4 March 2010

Part One of A Brief History of the Toronto Catholic Diocese Chapter 1: A Parish in Crisis.


Part one.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. - Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

Gather round, my friends, for in this chapter I have a story to tell. It is a fascinating story and it will begin in earnest momentarily with the phrase ‘there was a knock at the door.’

The phrase ‘there was a knock at the door’ is a very useful and versatile phrase for storytellers, which is why it is so often appears in mystery stories, or horror, or even romance stories. It is an effective device to get the plot moving or to introduce the plot twist. You simply open the door and it walks through. In this case, the door will open to a world of a priest caught up in a social justice movement; Catholics divided along ethnic and language lines; a parish desperately divided between its popular priest, with his questionable theology, and the laws of Rome; hints of improper relations with women; an ostensibly Catholic newspaper that published anything but the Church’s true stance; and ultimately, a priest who ultimately is forced from the priesthood and a church placed under interdict. Where did all this happen? you ask. Why, right here in Toronto, at St Paul’s church.

Not this St Paul’s.

This one.

That’s right, our little story does not take place in the days following Vatican II as you might have guessed from my little description, but rather back before the days of Vatican I. Let us cast our minds back in time to time of the beginning of our story, in 1828, before Toronto was even a diocese, Before Toronto was even Toronto but still muddy old York, when the bishop was in Kingston, and there was but one parish in the city, and its church had just been finished. Now it’s time to start meeting the characters of our story.

First, let’s meet Angus MacDonnell, nephew of the bishop seated in Kingston, Alexander MacDonnell; first person born in Upper Canada to be ordained a priest; Pastor of St Paul’s in York, and poster boy for the society of the overworked, underpaid and unappreciated. On this evening in June of 1828 we find him hard at work in his pastoral office. “Hard at work” is a phrase that very much defines father MacDonnell. At this time, St Paul’s is the only parish in the village. It is, in fact, the only parish between Kingston and Windsor- at that time referred to as “Sandwich”. In addition to St Paul’s, our Father MacDonnell must also handle the mission churches that dot the surrounding countryside. By “surrounding countryside” I mean a geographical area roughly the size of Wales. He has many concerns weighing upon his young mind. Among them, he is in danger of losing the Catholics in the outlying regions of his parish to Protestant missionaries, because the Church has little presence out there. But it isn’t only the distant Catholics out there who are causing him so much concern. His parishioners close to home are also causing him many problems.

The problems with his parishioners at St Paul’s stem from the politics of the day. During the 1820’s and 30’s, there were a great number of civic disturbances- riots, by another name-  focused around political issues. The society at the time was split along lines of ethnicity and wealth. At the time the colony was ruled by an appointed governor. There was an elected assembly, but the governor was not bound to consult with them, or to ratify any bills they passed. Instead, the governor could and did choose his own counselors. These counselors almost always came from a small group of wealthy and privileged families, who became known as the family compact. Against them stood a groupd who called themselves reformers, who wanted, well, reform.  The politics of the day mainly consisted of reformers who wanted a more American style of government, who wanted the Assembly to be the ruling body of the government, and the Tories, who wanted nothing to do with American politics and desired the system to remain as it was.  There was a third group which stood balanced between the two, called the Moderates.  They wished for reform, but preferred to seek it piecemeal, within the system.  They are rarely mentioned in the hisotries, and are pretty much irrelevant for most of this story as well, save for a brief mention at the end.  As the decades progressed, the clashes between the Tories and the Reformers  grew more violent, leading ultimately to rebellion in 1837.

The rumblings of rebellion echoed even at St. Paul’s. Bishop MacDonnell was a Tory of Scottish origin, and even a member of the family compact following his appointment to the Legislative council in 1831. Angus, like his uncle, was also Scottish Tory. There were a few wealthy Tories within St. Paul’s church, but they were definitely in the minority. The majority of MacDonnell’s parishioners were lower class Irish who sided with the Reform movement, and many did not trust the Scottish patrician priest. So, to say MacDonnell is both overworked and under stress is a little like saying Leonardo da Vinci was a smart cookie.

The reason we are meeting Father MacDonnell (who, not so incidentally, will be leaving our little narrative shortly) here, on this evening in June of the Year of Our Lord 1828, is because a prayer of his is about to be answered. For it is on this evening, while he was hard at work in his room, that there was a knock on the door.

