Father Francis Clement Kelley organized Catholic Extension to bring Church to Catholics in frontier America
Father Francis Clement Kelley organized Catholic Extension to bring Church to Catholics in frontier America.

His treasurer warned him that such things "produce nothing but trouble," and other board members predicted disaster. Yet Father Francis Clement Kelley believed so strongly in his vision of a new Catholic magazine that he gave his own personal guarantees to the printer for 50,000 copies of the premier issue of Extension magazine in 1906.

It was just six months after Father Kelley had convinced a board of 18 clergy and lay members to form the Catholic Church Extension Society, now known as Catholic Extension. The organization's young president believed his magazine would carry his appeals for America's rural missions out to Catholic homes better than any other means. He also admitted later to a case of "journalitis," having spent time as a youth around his hometown's newspaper office and even having started a college paper.

So, in the midst of a thousand other details of starting a new national mission society, Father Kelley rolled up his sleeves and worked long into the nights as writer, editor and circulation manager. Then he sat back and nervously awaited the fate of this venture that would either spell success or doom for the fledgling organization.

Extension proved to be a success, proudly noted Father Kelley before he left to work in the mission field himself as Bishop of Oklahoma in 1924. "Donations increased. The office...began to have visitors. Bishops came to hint at what we might do to help them. Missionaries dropped in to offer us great opportunities.... I can truthfully say that Extension magazine really made the Extension Society."

It was the start of a long publishing venture that expanded into books and missionary tracts - both now defunct - and Catholic calendars, which today go into 4 million homes nationwide.

Spreading the Good News

More than a fund-raising tool, Father Kelley saw his magazine as a way to instill the missionary spirit inSince then, it has documented the growth of the Church in America. It answered attacks on Catholicism with fictional stories by top writers of the day about ordinary Catholic life in America to show the human side of Catholics.

To thumb through the back issues is to enter a kind of Catholic time machine. Extension followed the trail of Catholic Extension's three railroad chapel cars, which carried the Mass and sacraments to churchless train stops across the South and West, and it thanked countless readers whose donations built chapels in many of those places (more than 12,000 buildings to date).

It covered the relief efforts for the thousands of clergy and religious who fled the Mexican Revolution of 1910 into the U.S. Southwest, and it described the hardships of thousands of priests, sisters and brothers who sacrificed their lives to start the first missions on Indian reservations of the West and ice-laden Eskimo villages in Alaska. It promoted the advent of lay apostolates in the 1960s with the Extension Lay Volunteer program, which sent thousands of teachers, nurses and pastoral workers to aid tiny, rural parochial and Indian schools and parishes.

In the course of its work, it also inspired many Americans to follow their own vocation calling, such as Father Phillip Pribonic in Pennsylvania, who remembers reading Extension as a child. "It was big and bulky then, but I admired the work of the men and women shown therein. Missionary work in the U.S.A. was challenging," says Father Pribonic who was ordained for the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh in 1967. "The magazine was certainly part of my formation in becoming a priest."

Famous starts

Part of the secret to its early success was its diverse set of features for the entire family. In fact, the magazine became known as the "Catholic Saturday Evening Post" because of the artwork and the family-oriented features it carried from recipes and fashion designs to a Catholic singles club. "I figured that I could thus get it into more homes," explained Father Kelley, "and carry the Society's appeals with it."

The magazine found some of the best and most promising writers, illustrators and photographers of the day to create original artwork for the articles and the front covers. The list begins with Catholic Extension's own literary giant, Father Kelley, who wrote 17 books during his lifetime. Extension's first issue featured the priest's poignant, eyewitness account of a Kansas priest's destitute rectory - a "little shanty out west" - that elevated the nation's attention to the needs of missionaries within its own borders.

But it was Father Kelley's encouragement of other writers and artists that was to carry Extension far into the future.

To encourage new fiction writers, Extension began sponsoring short story contests in 1908. Mary Synon, a Chicago newspaper reporter in the days when women were not sent to cover fires, murder trials and city hall news, won one of these contests in 1909 and became a frequent fiction contributor to Catholic and secular magazines.

Her first Extension story, "A Beacon on a Hill," told of a missionary priest whose kindness made life bearable in a rough mining town during the Yukon Gold Rush. People came to believe in God "through belief in him," the story reads. "He was a beacon on a hill whose life gave hope ..."

Father Edward F. Murphy, SSJ, won a 1944 contest co-sponsored by Extension magazine and Bruce Publishing Co. in Milwaukee with a novel based on the life of Mary Magdalene. The university professor and pastor authored 15 books during his lifetime, including "New Philosophy and Old Religion" that earned a spot on Dr. Mortimer Adler's famous list of the world's great books.

Almost a Hollywood movie

Extension published Father Murphy's prize-winning novel "The Scarlet Lily" in installments from October 1944 to May 1945. Hollywood producer David Selznick bought the movie rights to the acclaimed book and planned to star Ingrid Bergman in the picture. He reportedly considered the purchase of the novel to be his most important acquisition since "Gone with the Wind."

Unfortunately, another producer hired Bergman for "The Bells of St. Mary's" with Bing Crosby, and "The Scarlet Lily" never made it to the big screen. Extension, however, made it into "The Bells of St. Mary's." Several magazines appeared on the convent reading table in one scene.

