In 1833, the beleaguered Bishop MacDonnell must have been greatly surprised to receive a letter giving him perhaps a glimmer of good news from the most troublesome part of his vast diocese. The letter ran thusly:
My dear Lord:
Enclosed I send you a cheque for £10 with the name of the drawee left blank, in order that you may fill it up with whatever name you please.
It is to be applied to suit charitable purposes as you may see fit, and it is somewhere about the sum whereof I have, from time to time, defrauded my neighbours by wickedly shooting their swine, poultry and other property which I found on my farm.
I promised to send you this some time since, when I had the consolation of receiving remission of the manifold transgressions of my past life.
It is now with the most hearty joy and satisfaction that I acquaint your Lordship of my intention of returning to the bosom of the Catholic Church from which my forefathers went forth in an evil hour and I take this opportunity of begging your Lordship to receive me, a strayed sheep, into the one fold of the one Shepherd, Christ Jesus.
To this resolution I feel that I have been brought entirely and solely by the grace of God. To my own exertion, I owe nothing; indeed, I may say that as far as regards myself, my wish and desire has been to find the Church of England in the right. But God has graciously inspired me with light to perceive that neither the Church of England nor any other Church can be that established by His beloved Son, but that in communion and fellowship with the See of Rome.
Soon I will appear at the tribunal of penance, there to confess and bewail my past sins and errors and receive pardon and remission and repentance at the hands of His Holy servant and I will pray to be permitted to partake of His Blessed Body and Blood in the venerable sacrament of the. Eucharist. In the meantime I beg of your Lordship to maintain secrecy with respect to this, my purpose,. because my old mother, who, in the common course of nature cannot long remain in this world, would be most terribly shocked to learn that I had embraced a religion against which she has ever entertained the most violent prejudices. Begging a share in your prayers, believe me, my dear Lord.
Your affectionate child in God,
Macdonnell must have been shocked. John Elmsley was the son of wealthy and important parents, possessed a considerable fortune and, what is more, was known to be a devout Anglican, and even included the Archdeacon John Strachan as his close personal friend. He held a seat in the government of the day with the other important sons of the mainly Anglican colony, and was well known in the life of the city. Elmsley’s mother was not the only one who would be greatly surprised. However, in this way the man who was to become the greatest Catholic philanthropist in the history of the city and the one of the most influential laymen in the Church in Toronto began his public life in the Faith.
Elmsley was born into wealth and privilege in Toronto on May 19, 1801. His father served as the second chief justice of Upper Canada, and his mother who was of the United Empire Loyalists, and whose father held some large land grants. The father was a member of nearly every movement proposed by the Anglicans for the betterment of the town. The young John was educated and found a career in the British Navy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant before resigning in about 1824. He returned to his family in Canada. Here he began to take an interest in philanthropy and also began commanding several Lake vessels for trade and other endeavours on the Great Lakes. He was quite successful.
Elmsley’s conversion seems to have been brought about mainly because of his marriage to a Catholic, Charlotte Sherwood. It was actually fairly common among the wealthy members of the community at York to marry outside their faith, the usual arrangement being an Anglican son marrying a Catholic daughter, with an agreement for any sons to be raised in the father’s faith and any daughters to be raised in the mother’s. Through his wife, Elmsley came into contact with the Catholic Faith, and began his movement towards conversion. Soon after he sent his letter to Bishop MacDonnell, Elmsley found and read a pamphlet entitled "Bishop of Strasburg's Observations on the Sixth Chapter of St. John's Gospel". Elmsley found this book to be so convincing an argument of the truth of the Catholic Church, that from his own funds he printed five thousand copies of the pamphlet for distribution around the city. He personally sent a copy to his old friend, the head of the Anglican Church in Toronto, the immensely patrician Archdeacon John Strachan, along with this letter:
York, October 7, 1833.
My dear Sir:
"In enclosing you a copy of a pamphlet, the publication of which, in this country, I have been at some pains and expense to effect, I trust you will pardon the liberty I take in begging for it your most attentive consideration, in order to my being favoured at your leisure, with your opinion of the important subject of its pages, and also of the manner in which the argument is sustained...
