Early History of the Pilot.” The Pilot (March 8, 1930): Section B, p.22.
  6. Roche, James Jeffrey, and Mary Murphy O'Reilly. Life of John Boyle O'Reilly, Together with His Complete Poems and Speeches. New York: Cassell publishing company, 1891, p.9.
  7. Roche, James Jeffrey, and Mary Murphy O'Reilly. Life of John Boyle O'Reilly, Together with His Complete Poems and Speeches. New York: Cassell publishing company, 1891, p.17
  8. Roche, James Jeffrey, and Mary Murphy O'Reilly. Life of John Boyle O'Reilly, Together with His Complete Poems and Speeches. New York: Cassell publishing company, 1891, p.379.
  9. Various. The Pilot at One-fifty: a Special Edition Marking the 150th Anniversary of the Paper's Establishment in 1829 by the Second Bishop of Boston. Boston, Mass.: The Pilot, 1979, p.35.