In 1846-47, Bishop Power left his diocese for his liminal visit, where he was to report to the Pope the goings on of his new diocese. What would he have to say? What was life for the Catholics in the diocese like before the Irish Famine?
For the brief period between the forming of the diocese and the arrival of the Irish fleeing the famine, there is little in the ways of big events, or loud history. The riots between Reform and Tory had calmed down, and the united provinces of Canada East and Canada West began moving towards responsible government. The presence of a bishop in St Paul’s seems to have quieted down the congregation. People went about the business of living their lives.
The Catholic community of Toronto was overwhelmingly Irish, with a small percentage of Italian and German immigrants, and a few French from Quebec. The Irish tended to live together in communities around the city, usually near places where they could find work. A small Irish enclave also grew around the sole Catholic church in town, an area which still bears the name of its early residents: Corktown. Nearby Cabbagetown, so named because its residents were so poor they grew cabbages in their front yards, was in the very near future. Other small, mobile enclaves would form and disband across the city as the Irish, who were by and large labourers, followed their jobs.
In this period, one of the major problems facing the city was drunkenness. At the time, there was about one licensed drinking establishment for every 100-120 residents- men, women and children. Unlicensed establishments, often called ‘blind pigs’, were a major problem in the city, as a result some historians of the city estimate the ratio of bars to people may have been in the region of one bar for every sixty men, women and children. The blind pigs were a particular problem in and around Corktown, and the Irish lived up to their reputation as proverbial drunks. Their inebriation knew no time of day, and it extended even, some say, to their behaviour at church. It is no wonder that St Paul’s had frequent Temperance drives. Many of the faithful would come forward and sign the pledge to abstain from all alcohol. There is no way of knowing how many actually kept to the pledge.
For the people who lived within Toronto itself, it was possible to go to church every Sunday. However, it should be remembered that Toronto was much, much smaller than the city of today. The city itself was a small collection of buildings and houses on the port. Many villages, later on swallowed by the growing corporation, still dotted the area, with farmland in between. Its population was around 25,000 at the time. When Power bought the land for St Michael’s in around 1845, St Michael’s, now firmly within the downtown core, was actually outside the city
For many people of today, the idea of Mass back in that time brings to mind an image of a pious people who sat quietly, their heads bowed in prayer. By now it should be obvious to the reader it was no such thing. The people were loud, raucous, and often drunk. There was also the rather whimsical instance of Colonel Chichester, one of Toronto’s most prominent Catholics, who, along with Elmsley and Lynn was among Bishop Power’s close lay friends and advisors. Chichester, who was stationed at Fort York, had a fondness for having his regimental band accompany him and his family to Mass on Sundays, playing all the way. At that time, it would have been a trip of about half an hour or more, and any route he took would have taken him past some Protestant churches, which, during the summer months, would have had their doors open to let in a breeze. He probably rode past those churches with an erect military bearing, eyes straight ahead, however, I like to think of him giving a little Vir wave to the congregations as he and his band passed by their doors, interrupting their preachers thundering from the pulpit.
For the majority of Catholics, who lived outside the city in the hinterlands, Mass was a more uncommon event. Some people had mission churches not far from their homes, but these were served by circuit priests, who may be around perhaps once a month. Travelling the distance to and from church was a hardship for many. As a result Mass was often only attended on special days. To give an idea of the difficulties and the time involved in travel, consider the position of one of the buildings in Toronto still standing from the period: Montgomery’s Inn, near the corner of Islington and Dundas. Today, it is well within the city limits. Then, it was a farmhouse, whose owner, Montgomery, turned it into an inn to service travellers going along Dundas to and from the city, which, back then, was more than half a day’s journey away.
Many Catholics responded to the lack of priest and church by attending whatever denomination happened to be in the area. As a result, many nominal Catholics often attended Methodist, or Anglican services. Bishop Power was deeply concerned over the possibility of losing these Catholics to the Protestants, and spent his summers travelling around the countryside, travelling as far as Manitoulin Island to administer the sacraments, encourage his flocks, and in general maintain the presence of the Church in the countryside. To further his aim, he planned to use his 1847 liminal visit to drum up some help for the diocese, either as priests, or missionaries, or nuns, or money, and it was for this reason he stopped over in Ireland, where he realized he had bigger problems heading his way.
The Catholics were a very mall minority in the population, vastly outnumbered by the Protestants, yet religious strife had not yet arrived. Several newspapers, notably the Globe, did print the occasional anti Catholic editorial, but for the most part people seemed to get along despite religious divides. The day the foundations were dug for the Cathedral, several Protestants showed up with shovels, hoping for a piece of the roasted ox, and not caring if it was a Protestant or Catholic ox they were eating. The local Methodist newspaper noted in its editorial “Sometimes the worst causes attract the best people.”
There is also the striking example of some traditional enemies, the Orange and the Green Parties, who actually worked together to form the Pan Ireland society. The primary purpose of this group was to stay in touch with their Irish roots, and to organize a feast for its members every St Patrick’s Day. This feast, by all accounts, was a bender of monumental proportions. The toasts were said to go on for hours, including an ironic toast to Father Theobald Matthew, Irish Temperance reformer and founder of the Teetotal Abstinence Society. The feast occurred every March 17th through the 1840’s, with the exception of 1847, when the members felt it wrong to feast while Ireland starved.
Aside from Chichester’s weekly parade, and the building of the Cathedral, the Catholics of the period kept a rather low profile, but it was a profile that was increasing slowly. Bishop Power, unlike Macdonnell, never actively sought direct political power. He instead preferred to work through influence, using prominent Catholics who were either elected or appointed to government positions. Power also won the respect of other local religious leaders, including the Anglican John Strachan and the Methodist Egerton Ryerson, for whom Ryerson University is now named. Together the three worked to found the first public school board of Ontario, and when it came time to choose the first chairman of the board, the two Protestants chose the Catholic, Michael Power, to be the chairman.
Chairman of the new school board was perhaps Bishop Power's most public secular position- save that, at the time, the school board was not exactly secular. Power never sought to create a separate Catholic school system, but instead worked within the provisions of the new school board which allowed for the creation of Catholic schools, or the hiring of Catholic teachers, where there was a sufficient demand. Power was to eventually invoke that provision to establish eight Catholic schools. Ryerson, for his part, tried to use the same provisions to block the establishment of separate schools, believing student would be best served by one consistent school system. Yet the men continued to respect each other, and were perhaps even friends.
As 1846 drew to a close, and Power began his preparations for his liminal visit, he had much to be proud of. His diocese was quiet, he had kept his promise to the British, and the Church was growing. He could report to the Pope that things were going well. On the other hand, his unfinished Cathedral was in debt, and he desperately needed priests and other religious to help with his diocese. He added a stop over in Ireland as part of his itinerary for his journey, where he hoped to get help from the people there to help their ex pats in Canada.
As he left his diocese and set sail for Europe, Power was leaving behind a diocese that was mostly quiet, orderly, and slowly growing. Things were going well.
Then the Irish arrived.