Perhaps Extension's most famous discovery was suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark, who has now authored 14 national best-sellers. After 40 rejection slips from other magazines, she credits Extension for giving her the first break. Her first short fiction, "Last Flight From Danubia," appeared in the March 1958 issue. Based on her real-life experiences as a flight attendant for Pan Am, Clark's tense tale follows a stewardess who hides a 17-year-old trying to escape a Communist state. On the same flight comes the police commissioner who is seeking the young refugee.

Already-established novelist Janet Reback, who wrote under the pseudonym Taylor Caldwell, became a Catholic Extension donor and wrote articles in the 1960s for Extension. The magazine serialized her book "The Listener" in 1961.

American flair

Budding artists also found a nurturing home at Extension. The staff encouraged artists to use their talents as modern-day "Raphaels" to paint religious art.

Like the goal of showing American Catholic life in its short stories, EXTENSION's artwork also took on an American flair in the 1940s. "Back of this idea also was the fact that in pictures of Our Lord and our Blessed Mother, the Church had allowed each nation to use its own freedom in depicting them according to the national idea of beauty," explained Monsignor Joseph Lux, who became editor and Catholic Extension president in 1962.

This led to W.C. Griffith's cover art of "The Smiling Christ," a rare view of the Lord laughing with a child, Monsignor Lux said. Readers poured in requests for reprints and the magazine began offering its most popular illustrations in poster form until the 1960s.

Another artist, the late Thornton Utz painted Norman Rockwell-style scenes of Catholic life that rivaled the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. "I loved working for Extension," he said in a 1996 interview. He became a good friend of Monsignor Lux. "Being Presbyterian, I loved to argue with [him]" Utz said.

The artist's work is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the National Gallery in Ireland. Many stained glass aficionados also flock to Incarnation Parish in Sarasota, Fla., to see his 18 windows depicting various scenes from the Gospel of John.

Franklin McMahon is another internationally renowned artist who began illustrating Extension's fiction stories in 1941, just two years after finishing high school. His art has since been featured in national publications from The Saturday Evening Post and LIFE to Sports Illustrated and Harper's.

A generation later, his son Mark, who employs a fluid line-art style similar to his father's, illustrated a story for Extension in 1992.

An army of apostles Extension's circulation could never have risen to its apex of nearly 600,000 copies in the 1950s if not for the hundreds of men and women who sold subscriptions door-to-door. Father Kelley's successor, Archbishop William O'Brien, claimed that it had become the widest-circulated magazine of its kind and put the title of the "world's greatest Catholic monthly" on the front cover.

Monsignor Kenneth Stack, who took over the circulation department in 1945 and eventually became the organization's acting president in 1966, credited his sales force for having "enough zeal for the Faith and love for the home missions" to keep Extension alive through the tough years of the Depression.

From a high of 330,000 in 1929, the magazine lost many of its early gains, and circulation dropped to 150,000 six years later. "Then Father J.B. Lux arrived on the scene," said Monsignor Stack about his predecessor, who set out to bolster the sales force's self-esteem in those desperate days. "Extension was no longer to be just a job; it was to be a vocation - a calling to a vigorous form of Catholic Action that combined the highest ethics of salesmanship with a great love of God and the home missions."

Many pastors were happy to have these "Doorbell Apostles" in their parishes, noted a report in the early 1940s. "Through their efforts many converts have been brought into the Church and many a fallen-away Catholic has been moved to return once more to the practice of his religion."

In the 1960s, the magazine took on a more contemporary look as Vatican II ushered the Church into the modern world. With more photos and hard-hitting journalism, Extension of the 1960s resembled LOOK and LIFE magazines. However, it also suffered the same fate as those two commercial magazines as they all lost corporate advertising to the burgeoning new phenomenon of national television. LOOK and LIFE ceased publication, but Extension continued with a whole new look in 1968.

Smaller format, bigger mission

Catholic Extension's president at the time, Most Reverend John May (later Archbishop of St. Louis), recognized that the magazine needed to return to its roots and the original mission work that gave it its start - a tradition that continues to this day.

A century later, one thing has not changed: the needs of Catholic missions right here in the United States. The "extension" of the Faith across America, which propelled Father Kelley to start Catholic Extension and its magazine, is still the concern of Catholic Extension's supporters today.

"It never ceases to amaze me how much Extension puts its finger on the pulse not only of needs at the local level but involves the donors in a way that I hope they can identify with the great good that comes from their contributions," says Most Reverend Oscar Lipscomb, Archbishop of Mobile and Catholic Extension's vice chancellor.

That remains the magazine's ultimate objective: to encourage prayers and financial support for American missions. Evidence of its impact comes from readers such as Wilma McDaniel from California who wrote in reaction to a story that ran in 2000.

"EXTENSION is always inspiring to read," she wrote, "but I was distressed to learn of the lone Jesuit who cares for the entire Catholic population on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The situation hung in my mind and wouldn't go away. I decided to cut my telephone bills sharply and send the savings to you expressly for that missionary in that rugged area of our country. May these few dollars put gas in his car or maybe a tire or any pressing need."

Now for a century, Extension magazine continues to strive to provide excellent religious reading to inform and to inspire U.S. Catholics in their concern for the Church's needs and growth in their own homeland.