Here ends part one of my Brief History. I'll start part 2 when I get around to it.
On October 5th, 1847, there occurred a most unique event in the history of the city of Toronto. It was a funeral procession, which was not unique in and of itself, except for the people who walked in the procession. The funeral train stretched for half a mile, and hundreds more stood in the ankle deep mud of the old city, waiting for the procession to pass. All had come to pay last respects to Michael Power.
But it was not the quantity of people that made this procession unique, though it still remains one of the largest in Toronto’s history. It was the makeup of people. Very wealthy stood alongside penniless immigrants. Those closest to the coffin, as was to be expected, were Power’s priests. Also close to the casket walked John Elmsley, Power’s friend and supporter, Toronto’s greatest Catholic philanthropist. In time he would be mostly buried not far from his friend. Also in the train was J. George Hodgins, chief clerk of the board of education that Power had chaired, along with other surviving members of the board. The chief of the board, Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist minister, was away on school business in Brantford, otherwise he would most likely have attended the procession of a man he deeply admired. Behind them stood the Mayor of Toronto, W.H. Boulton, who like most of the non Catholics in the procession, valued Power as a wise moderate, who sought to live in harmony with his fellow Protestant citizens. Some accounts even place the Anglican bishop Strachan in procession, though others do not. Watching the vast procession trudge by were many citizens, mostly Catholic though many not, a crowd which included many of the recent Irish immigrant, who knew little of Power, but who regarded him as a martyr on their behalf.
It was the view of the Irish immigrants that would become the standard view of Power. McGowan, in his biography of Power repeatedly laments how the ‘martyr narrative’ of Power overtook all other aspects of his life, as though the only important event in the life of our first Bishop was how he left it. The martyr narrative was already gaining steam even as the casket made its way towards Power’s final resting place in the yet unfinished cathedral. Newspapers in Power’s hometown published the news of his death, claiming Power to be a “Martyr to Duty”.
Historian Murray Nicholson also argued that Power’s death and the martyrdom narrative are a distraction, only in his opinion it is a distraction from the fact that Power’s reign as bishop was a failure. The problems Power encountered, a diocese too large, critical priest shortages, and so on, were chronic under his reign, and still intact at Power’s death. According to Nicholson, the real founder of the diocese was Power’s successor, who had to essentially start from scratch.
McGowan disagrees with Nicholson, and argues Power’s time as Bishop had four long lasting elements aside from his death. First and foremost, he put diocese of Toronto on the standing of an Episcopal corporation. That meant that, by law, church property in the diocese of Toronto was owned by the Church as represented by the bishop. This became the standard across English Canada in the years following Power. The final authority in debates around churches and land would be the bishop. This would bring an end to lay activism of the sort seen by O’Grady and his followers in the 1830’s for many years.
Secondly, McGowan states that Power set a precedent within the diocese of seeking out religious orders and congregations to aid in the evangelization of his frontiers. This is questionable. It could also be argued he was following the precedent of the leaders of the Church in Quebec who sought out the Jesuits to evangelize their frontiers, a precedent which Power explicitly followed when he sought Jesuit aid, invoking the example of Brebeuf and asking the Jesuits to follow in their glorious tradition.
Thirdly, Power worked within the fledgling educational system to create Catholic schools within the diocese. There are those who debate this, for Power never sought to create a separate school system for the Catholics, but it is a fact that he worked within the provisions of the original act to create schools where feasible. By the time of his death, there were eight schools.
McGowan’s final point seems to be a bit of a stretch: Power “did not allow the rigours of the frontier to defeat him.” Power organized and travelled extensively in a diocese he did not want and never asked for to bring the sacraments and faith to all his people. But this is a personal accomplishment. Changes were coming that would ensure no other bishop of Toronto would face the trials of the frontier as he did. If McGowan is claiming Power set an example for all bishops to come, then it is odd he would choose to do so on this point, given that he rejects the great example of Power’s martyrdom throughout his work as a distraction.
Power’s reign as bishop remains perhaps the Diocese (now Archdiocese) of Toronto’s greatest question mark. The unfinished cathedral to which his funeral procession was heading is as good an emblem as any for Power’s reign as bishop. It is a strange coincidence that Toronto’s first bishop was also the bishop who had the shortest reign- just five years. Almost everything he began he left to be finished by others, and there is little today that we can point to as his, McGowan’s four points excepted or notwithstanding. Power’s statutes of the long ago synod fell into disuse or were replaced, one by one. The Cathedral was eventually completed and paid for by his successor. Any other bishop of Toronto has left longer, deeper and more tangible evidence of their reigns. Made bishop at a young age, his reign should have been long and eventful, his mark everywhere. Instead he has left historians with an unanswerable question: What would he have done, if he had more time?
More time would have meant he would have faced more changes, for changes were coming to his diocese, changes which, while not as sudden and spectacular as the famine, would bring about as deep or even deeper changes to Toronto. Industry would be arriving soon, as would the railway and the telegraph, to name but a few. More people would come to Toronto, their way of life changed from an agrarian seasonal style of life to a life dictated by the ticking of a clock. The telegraph would make over land communication instantaneous, and the train would make certain no other bishop would again spend his summers travelling the diocese by sail, paddle, or on foot.
I suppose what Power might have done is ultimately irrelevant, though even his contemporaries and his friends argued the point, even with his successor. We are left with what he has given us, and beyond McGowan’s four points is the fifth obvious point, what for years was regarded as the only point: he gave his very life to the diocese. McGowan is correct in one sense: the narrative of his death, the Martyr narrative, has overshadowed his life, and the life of the entire diocese. But for all that, his death should not be shunted aside, as an incident or an accident or an interruption, nor should it be made into a myth. His death was real, and it was not an aberration of his life, but the culmination. It was the most obviously Christian thing, the most Catholic example he could have set. It is this example that shines down to us today, more than his schools or his statutes. That Power did more than simply die here, or that his accomplishments deserve a fair look, is a point well worth considering. But why academics seek to diminish the status of his sacrifice is beyond me.
Instead, academics create other myths about the summer of ‘47. A recent documentary entitled Death or Canada, made at least in part in consultation with McGowan, came to the conclusion that the famine and Power’s death brought about a profound shift in Toronto society. Care for the downtrodden and lowly immigrants became, in their words, embedded within “the very DNA of the city.” According to the documentary, for Toronto the legacy of the Irish and the famine of ’47 was tolerance.
They could not have written a more fictitious ending if they had portrayed Power’s funeral cortege pulled by a team of unicorns. The signs “No Irish Allowed” which went up during the famine stayed up for more than eighty years. Toronto would again be the scene of riots for decades to come, but unlike the political riots of the 1830’s, these would be sectarian riots. Old religious hatred and bigotry had come to Toronto and would stay for a century. Power’s death was not the beginning of tolerance in Toronto, it was its end, and his funeral procession was the last time religious leaders of different sects and creeds would stand together.
For the poor Catholics standing on the street as the procession passed by, night was falling, and with the sealing of Power in his tomb the end of an era was sealed. He was sealed in his tomb, close to his friend, Colonel Chichester, who had died while Power was in Europe. Soon Father Hay, the man who ran the diocese in Power’s absence but who flatly refused to be named its bishop would join them both, dead at last from tuberculosis. The crisis would continue, but with Power’s death the Catholics had no real leader. His seat would remain vacant for three years while Church officials in North America and in Europe scrambled to find a replacement. Dark times faced the Catholics of Toronto.