Sunday Assembly

Father Thomas Conry: priest, poet, professor and first Witness editor

The birth of Thomas J. Conry, son of Jon and Mary (Whalen) Conry, on Jan. 27, 1869 occurred on a farm near Masonville, Iowa, during the long reign of Pope Pius IX and just a few months before the completion of the trans-continental railroad across the U.S.

John Conry was among the pioneer settlers of Immaculate Conception Parish in Masonville; but before its humble church was built, he and other hardy settlers traveled by team or horseback to Independence to attend Mass, a trip involving two days time & energy.

In the home of these pious parents, the light of faith burned brightly. Thomas completed his early training in District School #4 in Coffins-Grove Township, Delaware County. While other boys his age were blasting their way through McGuffey’s Third Reader, Thomas was learning THE FAITH OF OUR FATHERS by James Cardinal Gibbons, by heart.

Conry’s graduation from St. Joseph College on June 19, 1895 coincided with the granting of the first academic degrees since the college’s re-establishment in 1873. He completed his theological studies at the Grand Seminary in Montreal, Canada in 1898. On Dec. 17, 1898 he was ordained to the priesthood and read his first Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Masonville on Dec. 21, 1898, while Father Thomas Murtagh was pastor there.

Like many newly ordained, Father Thomas Conry was assigned to St. Raphael’s Cathedral for a short time as assistant pastor to Father Patrick Burke, Rector.

In 1901 Father Conry was called to his Alma Mater to take charge of the English Department. By 1903 he’s founded the college literary magazine, the SPOKESMAN. For a number of years those intimately associated with Father Conry felt his ability as a writer should be given a wider scope than that afforded by the academic activities of an educational institution.

Meanwhile Archbishop James J. Keane was studying The (London) Tablet, that “exceedingly able organ of the British Catholics” with the idea of creating an opportunity for the people of his diocese. In 1920, the Archbishop established The Witness and chose from among his well-educated priests a gentle student of the art of communication. For 19 years, Father Conry had been head of the English Department – his approach to editorship would surely be a collegiate one, consistent with his knack of delegating and his know-how for getting other priests favorably disposed to contribute articles on a regular basis.

The Witness began publishing Feb. 24, 1921, in the former chancery offices on West 11th and Bluff Streets, with William L. Rowan and John Tarrant assistant editors to Father Thomas Conry.

For publication in its first issue Archbishop Keane wrote, “I am pleased to assure the reverend clergy and the faithful of the archdiocese that THE WITNESS enters upon its career with my approval and blessing…”

He who had served on the college faculty under presidents Revs. John P. Carroll, David M. Gorman, John C. Stuart, and Edward Howard, was himself named president of St. Joseph College in 1924; he held that position until May, 1939, when ill health forced his retirement.

Father Conry was college president for 14 years; head of the English department at St. Joseph/Columbia College for 22 years; celebrated his silver jubilee as a priest on Dec. 17, 1923. He was editor in chief until William Green became managing editor in 1931.

After his retirement as president, his interest in and presence on the campus continued. After being hospitalized at St. Joseph Sanitarium for several months, he died on a Sunday morning, June 29, 1947.

In his funeral sermon, Father Isidore Semper praised the zeal and personality, the learning and accomplishments of the departed monsignor.

“Msgr. Conry was beloved of God, a model priest in zeal, sanctity and learning. He was a spiritual man, a man of prayer, a man without guile who strove ever to keep himself unspotted from the word, a man who served the Lord all the days of his life. He was beloved of men, he labored not for popularity or worldly glory and yet he was beloved of men. He was a leader in the spirit of the Catholic priesthood, for he ruled not by force of authority but by courtesy and kindness, patience and perseverance.”

Then Father Semper quoted a sonnet by Msgr. Conry entitled “Toward Morning” which is his epitath, professing a solemn faith and anticipating the joy of an eternity with God:

“A morning song I hear, and lo, I see

A rift, a face, a Friend to welcome me.”

Msgr. Conry was, like Robert Burns description, “His locked, lettered brow, brass collar Showed him the Gentleman and scholar.”

Or George Bryon’s “Tho modest, on his unembarrassed brow, Nature had written ‘Gentleman’”.


Humble beginnings: Founders started work in 1921 with ‘faith in Providence’

The first issue of The Witness was released February 24, 1921, with Msgr. Thomas Conry serving as the first editor. Above is a photograph of the inaugural issue’s front page.  Below is Msgr. Conry’s first editorial. The original staff, consisting of the monsignor and two full-time assistant editors, worked at the former chancery offices at 11th and Bluff Streets in Dubuque. This publication, which began as “a weekly journal devoted to the interests of the Catholic Church,” evolved as times changed.


Perhaps many of our friends will say that THE WITNESS enters the field of journalism at an unpropitious time. But the best time for any enterprise is God’s time. Providence, speaking through our spiritual superior, has called us at this time to take up the work and with faith in Providence, rather than in ourselves or in any human agency, we accept the task.

We come, not to supplant any of our Catholic papers, but chiefly to satisfy some special needs of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Service is our aim. To this end we shall adapt ourselves as well as we can to all our readers. We shall not forget that they represent various classes—the clergy, the professions, the farmer and the laboring man. Perhaps adaptation is, of course, impossible. Not every article will appeal to every taste. To each reader, therefore, we say: If one article doesn’t please you, turn the page. Farther on you may find something that will suit you better. We shall be tolerant of views that differ from our own, and ill-natured controversy will have no place on our program. The spirit that we purpose to maintain is that expressed in our motto: “You shall be witnesses unto Me.” We solicit your advice. If you can tell us how to make the paper more efficient, your suggestions will be thankfully received. With your cooperation THE WITNESS hopes to grow and to become an increasing power for good.

Subscription (in 1921) — Prepaid:

United States, yearly $2.00

Canada, $2.50

Europe, $3.00


Cover image: The first edition of The Witness which was published in February of 1921.