3 March 2010

Part One of A Brief History of the Toronto Catholic Diocese Prologue: The Summer Everything Changed

In the summer of 1847  thirty-eighty thousand starving Irish landed on the shores of Toronto. They were not wanted.

Before that summer, the city had a population of 20,000-25,000. The ‘city’, such as it was, was a new city. The great forest that had once covered the land still stood at all its borders. Passenger pigeons still darkened the skies in their multitudes, and salmon still swam in the Don River. Toronto existed mainly to serve the farmers of the surrounding areas, the port and the nearby garrison, and had barely begun to industrialize.

The city had one Catholic church- St Paul’s, founded in 1822. Prior to 1841 Toronto was part of the Upper Canada diocese under the care of the Bishop of Kingston. In 1841 the Toronto diocese was created, and at the time it included the western half of what is now the province of Ontario, and Michael Power was made it’s bishop. He set out to govern and guide his geographically enormous diocese, which contained perhaps 25,000 Catholics. He also began the building of the Cathedral of the new diocese, St Michael’s, in 1845.

The population of the city was mainly protestant and the Orange Lodge was a powerful presence. Nearly all the police, nearly all the fireman, and a succession of mayors were members of the Orange Lodge. The Lodge also drew heavily from the upper and middle classes of the city. The Toronto Chapter of the Orange Lodge’s opposition to all things Catholic was mainly hypothetical. The overwhelming majority of Canada’s Catholics were hundreds of miles to the east in what is now Quebec. There were several thousand Catholic farmers toiling in the lands around the city, but in the city itself there were relatively few- to the point that the Cathedral was just Toronto’s second church. Just one Catholic church was found to be sufficient prior to that time. Religious unrest lay in the future.  For now, the turmoil in the colony was political in nature, and, for the most part, Catholics and Protestants co-existed peacefully, in part because the Catholics were too few to worry about.  The Orangemen could sleep safely in the Protestant beds, secure in their own sheltered world.

The famine changed all that in one desperate summer.

The Irish who arrived in Toronto were mainly unskilled labourers, desperate, starving, and very often sick with Typhus. They were also mainly Catholic. As Catholics, they could not be educated in Ireland except illegally, as the government forbid the opening of Catholic schools there.  The Irish came over on cattle boats and lumber boats, packed in like cargo on ships not meant to carry human beings. More than one sailor referred to them as 'ballast' for the return trip.  The upper classes in Toronto were disgusted at the sight of these refugees. George Brown, future Father of Confederation, wrote of them:

Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons, and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindus.[1]

The first order of business for the city (at the time referred to as the “Corporation”) was to get rid of as many Irish as possible as quickly as possible. A young lawyer from the time wrote home to relatives in England explaining how Toronto sought to do just that:

They arrive here to the extent of about 300 to 600 by any steamer. The sick are immediately sent to the hospital which had been given up to them entirely and the healthy are fed and allowed to occupy the Immigrant Sheds for 24 hours; at the expiration of this time, they are obliged to keep moving, their rations are stopped and if they are found begging are imprisoned at once. Means of conveyance are provided by the Corporation to take them off at once to the country, and they are accordingly carried off "willy nilly" some 16 or 20 miles, North, South, East & West and quickly put down, leaving the country to support them by giving them employment...John Gamble advertised for 50 for the Vaughn plank road, and hardly were the placards out, than the Corporation bundled 500 out and set them down...The hospitals contain over 600 and besides the sick and convalescent, we have hundreds of widows and orphans to provide for.[2]
To be fair to the people of the Corporation, they had little choice but to send them off. The Corporation could not more than double its population in a fortnight. Further, the Irish coming into Toronto were mainly agrarian workers, and if they were to find any work at all, it would be on farms outside the city. But make no mistake, the fact that the Irish were mostly Catholic made them that much more unwanted. Most charity efforts on their behalf fell mainly to the Catholic church, which consisted at the time of one church and one unfinished, heavily indebted, Cathedral.   It was only with reluctance that the government of the Corporation began to give some help to the sick, and it was due to the constant efforts of Bishop Power, using all of his political contacts, that anything was done at all.

For many of the refugees, no effort was needed to remove them from the city. Sick with Typhus contracted on the voyage in the cattle boats, weakened by the famine, over 800 of those in the hospitals and immigrant shacks died shortly after their arrival in Toronto. Most of them were buried in the churchyard of St Paul’s and forgotten. To add sorrows upon sorrows, when the crisis was near its heigth, a disaster happened. Toronto’s first bishop, Michael Power, contracted typhus from caring for the sick members of his flock in the immigrant sheds and hospitals. He died on October first, 1847, too soon and too young, not yet forty-three. He was buried for a time under the altar of his unfinished- and now nearly bankrupt- Cathedral. The Cathedral, it seems, was nearly another casualty of famine. It would be almost three years before a new ordinary was installed who could ensure its completion.

In 1848, more Irish peasants fleeing the famine arrived.

The Catholics had arrived in force. Toronto would never be the same again.

Next part

[1] Quoted in Harney, Robert F., (ed) Polyphony, Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario, Toronto, 1984., p. 19. The irony of calling the Irish ignorant is painful. At the time in Ireland it was illegal for Catholic children to receive an education. The priests and nuns who ran the ‘hedgerow schools’ did so at the risk of harsh penalties.

[2] Quoted in J.M.S. Careless, Toronto to 1918, Toronto 1984, p 71 It is a little odd that the author of this quotation says that the Irish are carted off 16 to 20 miles "North, South, East and West," as Toronto's south border is Lake Ontario, and sixteen to twenty miles out would mean dumping them in the middle of the lake. Either he is a little carried away in his rhetoric and slightly off in his geography, or the Corporation was far more draconian than imagined.

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