"Your reading must, of course, have been more various than mine, and your judgment more matured; I, therefore, come to you, my dear Sir, as an enlightened teacher of that sect in which I was born and educated, and as a friend of my parents, and I flatter myself of mine too, to afford me all the information you can supply on so momentuous a subject. In the meantime, I will not conceal from you my determination, that unless the subject of the Bishop's argument can be overthrown, I must, of necessity, no longer abstain from receiving the Communion in that Church, where alone the real presence of our Blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, is acknowledged.
"I remain, my dear sir,
"Yours very sincerely,
The action set off a mini firestorm in Toronto, with Strachan writing rebuttals of the pamphlet, and Catholics writing rebuttals of his rebuttal. Strachan also went so far as to condemn the conversion from his pulpit at St James. The conversion Elmsley had wished to keep quiet was now very, very loud.
It was an odd time to convert. These years were not the glory days of Catholicism in Toronto. There was still only one church, the building itself was small, and many visitors considered it to be ugly. The chaos of O’Grady and the interdict were still fresh on the minds of all Catholics in the city. Bishop MacDonell had appointed Father William Patrick McDonough as the new pastor of St Paul’s, but the deep divisions between the elite of his parish and the poorer Irish members would continue, and indeed grow worse as the 1837 Rebellion drew nearer. Conversion also cost Elmsley personally, as soon after he lost his position in the council. With some time on his hands, Elmsley began to take a greater role in his new religion. The Bishop was only too pleased to have Elmsley taking a prominent role among the Catholic population of Toronto and before long began to promote him.
In stepping into a leadership role at St Paul’s church, where he was soon elected treasurer, Elmsley was stepping into a minefield. The troubles O’Grady had unleashed were still present. The people, who had a taste of being in charge of the church during O;Grady’s reign, found they liked having power, and were very loath to give it up. Furthermore, Elmsley and a few other prominent Catholics were separated from their fellows through wealth, status and politics. Elmsley was a wealthy Tory. The majority of the congregation was poor Reformers. Though put into a leadership role, he was divided from most of his new brothers in faith, and each side distrusted the other. Problems would soon erupt, and it began with a simple problem in which Elmsley, as treasurer, would be very much involved: the church was going broke.
As a prominent businessman, Elmsley’s opinion was sought for a solution. Bishop MacDonnell wanted Elmsley to try and use his old connections on the council to try and persuade a grant from the government for the support of St Paul’s. (At the time, the clergy was supported in the colony through the use of the clergy reserves, land set aside for the benefit and support of the clergy. Through the actions of Strachan, almost all of the clergy reserves went to the Anglicans.) Elmsley preferred voluntarism, believing the church best supported by its laity. He explained his reasons in a letter to the bishop.
You may recollect that I have been uniformly opposed to any other mode of supporting the clergy except through the contributions of their Flocks. The grant of a site for a Church and a Parsonage and a small portion of land to enable the incumbent to support a cow or two- is all that I can bring myself to recommend in the shape of Government aid to the Clergy…
It is an interesting insight to the time that a cow or two was thought to be essential for a priest. Elmsley did prevail upon the government a little later and did procure a piece of land at the current intersection of Adelaide and Bathurst for the use of the Catholic Church. The land was named MacDonnell Square in honour of the bishop. It seems as though at first the ground was used for a cemetery, and it would be almost two decades before the Church would begin to develop the land.
Elmsley’s solution to the financial problems of St Paul's was to increase pew rents and further to charge and entrance fee of two pennies to enter the church. His position was unpopular even on the council of the parish, but the night the meeting was held to vote upon his proposal, two members of the council who opposed his motion missed the meeting because they were drunk, and therefore Elmsley’s motion passed.
Elmsley seemed to be a powerful force in the church, and his position got even more powerful when he accepted Bishop Mac Donnell’s appointment of Lay Vicar. Though he and MacDonnell had disagreed on how to support the priests, Elmsley enthusiastically took on his new role, and exclaimed in his latter to the Bishop:
Nothing would please me more than to be constituted your Lay Vicar General for the purpose of placing a substantial edifice of public worship with a school near it in every township in Upper Canada.
