And now my friends we continue with the crisis of St Paul’s. This time we’ll talk about the actual crisis. It began with the bishop sending his new vicar general out to sort out some chaos, and continued with the discovery that the vicar general's talents lay more in the direction of causing chaos rather than sorting it out.
For a crisis that played out in York/Toronto, it is ironic that the trouble began at a place that was, at the time, a journey of several days away, in the parishes of Sandwich, now Windsor, and Amherstburg, one of the very few places in the Western part of Upper Canada that had parishes. These parishes were having a crisis of their own, and McDonnell decided the best option was to send his new vicar general to see if he could smooth the situation out. And so, in 1830, as one of his first actions as vicar general, Father William James O’Grady was sent to try and sort his way through a very thorny situation.
The crisis in those parishes began with a deadlock between the two incumbent priests, Louis-Joseph Fluet of Amherstburg and Joseph Crevier of Sandwich, over the site of a proposed convent, namely, which parish should get it. The trouble was exacerbated by social ethnic divisions similar to the divisions outlined in Toronto itself. In this case, instead of poor Irish it was poor French speakers who were united against a particular wealthy family by the name of Baby, and deeply resented their influence. So deep was their resentment towards the Baby clan, when one of the Baby’s ran for election to the provincial assembly in October 1830, both priests criticized Baby from the pulpit. Defeated in the election, Baby wrote to Bishop MacDonnell demanding the removal of both priests. MacDonnell sent O’Grady to investigate the matter.
O’Grady reported an appalling state of affairs with both of the priests. Crevier’s finances had serious discrepancies, he was accused of misappropriating funds, and there were accusations Fluet was having sexual relations with a woman (whom he later married.) The conduct of Mass by both was slovenly and unbecoming. O’Grady prevailed upon the priests to mend their ways, and to cease quarrelling over the convent. Believing that to indeed be that, O’Grady returned to York. By the time he was home, the situation in Sandwich had reversed itself, more problems had erupted, and before long O’Grady was ordered to take another bite at the problems at Sandwich.
This time O’Grady dropped the hammer. He ordered the transfer of Crevier and suspended Fluet. Those priests responded by holding a public meeting at the Sandwich church during which Crevier was reported to have boasted he “not care one fig for bishop or priest or even the Pope and it was the duty of the people to lock the Church doors & not Suffer themselves to be dictated to by Scotch and Irish Strangers.” O’Grady, who had a congregation of Irish who resented the Scottish Tory bishop, could perhaps appreciate the irony of being lumped in with his Scotch Bishop.
Letters and petitions and counter petitions went back and forth as the people began to appeal to the bishop, more bishops and even the Governor. Eventually MacDonnell allowed Fluet and Crevier to remain and be reinstated in their parishes until “legal proof” of their misconduct could be obtained. In a letter to O’Grady MacDonnell stated that it was no reflection upon O’Grady’s judgement that MacDonnell had done this. Instead, he claimed he reversed O’Grady’s decision on the intervention of Governor Colborne and Quebec Archbishop Panet.. Unspoken was MacDonnell’s problem of the chronic priest shortage. Replacing two priests, even two bad ones, would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. It was only with the greatest reluctance that MacDonnell would place a parish under interdict and suspend a priest, as he was about to do shortly.
For his part O’Grady was unmollified by MacDonnell's reassurance and statements of faith in O'Grady's abilities. O'Grady wrote to MacDonnell, telling him that allowing two “selfish and stiff-necked priests” to mock the “episcopal dignity” would lead to no end of problems in the diocese. More than this, O'Grady felt very much that the MacDonnell's reversal of his decisions reflected badly on the bishop, and that he would bear the brunt of the shame for this whole sordid mess. The problems of Sandwich poisoned the relations between the bishop and the vicar general, as would be seen soon enough. For the time being, O’Grady returned to St Paul’s where he was facing problems of his own.
The divisions between that wealthy and the poor, and the politics of Tory and Reform were splitting the congregation, and causing problems. Although he was very popular with the poorer members of his congregation, O’Grady had problems with the wealthier members of his flock and his church wardens, who were usually Tories, who began a whispering campaign of personal attacks against O'Grady. O’Grady had been charged with misappropriating funds at St Paul’s. O'Grady was accused of having sexual relations with a woman. He was accused having a close relationship with radical Reformers like William Lyon MacKenzie- which, incidentally, he did. In July of 1831 MacDonnell personally lead an investigation into his vicar general's behaviour, and cleared O’Grady of all charges. However, the bishop felt it would be best if O’Grady were transferred out of the poisonous atmosphere of St Paul’s to the more peaceful area of Prescott and Brockville. Here should be the end of our story, or at least the part dealing with O’Grady. But not so, and MacDonnell saw the fulfillment of O’Grady’s warning that MacDonnell’s episcopal dignity had suffered and would forever be compromised, and it was O’Grady himself who fulfilled that warning. O’Grady refused to leave St Paul’s, replaced the hostile church wardens with his own supporters, locked the doors of St Paul’s and claimed the church as his own.