Father MacDonnell rose from his seat to answer the door, and into his room and our little story stepped a priest who identified himself as William John O’Grady, and who promptly asked Father MacDonnell if he needed any help.

At first MacDonnell was a trifle suspicious. The Church at that time was having a great amount of difficulty controlling the mission areas- and York was a mission. One part of the problem was that sparseness of the population, coupled with the itinerant nature of many priests, coupled with the inventive nature confidence men have displayed throughout all of history. A regular parish priest at that time was a great rarity for most of Upper Canada. Con men in the area took advantage of this situation by dressing up as priests and traveling through the hinterlands and administering sacraments- all for a nominal fee, of course. Because priestly visits were rare, and priests were often moved around, the people had no real way of telling whether or not the stranger in their parish was a real priest or not. The real priests then traveling through the region on their regular rounds would find a series of false sacraments, when the people were not ignoring the sacraments altogether, and no one was willing to pay the true priests for the same sacrament twice, false or not.

MacDonnell’s suspicions were therefore justified. So while he was polite and invited the man in, he spent much time going over O’Grady’s credentials. Perhaps it is now time we do the same, as far as is possible.

William John O’Grady's exact date of birth unknown. From his own testimony he was ordained a priest in 1816 and later served as secretary to the Bishop of Cork. From the testimony of the enemies he is about to acquire, he was fired from that position. At some point in the 1820’s he and his brother John became attached to a group of disbanded British troops who were going to settle in Brazil. What happened in Brazil is once again unknown, but whatever happened resulted in the disbanded troops and their chaplain changing their minds about settling and Brazil, and the whole lot of them rushed off to Upper Canada, with William John O’Grady in the lead. O’Grady presented himself first to Bishop MacDonnell, and offered him his services. Before the bishop could make any sort of reply or effectively go over the newcomer’s credentials, O’Grady left the bishop and made his way to York, where he offered his services to pastor MacDonnell. And here we are.

O’Grady had only been present in York a very short time when he made a request to both MacDonnell’s that St Paul’s Parish be turned over to him. Indeed, it is entirely possible he made that suggestion the very night he arrived. (If any phrase can accurately describe O’Grady, “made of brass” would be the one.) Pastor MacDonnell was eager for the help of an Irishman to aid him with his congregation. He was also wanted to leave York and head for the shores of Lake Simcoe- a real wilderness area at the time- to try and shore up the Church there, and therefore was quite amenable to the plan to hand the Parish over to O’Grady. Bishop MacDonnell also began to warm to the plan, though it was six months before the transfer was made- a delay that caused O’Grady a great amount of irritation. Patience truly is a marvelous virtue; only, not one of O'Grady's.

Pastor MacDonnell made his preparations to leave York and our little narrative, but his uncle chose not to send him to region around Lake Simcoe, but rather to Bytown, better known today as Ottawa. O’Grady, on the other hand, was rapidly consolidating his position, becoming popular with both his congregation and with the Bishop. As his on-line biography states the matter:
Once in charge of the church, O’Grady showed himself to be a man of considerable intelligence and charm who mingled easily with the grandees of York, including Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne*. He also proved to be an extraordinarily able and energetic priest, brimming with schemes for the advancement of Catholicism. His missionary travels took him to several townships in the vicinity of York. He constantly petitioned the government for land on which to build churches; he supervised the raising of funds for a parochial school in York and later oversaw its construction; he lobbied for financial assistance for the building of a convent; he suggested clerical conferences to control the “waywardness & impetuosity” of some priests. (Bishop) McDonell regarded O’Grady as a godsend and in January 1830 vested him with the “power and control” of a vicar general. O’Grady claimed not to wish an official appointment to this post, and indeed it was never made.
 His popularity was so great it was said many Protestants came to hear him preach. Everything appeared to be going well.

So, as we bring part one of this little history of a crisis to a close, we as yet have no crisis. In fact, everything is going swimmingly. We have an ambitious priest who is a stirring orator, a social climber and popular with all who know him, and who is gaining in power within the diocese and seems to be making converts. He was truly an answer to many prayers. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer to that question is, in a word, everything.


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