10 May 2010

Part One of A Brief History of the Toronto Diocese Chapter 5: Disaster


Chapter Five

When Power set out to make his liminal visit to Rome in January 1847, he put his affairs in order, wrote his will, gave instructions to his priest for carrying on should he die on his trip, (although he privately confided to a friend that he thought none of his priests were up to the task of replacing him) and set up an itinerary. He would stop off in London to meet with the foreign office, Paris to meet with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in order to apply for some funds for his cash strapped diocese (among other things, his giant, unfinished cathedral was a huge drain on his resources) as well as going to Rome. He also planned a stop in Ireland, to try and come to an arrangement with some of the religious orders there to send help and missionaries to his mostly Irish diocese.

That Ireland was in the grip of a famine was not unknown to Power before the trip. The Irish Catholic weekly newspaper in Toronto, the Mirror, had been printing stories about the sufferings of the Irish for months. Charles Donlevy, the editor of the Mirror, summed up the suffering in Ireland in the first issue of the New Year, 1847, with typical rhetorical flourish:

In the bloody war of extermination waged against the unhappy people of Ireland, by the Sovereigns of England, millions were swept out of existence by starvation- Thousands perishing of want amidst surrounding plenty.

Despite this, Power had great confidence and excitement as he set out on a steamer across the ocean. He, an Ultramontanist, was going to meet the new Pope, Pius the Ninth. He looked forward to the prospect. Among other things he wanted to ask the Vatican questions about the diocesan synod of Rome, how often it was held, and what questions were debated, as he intended to model Toronto after Rome.

He set out to Buffalo, and from there travelled to Boston where he took a steamer across the ocean. In two weeks he was in London, speaking with the foreign office, and presenting petitions from his diocese to the government. There, closer to the disaster, he would have read newspaper reports of the Irish famine, and would have seen many Irish filtering into the city, looking for work. He travelled on to Rome, and arrived there at what must have seemed a most fortuitous time: Holy Week, 1847.

Power wrote home, expressing excitement that he was quickly granted an audience with the new pontiff, although he found some of the pope’s answers disappointing. For example, the Roman Synods had not been held for generations. He also found the bureaucracy of Rome frustrating. On the upside, Power, an avid gardener, did manage to get some watermelon seeds for his garden near the Episcopal palace in Toronto. The Pope also gave Power a letter to be read in Toronto, concerning the Irish famine, and granting privileges to those who prayed and gave alms for the relief of those suffering.

Soon Power was returning, by way of Paris, London and Ireland. In Paris he wrote letters to various orders, trying to entice them to come to Toronto. He was writing to German bishops to send him some priests to help with his German congregations in the Waterloo area. (Readers may perhaps remember the original name of Kitchener-Waterloo was Berlin, thus indicating its European settlers’ origins) He was renewing his contacts with the Society for the Propagation of the faith, which was a major source of money for his poor, vast diocese. He continued on to London.

In London, Power was again struck by reports of the Irish disaster. He wrote his own letter back to the diocese, asking for prayers and alms for the relief of the Irish. He also warned his friends and priests to begin preparing for trouble. Seeing the crisis, even from London, Power knew a humanitarian disaster was heading his way, as soon as the ice cleared the upper St Lawrence. Power must have hoped his warning would be heeded as he travelled in early June to Ireland itself, and saw the disaster with his own eyes.

Ireland, a land of farms, was starving. Those who could were packing whatever they had and leaving the country for America, or Australia, or Scotland- anywhere there might be food, or a better life, or even merely life itself, for Ireland held only death now. It was unabated misery and it weighed heavily upon Power, who was a shy, private and sensitive man. Despite this, it was in Ireland that Power had his greatest success of his trip. He convinced the Loretto Sisters to send some sisters to Toronto to start a school for girls, one of Power’s dreams. With that success, Power gave some alms for the relief of the poor, and made arrangements to travel by steamer back to Canada.

Power’s trip across the ocean took about ten days, about a quarter of the time it took the converted Lumber ships carrying the Irish under sail power to make the same journey. Power thus witnessed the Irish boarding their ships, and raced home ahead of them to see how his diocese was preparing for the wave of Irish he knew were coming.

On the whole, it wasn’t. His priests and the churches began to prepare, but his political contacts on the municipal council did little good. The council was preoccupied with installing sidewalks in the city, and did not wish to bother itself with a problem that should have been dealt with by the Empire’s government. Power called for more alms and prayers from his congregation, and he donated much of his own money to the cause, and still tried to use what influence he had, even as the starving began to arrive in Toronto. Unfortunately, the Irish were not travelling alone. With them they brought the dreaded Typhus and death.