Father McDonough reported to Bishop MacDonnell that Elmsley was having a positive effect on the congregation. MacDonnell felt secure in his choice of Elmsley, and perhaps began to feel that the troubles of brought on by O’Grady were all behind him. If he did feel that way, he was wrong. He accepted Elmsley's advice on the pew rents and entrance fee into St Paul's. On Elmsley's suggestion, McDonough was sent into the countryside for mission work for a few weeks. at the first Sunday Mass upon his return, the congregation was greeted at the doors by men expecting the fee.
The largely poor Irish congregation was offended at paying to enter the church, and the priest was afraid the expenses were keeping people away from Mass. Wealthier members of the parish stood by the doors on Sundays and paid the fee for all who could not afford it, but this move still rankled many of the poorer classes even more, and they and Father McDonough wanted Mass to be free. In the meantime, Elmsley wrote to the Bishop of how the situation stood
The pews are empty, the aisles crowded to suffocation and filled with men and women splendidly dressed. The ribbon alone on some of the bonnets would pay a quarter of the pew rents and yet these fine ladies and gentlemen prefer to kneel in the dirty aisles and body of the Church when they won’t pay a farthing to occupy a pew.
Elmsley’s methods split the congregation even worse than before, and earned him the approbation of many of his fellow Catholics who hated his methods. He and the wealthier church wardens found themselves in opposition to Father McDonough, who sided with the poorer members of the congregation against the wealthy church wardens. McDonough took control of the church, forced Elmsley out of his Wardenship and position as treasurer in 1835. The rents and entrance fees were almost immediately cancelled. Things seemed to calm down, briefly. Then the church very nearly went bankrupt.
The money situation was so dire it hampered efforts of establishing catholic schools and convents within the city. In 1835 Father McDonough received a letter from a nun in Kingstown, near Dublin, which inquired if Bishop McDonnel would be able to give her community any encouragement to come to the diocese. The Diocese already had the land for such a venture, as a gift from the Honourable Mr. James Baby, another prominant wealthy Catholic, but they lacked money to do anything with it. McDonough and MacDonnell were forced to reply that, with the money they had spent thus far establishing the church, burial ground, he could offer them no encouragemeent. The Bishop had expected the Parish of St Paul's to attempt to pay back the money he needed to establish convents and schools, but none was made, and it would not be until 1855 that a convent and school was raised by the Sisters of St Joseph on Baby's lands.
The splits and divisions within the congregation, the differences between MacDonnell and Elmsley on one side, and O’Grady and McDonough on the other, did not go away. Throughout the decade, as the Rebellion of 1837 approached, the problems reformed and restated themselves in different forms and ways. Rather than being above the political turmoil of the day, the small church in Toronto was caught up in it and swept along.
The Rebellion split the church once again along the lines of class and money. Several members of the congregation fought on the side of the Rebels, and several of the wealthier members, including Elmsley, fought on the side of the government. After the rebellion, the tensions became submerged, but no one was under any illusion that the troubles had ended. Toronto would remain divided against itself, between Reform and Tory, for years to come.
The problems followed Bishop MacDonnell to his grave when he died in 1840. The new bishop, Remigius Gaulin had been MacDonnell’s co-adjutor for many years, and almost immediately began appealing to Rome to split the troublesome Western part of his diocese off into a new, separate diocese.
Bishop Gaulin began writing to Bishop Ignace Bourget in Montreal for a new coadjutor, one who would be both acceptable to the British Government and Rome, and also the western portion of his diocese’s increasingly Irish Catholic population, and suggested a priest in the Montreal diocese who seemed to have some talent. and had been marked out as rising star. The Bishop wrote back saying the priest was an excellent choice, as “He is sufficiently Irish to be well thought of here, and sufficiently Canadian to live up to all expectations.” The name of this young, talented Irish Canadian priest was Michael Power.