The changes started by the First World War in the life of the diocese of Toronto are only visible in retrospect. To those who lived at the time, it probably seemed as if very little had changed at all. Many of the changes which were to drastically change the Catholic community in Toronto probably weren't noticed at first, if at all.
Take news for example. For much of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the various governments used to send announcements around to the churches to be read from the pulpit on Sundays. This was an effective way of getting news out at that time, as church was something almost everyone attended in one denomination or another. Then the Government found other ways to disseminate news, and their announcements were no longer sent around to the churches. It probably made little difference, but it was a change. Church used to be a place where people could get the news. Now it wasn't. Did people stop attending on that account? Probably not. But they now had one less reason to attend.
The ties that bound people to their churches were loosed or cut in dozens of different ways. There were the sports teams. People liked cheering on their teams, then as well as now. But back then, if you wished to see a sporting event, you saw a live one, and then it would most likely be amateurs. Going to see a professional team, the Leafs, for example, was something that could only be done on a rare occasion. But then, in 1923, Foster Hewitt began his famous play by play broadcasts of hockey games. Fans could now follow games they could not attend, even those of the professional teams. Interest in the amateur teams began to wane as the radio broadcasts caught on.
Another nail in the parish league coffin occurred when the city of Toronto began to build its own community centers, which offered their own sporting leagues, but with better facilities. The old church leagues couldn't compete, and folded quickly. The community centres also took on a range of activities which also encroached into the old church hall activities. People came to their church a little less often.
Radio and sound recordings also hurt another part of the church life: the recitals and concerts that appeared regularly on the church calendars. People could now hear music from a famous performer any time they wished, so there was little want or need to see a local performer, no matter how talented. People came to their church a little less often.
Other changes took other chips out of the church community. Changes in the building codes meant that churches could no longer be built by teams of volunteers armed with shovels. They needed to be made by professionals, with professional equipment. A decline in skilled tradesmen meant that the average parish no longer had enough skilled artisans who were capable of repairing, or decorating the church. Instead, hired professionals handle most of the repairing and decorating of churches. That personal tie to the building itself disappeared. A change in gambling laws allowed the opening of large, dedicated bingo halls, which ran 24 hours a day, and offered huge purses. The old church bingo night, with a grand prize of maybe five hundred dollars, simply could not compete. Another activity was lost. Another reason to go to the church building was lost. Chip.
Perhaps the two biggest changes came from two inventions which changed the way of life for everyone in the city: the car, and the television.
Prior to the widespread use of the car, people lived in tightly knit communities. Neighbours often worked at the same place, drank at the same bar, prayed at the same church. After the car, people spread out. They could live miles from their place of work, where none of their neighbours worked. They did not hang around after work, or spend time walking home with their coworkers. They left to their distant home, and would neither see nor speak with, nor have anything at all to do with their coworkers until the next day. That also became the pattern of worship. Their fellow Catholics were people they only saw on Sunday, often at a church which was distant from their own homes. Their ties to the people of their church was less than the ties to the people at work.
Their own homes became the focus of life with the second invention: the television. Now people were entertained at home, as they spent more and more time in their homes than ever before, more often than not staring at a piece of furniture. Whereas people had once attended functions in their church basement for entertainment, entertainment now came directly into their homes. Church functions became more scarce, and less well attended. Plays, lectures, debates, and recitals all vanished. People increasingly isolated themselves from their neighbours. The church had been the center of the community. The community no longer existed.
And so, people came to church far less often than they did in the past. Because of cars and driving, it became far less common for people to simply pop into the church as they were passing by. And so the churches began to stand empty, all day long. They were a target for thieves and vandals, empty and unprotected. Before long, most churches locked their doors. Now the people couldn't come in for any reason other than Mass. Many people, feeling no particular tie to their church any longer, and discouraged by the scandals that were erupting at that time, stopped coming even for that.
And yet, an autopsy and internment of the Archdiocese of Toronto would be premature. The same forces which affected the Church in Toronto also hit the other Christian denominations in equal measure, and yet 25-30% of the people in Toronto who call themselves Catholic still attend Sunday Mass regularly, more than double any other denomination. They are faring far worse.
So perhaps the question isn't, what happened to the Church in Toronto, but why wasn't it worse?
Part of the answer seems to be immigration. Catholics from other countries still come to Toronto, and perhaps it is their numbers which swell our churches' ranks. But there is another answer as well: We're still right. At the heart of our faith lies a sacred truth, the sacred sacraments. It sustained the starving Irish. It can sustain us still.
The survival of the Archdiocese in the future may be a struggle, but, as I believe I have shown in this brief history, it has always been a struggle, whether against famine and disease, or politics, bigotry, or the changes of society. I suspect it always shall be a struggle. We were promised that Hell would not prevail. We were never promised we would have an easy time of it.