The disease caused a panic within the city. The Irish were seen as the bearers of disease and contamination. Irish beggars became a common sight throughout the city, as did signs saying “No Irish Allowed.” The city’s fist response was to get the new immigrants out of the city as quickly as possible. Later, largely due to Power’s efforts, the city began to try and treat the sick at least before sending them away.

The city set up fever shacks at the site of the original Toronto Hospital, near King and John Streets. They were soon filled with overflowing. Power and his priests were soon spending much of their time moving among the ill, giving sacraments, performing Last Rites. They were joined in the sheds by the Anglican prelate John Strachan, and the leaders of other religious groups in the city. Many of them fell ill themselves as the long summer of 1847 wore on. Power’s priests, Fathers O’Reilly, Kerwin and Hay, all caught the disease, one by one. They all survived, but their convalescence was of a long duration.

Power was in a difficult position. He needed help in the sheds, yet he could not summon more priests from the countryside. The Irish who came to the city left it almost as soon as they came, mostly by law, as the poor laws of the time would not allow them to stay in the city longer than twenty four hours without a job. As the thousands of Irish entered Toronto and spread out into the hinterlands, they swelled the congregations of the outlying regions. He needed priests in the hinterlands as much as he needed them in the city. The Irish were dying, and Power was alone.

On any given day in early September, 1847, Power would rise early, put one his over coat and top hat, and walk from the Episcopal palace to St Paul’s, about a fifteen minute walk. There he would say a low Mass, than walk to the fever sheds, near King and John Streets, where he would take his stole from his pocket, and arrange it around his neck. He would spend the day among the sick, holding their hands, saying prayers with them, anointing the dying, as a priest among his flock.

On the evening of September 16th, a knock on the door to the Episcopal palace brought a shock to Power. At his door stood five young women- the Loretto Sisters promised him by Mother Theresa Ball back in June. Power was appalled. In the crisis, he had made no arrangements for the women. Even worse, he desperately needed the sisters for the schools he dreamed of, and now they had arrived in the middle of an epidemic, and were in danger of catching the disease and becoming victims of Typhus themselves.

Power brought them into the palace, and asked them to join in his meal. Power was polite and congenial, but worn out and exhausted. They would later comment they found the palace to be bare and Spartan in appearance. Not surprising, given that Power gave most of his money to the building of the cathedral and now to the aid of the Irish. When the sisters questioned him about the events at the fever sheds, he responded that he preferred not to talk about it. Power examined every fruit and vegetable the women ate, personally cleaning them before handing them to the women. He even gave them a rare treat: some watermelons he had grown himself in his gardens by the palace from the seeds he had obtained in Rome.

The dinner over, Power contacted S.G. Lynn, a friend and prominent Catholic, to find housing for the sisters. Lynn moved the sisters into his own house to live with his wife and daughters while he and his sons rented rooms at a hotel until a more permanent arrangement could be made. Years later, the sisters would speak fondly of their evening with Power. It may have been the only one.

Two days later when a meeting was held by city leaders to discuss the crisis. The mayor, bishop Strachan, Power’s friend Elmsley and other leaders were at the meeting. Power was mostly quiet for opening of the meeting, but as the evening progressed, Power detected a note of blame on the Irish immigrants for the disease. Power rose from his chair and addressed everyone present, speaking calmly, laying no blame, drawing on his experience both in Ireland and in the fever sheds. The disease was insidious, he told those gathered, and it hid undetected for long periods. Many, seemingly healthy had boarded ships only to develop the disease later. The Irish were not the perpetrators of this disease, he said. “They are its victims.” The meeting continued, but there would be no note of blame in its final resolutions. Several motions were made to help the Irish, but due to government red tape and slowness, most were enacted too late to be of any real use.

Mark McGowan, Power’s biographer, wrote that this was perhaps Power’s finest public moment. It was also perhaps Power’s last. The disease of which Power spoke so eloquently at the meeting already slumbered within his veins.

There is a story that has circulated about Power’s death for many years. It tells us that Power received a call late at night to go to the fever shacks to anoint a woman who was dying,. Power rose from his bed, went to the shacks and blessed the woman in preparation for her final journey. The next day, so the story goes, Power had the disease. The story is probably a fiction. Even if it is true, the incubation period for Typhus is about ten days. If such a call was made, Power was already dying when he went.

He fell ill on Tuesday, September 22nd. For five days he appeared to be fighting the disease, and it was hoped he would recover, as had his priests. But then the disease hit worse, and he became bedridden, immobile. He drew his breath in agony, until six thirty in the morning, October first, surrounded by friends and colleagues, he breathed his last.

Michael Power, first bishop of Toronto, was dead. He was not yet forty three. His reign had lasted five years.


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