Now MacDonnell used the power he was so reluctant to use in Windsor and Sandwich and placed O’Grady under suspension and the parish of St Paul’s under interdict. He began the legal process of taking back control of St Paul’s church, which would take until 1833. The fight between the bishop and the priest took on a more immediate and personal tone, for it was around this time that MacDonnell was named to the legislative council and was therefore living in York, the capital of Upper Canada. Near his house MacDonnell erected a small chapel that served as the local church whilst the battle between him and O’Grady played out, a chapel which O'Grady's followers dubbed "the soup kitchen". In an effort to peacefully settle the problem O’Grady suggested third party arbitration by the Sulpitians of Montreal. But the suggestion for peaceful arbitration came in a letter which contained a vicious personal attack against the bishop. “What in the name of common sense infatuates you? . . .” O’Grady wrote. “Cannot all the experience of your long life teach you a lesson of usefulness. . . . But it is too late for you to make a beginning, and instead of learning how to live, it behoves you rather to study how to die.” With the letter came some of the now standard accusations that were flluing against priests of the era. O'Grady claimed MacDonnell had misappropriated funds, however he refrained from adding the usual secondary accusation of sexual relations with a woman. So bad was the situation between the Catholic bishop and priest, Anglican priest and eventual Bishop John Strachan attempted to personally broker a peaceful agreement. All solutions broke against the stubbornness of both O’Grady and McDonnell.
Around the end of 1832 O’Grady, along with James King founded a newspaper called the Canadian Correspondent, from which O’Grady proceeded to launch attack after attack on MacDonnell’s character. He also espoused the cause of radical reform, and came more and more in line with the politics of William Lyon MacKenzie. His political statements must have rankled MacDonnell, who was a known Tory, to the point that he, a Catholic bishop, was actually had the approval of the Orange Lodge, and who was also sitting on the very council the Reformers opposed.
In 1833, upon regaining legal control of St Paul’s McDonnell excommunicated O’Grady and his followers. O’Grady went to Rome to plead his case. McDonnell wrote a letter to friends at Rome who then gave O’Grady a frosty welcome and advised him to return home and submit to his bishop. O’Grady obeyed at least half of that request, and returned home. He continued his battle with the bishop.
The fight continued around St Paul's. After MacDonnell regained control of the church of St. Paul’s, he gave the key to the church to a carpenter who was building a gallery. One of O’Grady’s supporters chanced upon the carpenter, and managed to talk him out of the key. O’Grady now allowed his supporters into the back of the church while Mass was being said at the front. More litigation followed. O’Grady took the extraordinary and even incredible move of appealing to the Governor General. According to the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War and placed Canada under British control, Catholic churches were to submit to the British Crown. Under this provision, O’Grady asked the Anglican Governor General to take over the Catholic Church in Upper Canada. The plea went ignored. It was a last, desperate, heretical grasp to maintain power over the church. It was only a matter of time before O’Grady and his followers were thrown out of St Paul’s again.
Loosing St Paul's second time, lacking a pulpit and a vocation, O’Grady turned to politics. He ran unsuccessfully for the legislative assembly. He became a member of several radical societies and his newspaper became more and more strident in its calls for Reform. Even here O’Grady and McDonnell were in opposition, and McDonnell, now thoroughly seated within the Tory Compact, saw O’Grady, even as a now former Catholic priest, as a threat to everything he hoped to achieve. O’Grady for his part became more and more prominent in the Reform movement throughout the 1830’s. His presence within the reform movement drew many of his former congregation into the movement. He hosted important meetings, heaped abuse on every Tory in sight through his newspaper, and was generally pushing and aiding the cause of reform in every way he could as the Reform movement took its inexorable steps towards its climactic rebellion.
And then- O’Grady vanished. On the eve of rebellion he sold his newspaper, bought some land out in Pickering township, and vanishes from our story as suddenly as he appeared, robbing our story of both resolution and climax. The Rebellion itself, when it occurred in 1837 was something of an anticlimax in its own right. The Rebellion amounted to a few skirmishes fought near what is now Maple Leaf Gardens before MacKenzie and the other rebels scattered and fled.
O’Grady lived quietly for a few years in Pickering. The story of his time in the Toronto region, which began with the line “there was a knock at the door” could end very much the same way, except this time there was no answer. A visitor to O’Grady’s home in 1840 found him dead. A coroner’s inquiry into the death ruled his death as “visitation by God”, a 19th century euphemism for death by natural, though unknown, causes.
And so ended William James O’Grady, but not his influence, or the problems he both encountered and set in motion. In the next, final instalment, we shall consider a few of the influences and look a little at the long shadow of these distant events, and consider the sometimes dire consequences of answering a knock at the door