I have been enjoying tracing the history of our historic buildings on Water Street, but came up for air recently when someone alerted me to a story in the Princeton Times-Republic about St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Princeton.
I read the story, and my heart sank. It was filled with errors and misinformation. The final two paragraphs are the only correct statements regarding St. Patrick’s history in the article. It was especially disheartening because the history of St. Patrick’s is readily available in the Princeton quas qui centennial booklet published in 1973, books written by Roger Krentz on area churches 15-20 years ago, and now my book on the history of early Princeton published in 2020.
I contacted the reporter, who admitted she had not checked all the resources available, had a long fruitless discussion, waited a few days as the reporter requested, and then sent the following letter to the editor on March 29 requesting a correction.
“I am sorry the only time you hear from me is when I am pointing out errors, but I think one thing we can agree on is that accuracy is essential to a newspaper’s credibility.
“A friend alerted me to D.C. Johnson’s story headlined “History of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Princeton” in the March 18 edition of the Princeton Times-Republic. I contacted D.C. last Wednesday and in our phone conversation pointed out to her:
“- In the second paragraph, she states that the Irish Church was a St. Patrick (Roman Catholic) Church “without a name from 1871-1878” and “the building was known as St. Mary’s from 1879-1884.” Both those statements are incorrect, based on previous published histories, especially Roger Krentz’s history of county churches. She said she would let me know where the information came from. I have not heard from her.
“- The quote from the Princeton Republic in the third paragraph mentions two churches. Neither is St. Patrick’s! (West side is St. John’s; east side is St. Stan’s.)
“The following is not an error, just unnecessary speculation – not what you want in a newspaper article. The fourth paragraph says a photo in Krentz’s book shows two views of St. John’s Catholic Church. Fine. What does it have to do with St. Patrick’s? Only that August Swanke built the older church, and the reporter then speculates that maybe he also built St. Patrick’s because they were built within a few years of each other and look similar, noting that Krenz stated that it was unclear who built St. Patrick’s. It still is. There were other builders in Princeton in the 1870s. Swanke’s own house on Harrisville Road (now Harris Street), for example, was built by N. Harmon, and Gardner Green owned a lumberyard and was a prolific builder in the 1870s. It might have been Swanke. We don’t know. Is that news?
“The eighth paragraph says there were two parishes ‘because it was common for Mass to be spoken in Polish or Irish depending on the constituency.’ That is a gross oversimplification. And is there an Irish language? 🙂 Masses were said in English and German at St. Patrick’s.
“- The same paragraph also states, ‘Although Princeton was initially heavily populated by Poles, by the time these two churches were being constructed Irish immigration had greatly increased.’ That is incorrect. Princeton’s 19th century growth was propelled by waves of German immigrants. The Poles followed the Germans. The Irish settled primarily in St. Marie Township in the 1850s-1860s and comprised a large portion of the mission at St. Marie but were always a much smaller population than Germans or Poles in Princeton; there was no great increase in Irish immigration to Princeton in the early 1870s. When the church in St. Marie closed, some former parishioners there, mostly Irish and German, organized St. Patrick’s in Princeton.
“With so many mistakes, I’m not sure how you phrase the correction! Maybe run a whole new story next week with an editor’s note saying it was redone to address multiple errors in the original, or something to that effect. Just a thought. Good luck, but the factual information needs to be corrected.
“Also, especially with Princeton’s anniversary celebration coming in 2023, please urge your reporters to check my history of Princeton – you don’t have to like me, but it is the most thoroughly researched and accurate history of early Princeton that we have – and the blog at princetonhistory.com before publishing local history stories. I am always available to chat about local history.
“I have not seen it yet, but I’ve been told D.C.’s story on our railroad bridge a couple of weeks ago also contained several errors.
“Thanks, Scott. As I said, I spoke with DC last Wednesday. She said she was going to tell me where she got the info for the second paragraph and would also send me a copy of the railroad bridge story. I agreed not to contact you until Monday (today) regarding corrections, but I have yet to hear from her. I’m sure she’s busy, but I also know you are on deadline and should be aware of these kinds of concerns.
“Thanks, Scott. Take care. And if you ever want to chat journalism, let me know.”
At the end of the article, the reporter acknowledged her sources for the incorrect information included the historical society!
I asked a local officer if the society was working with the newspaper to correct the errors and was told, no, the society cannot tell newspapers what to print. No duh. But the society can request corrections when errors are made. The society, in my opinion, should be the community’s first line of defense against historical misinformation.
The reporter has not sent me the railroad bridge story, but I’ll track down a copy and run corrections if warranted, and I have not heard from the editor. My name is mud at the paper and in some circles in Princeton because I have this terrible habit of calling out and correcting errors in history articles and plaques on the city’s historical walking tour, sometimes with a dash of snark. I have a bad attitude, they say.
Really, I just have this antiquated notion that history and newspapers should be accurate.
I don’t think the reporter appreciated the fact that newspaper articles are archived and become part of a community’s history. I can’t help but think that future local historians reading the St. Patrick’s article will scratch their head and wonder, “WTF, this makes no sense!” They will then check the next edition for a correction.
Everyone makes mistakes, and with the volume of information, and sometimes conflicting information, involved in compiling local histories, they are inevitable. Fortunately, digitalization and other advances enable us to do more complete research than could be done in the 1960s-1980s, when many of Princeton’s historical errors were first published or repeated, and to correct the errors of the past.
Even when faced with undeniable facts, some people can’t accept the truth. The earth is flat, some say. Man has not stepped foot on the moon. Fireworks at the Biden inauguration were faked. And on and on.
But the assault on truth is not limited to national politics; it’s happening right here in our hometown with our history, and people who should be safeguarding our history are among the offenders.
I thought publishing the book and blog, documenting the errors, showing how they occurred and why they are wrong, would give people interested in local history accessible, accurate reference materials. I guess the old adage that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make ’em drink” is still true. You can document the historical facts for people, but you can’t force them to read.
Ignorance is bliss, it seems.
I would prefer not to be the cranky old curmudgeon complaining about this stuff – I much prefer burying myself in research – but if the historical society and local newspaper won’t defend our history, who will?
Next up: The plaques 2.0.