St. Cloud Visitor Archives Now Available for Online Searching

To preserve diocesan newspapers, Father Mitchell Bechtold scanned 88,000 pages.

Like monk-scribes of earlier centuries who copied the Bible by hand, Father Mitchell Bechtold has digitally preserved every issue of the St. Cloud Diocese’s newspapers from 1938 to 2018 — the Register and the Visitor.

“This is our community of faith’s historical record,” Father Bechtold said. “It’s a rich source of how people before us lived — our grandparents, their towns and neighbors, their parishes and their priests.” 

Father Mitchell Bechtold uses a wide-format scanner to digitally preserve diocesan newspapers.

Father Bechtold, pastor of Christ the King in Browerville and St. Joseph in Clarissa, part of the Five Star Area Catholic Community, said he’d been writing a homily a few years earlier and wanted to draw a connection between a particular Waite Park business and church life. On the site, he searched the St. Cloud Times’ archives to find that information. He was delighted by the immense cache of local history found with the archive: family records, information about Catholic life and more. 

He recalled a time after a funeral of locating in the Times’ online archives a couple’s wedding announcement from 50 years before. 

“At dinner I was able to share the whole write-up with the family — the bride’s chiffon veil, the names of bridesmaids and groomsmen, where the receptions were,” he said. 

“Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had this for the St. Cloud Visitor?’ I saw how useful a searchable database was for the St. Cloud Times and I wanted the same thing for our diocese. That began my process.” 

Because old newspapers are easily damaged, can wear out or get mislaid, preserving them was important. The bound versions were kept on shelves in the Communications Office of the Pastoral Center but weren’t easily accessible to the public. In the thousands of stories over the decades, people would need an intuitive sense of where to look for information they wanted.

“The search engine is one of the great tools of our modern age. We under-appreciate its usefulness — you punch in key phrases that narrow it down instantly,” he said.

To archive the diocesan newspapers, Father Bechtold consulted with Joe Towalski, then the director of the Communications Office and editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic magazine. They knew it would be expensive — nearly $100,000 — and the diocese was in bankruptcy status and had other pressing needs. Nor would there be a budget in the foreseeable future. Though Towalski had envisioned a searchable archive, his staff had to prioritize the weekly publishing of stories over preserving old news. 

Father Mitchell Bechtold views a bound book of past editions of The St. Cloud Visitor. (Photo courtesy of Father Mitchell Bechtold)

Towalski agreed to let Father Bechtold experiment.

Father Bechtold and a neighbor created white scan boxes using wood and large panes of glass. After he’d carefully unbind the volumes, he slid a newspaper page into the bottom of the box and used his smart phone to take photographs, flipping the newspaper after each image. Then he’d move on to the next page. After he’d scanned about 20 years of newspapers, he showed his results to Towalski. 

“Joe was convinced we had the necessary image quality. However, to complete the rest in a timely manner, I purchased a wide-format scanner. The quality and process were more professional — and much faster.”

At the end of a day of parish concerns, Father Bechtold found scanning to be restful — mindless but cathartic.

“I did with time what might have been done with money,” Father Bechtold said. “The total cost was about 15% of what we might otherwise have paid.”

Unbinding the newspaper collections was nerve-wracking, however. 

“Before slicing off the bindings, I first had to remove the center pages because they didn’t have the usual margins. With too large a cut, I’d lose words — it was permanent, I could never get those words back. I had to get it right the first time. Then I had to get those pages back in the correct place afterwards.” 

When he began, he estimated 240 hours for the project. This estimate was accurate but didn’t include picking up the books from the Diocesan Pastoral Center, prepping them with the help of Thane Schulz of Finewood Structures cabinet shop in Browerville and returning the books. Over a period of two years, he scanned about 88,000 pages, completing them in 2023.

He and Towalski partnered with the Minnesota Historical Society which hosts the Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub. Their software and database would make the documents searchable. 

“Many people are concerned with church and school closures, tight budgets, declining numbers of Catholics. But looking back helps us recognize how important this diocese has been for so many — the laity, our religious and their orders, other institutions and the city as well. Now we  can see the amazing impact of this diocese,” Father Bechtold said.

“Going through the archives, you capture different moments of time and realize what was important to people in earlier generations. Parishioners can read articles from the 1930s or 40s about their parish’s 50th anniversary, see what the church looked like then, discover the same family names. When they access this.” 

Father Michael Bechtold

In scanning every edition, Father Bechtold saw worthwhile articles that caught his interest — but that wasn’t what he was there to do.

“Every time I saw something I wanted to read, I’d instead list key words — now I have a collection of thousands of key words and phrases, like ‘spiritual blindness,’ ‘memorial crosses,’ ‘shrines,’ ‘bathtub grottos,’ ‘moral absolutes,’ ‘rosary crusade’ and ‘local landmarks.’ And some others that really surprised me. It’s all there,” Father Bechtold said.

“I might look for a specific article, or I might pick a random edition and just read to see where it leads me. Either way, it’s a very wholesome thing, reading about Catholic life. I enjoy rediscovering our history.” 

When others peruse the diocesan newspaper archive, Father Bechtold suggests that people allow time to scroll.

“In an age of Internet and television, we all ‘waste’ time on these things. I hope people ‘waste’ time looking through these newspapers, too. Learning about your parish, your mission society, your favorite devotion — this can be quite fruitful. I hope to see how others find this resource useful to them,” he said. 

“Our diocesan newspapers tell something of our heart and history. I would hope other dioceses are saving their newspapers online also.”

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How to find a story from past diocesan newspapers

  1. To begin a search, type and click on the Search button at the top. Or type Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub in your browser and when you have entered that site, click on the “Search the Newspapers” at the bottom of that page. 
  2. Under Titles, unclick All; then select St. Cloud Register and/or St. Cloud Visitor and click. (Not to be confused with St. Cloud Visiter, spelled with an “e,” from 1857-1858, which is a different paper.)
  3. To search, type in name/phrase you’re searching for. Click on Search button to the left of the “Add Search Term” button. 
  4. The first page of all editions with that name/phrase will appear. Click on the image to select one. You will be taken to the page with the name/phrase you searched.
  5. Use the keyboard down arrow to move downwards line by line on the page. The name/phrase will be highlighted in yellow. If it is not the correct article, go to a sideways arrow at the top of the page to select another edition.
  6. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, try variations of the search terms.
  7. To save the page you want, go to the Link tab near the top of the page (it looks like a chain link) and click. 
  8. Choose Copy to Clipboard. Save this link in a document on your computer or email. Close the box. Using that link, you can return to the same page at another time without going through the search process. 

Author: Nikki Rajala

Nikki Rajala is a writer/copy editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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