Founded in 1860, the Catholic Universe is one of the UK’s most well-known and respected newspaper brands with an extremely solid reputation that reaches far beyond its core readership.
To put the launch of The Universe Catholic weekly into the context of Church history, it was just two years after the apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes, and six years after Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which stated that Our Lady was conceived without stain of Original Sin, that the first Universe appeared.
Only 31 years earlier, Catholics had received recognition with passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act and, in 1847, four new Catholic districts were created – Eastern, Central, Welsh and Lancashire. But it was not until 1850-51 that the first bishops were appointed with Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman as the head of the Church in England and Wales.
Archibald Dunn was the first Editor and SVP member, Denis Lane, the printer. The first copies of The Universe were published on Saturday, December 8, 1860 – at a cover price of one penny – from 43 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC. The front page announced that “a cheap Catholic newspaper is required – if only to stay the circulation of anti-Catholic weekly newspapers among Catholic families resident in London”.
“We are not large capitalists,” announced the editorial, “but practical workers”.
Annual subscription cost 4s 4d and advertisements 6d for three lines, with each additional line costing 2d. The paper declared on its front page, under the heading ‘Address’, that it would “uphold the dignity and independence of the Church both at home and abroad” and “shall be deaf to no cry of human suffering from whatever quarter it may come” and would be on the side of “the weak and the oppressed in days of trouble”.
By selling the paper for just one penny a copy, The Universe said it hoped to be a weekly paper “within the reach of all classes”. The Tablet, by comparison, cost 6d.
The Universe’s front page stories were concerned with elections in Naples and allegations of corruption, an announcement that the “Holy Father’s treasury is now well nigh exhausted, and Baron Rothschild announces publicly that the interest on the Papal loan which was due on the 1st inst., has not been remitted by the 3rd. Inside, articles included a ‘Dr Cullen on mixed marriages”, an extract from a letter of the Archbishop of Tuam to Lord Palmerston regarding people of Party being banished from their homes, police news from London courts and, on the back page, a feature on Westminster Abbey.
In fact, in its eight pages of pure type, The Universe, as today, managed to cover a cross section of events both at home and abroad, of interest to Catholics.
Fifty years later – Friday December 9 1910 – The Universe had incorporated Catholic Weekly into its title, had increased its number of pages to 20 and carried advertisements for prayer books, Christmas cards, crib sets and missals and suggested presents for priests on its front page. Letters to the Editor column were concerned with abolition of capital punishment, a landslip at St Aloysius School, Highgate, and hymns in honour of the Immaculate Conception.
As with The Universe of today, it contained bishops’ engagements, and in ‘Outlook’ an article anticipating the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, some very prophetic statements were made concerning unrest in the world, which four years later was to manifest itself in the outbreak of the First World War.
By 1910, The Universe was giving news from all over the country, not just from London, and had started to produce photographs, mainly portraits of people mentioned in stories. It had by then also changed its address to 1 Racquet Court, Fleet Street, London EC.
Another 50 years on and the date is Thursday, the 8th December, 1960, and The Universe “The Catholic Family Newspaper” celebrated its centenary with a special front colour issue, carrying portraits of two Popes, Pope Pius IX (1860) and the much-loved Pope John XXIII, a flashback to the first front page and a fine drawing of St Peter’s, Rome. The cover price had increased to 4d and The Universe’s address was now Universe House, 21 Fleet Street.
To move on another 25 years, to Friday, the 6th December, 1985, and The Universe celebrated its 125th anniversary. The front page splash story in that edition was a call for a new catechism. And an extraordinary synod in Rome the proposal was made by French, German and Italian language groups. Another study group, headed by Cardinal Hume, proposed a 10-year programme of evangelism to run until the end of the century. The price per copy had risen to 30p and the address was 33-39 Bowling Green Lane, London.
Other stories to make the news were Lambeth Borough Council’s refusal to allow the Knights of St Columba to erect a crib on Streatham Common and Archbishop Worlock’s thoughts on the Church of England’s report on inner cities. Letters to the editor were concerned with pro-life issues and the Warnock committee, Sunday trading and the erosion of vocations.
On the 7th October 1990 we produced our first issue from Manchester. It was a momentous occasion, not only in moving from Bowling Green Lane to Oxford Street, Manchester, but also in switching from contract typesetters to desktop publishing using Apple Mac computers.
Since then modern technology has moved on at a furious pace, and The Universe has expanded from a single newspaper company into a modern, sophisticated publishing house with more than 15 titles in its portfolio, including The Catholic Times, The Catholic Companion, The Catholic Who’s Who, Church Building & Heritage Review, as well as a whole range of special Catholic publications designed, produced and distributed for Catholic organisations.
In April 2015 we moved our entire operation to the prestigious Guardian Print Centre in Manchester, and The Catholic Universe moved from a tabloid to the Guardian‘s larger Berliner format. New sections were launched, including a weekly Around the Parishes supplement, and a Weekend Companion pullout of family-centred non-religious news and features.
In addition, our online activities include a comprehensive Catholic shop, and the facility to download our publications from anywhere in the world.
In March 2019 the Guardian Print Centre closed, and we relocated to new offices at Oakland House, Stretford, Manchester.
150 years after it first rolled off the presses, The Universe remains true to its mission of being “a light to guide the world, and a mirror to reflect it”, keeping Catholics informed about their faith, and bringing them ever closer to God.