12 July 2010

Part Two of the Brief History of the Toronto Archdiocese Chapter One: Interegnum.


Let me give you some numbers.

Prior to the famine there were approximately 2000 Catholics in the city. By 1851 Catholics formed 25.8 percent of the total population or 7940 of whom 90 percent were Irish. By 1860 Catholics were 27.1 percent of the population, or 12,135 people. By 1880, by which time Catholic immigration from Ireland had slowed to a trickle, Catholics fell to 18.2 percent or 15,716. The Irish still composed 85 percent of the Catholic population. By the turn of the century Catholics were 13.9 percent of the population, or 28,994, and the Irish were still 80 percent of the Catholic population.[1] In short, in the early days of the Catholic diocese of Toronto, to be Catholic was to be Irish.

To be Catholic was also to be in a minority in a very Protestant city. The efforts of the Protestants to get the famine Irish out of Toronto as quickly as possible were, for the most part, successful. Irish fanned out of Toronto and into the hinterlands, repeating the pattern of itinerant labour they knew in the old country. Within the city itself the Catholic population was quite fluid (in spite of a few Irish enclaves such as Corktown which formed around St Paul’s) and also tended to move around the city in an effort to find work. The people were largely unskilled and faced mounting racism and old religious prejudice. They were portrayed in the press- particularly the Globe- as apes in clothes, and often treated as subhuman. The signs that had appeared during the famine reading “No Irish Need Apply” or “No Irish or Dogs Allowed” remained ubiquitous for decades.

The problems of the Irish Catholics were increased by another group of Irish- the Irish Protestants. In 1850 Irish Protestants composed 30 percent of the Irish population of Toronto. By 1900 they were 62.1 percent. However, in order to avoid the stereotypes of Irish drunk and brute, as well as to escape the “No Irish” stigma, most of the Irish Protestants took to calling themselves English or Scottish, both in conversation and for governmental purposes. In short, to be Irish was to be Catholic.

The Irish Protestants swelled the ranks of the Orange Lodge and changed it completely. Before the famine the Lodge- while ostensibly anti-Catholic- was little more than a benevolent society, and even endorsed Catholic Bishop MacDonnell of Kingston (who was in charge of Toronto before it became a separate diocese) as a good Tory. Catholics and Protestants quite often worked together towards common goals. Bishop Michael Power worked with Edgerton Ryerson in founding the public school system. Prior to the famine the Christian faiths, which warred with each other elsewhere, more or less tolerated each other in Toronto.

That came to an end. The famine Irish- both Catholic and Protestant- brought with them the old hatreds from home. Before the famine riots in Toronto were predominantly political, occurring between the Reform and Tory parties. Afterwards, the Orange Lodge was at the centre of most civil disturbances, often taking on the now more militant Catholic Greens.[2]

The new Orange Lodge afflicted the Catholics in many ways. In addition to promoting anti-Catholicism and clashing with Catholics at will, the Lodge also controlled the police department, the fire department, and most of city council. As a result, Catholics did not get jobs under city patronage. Further, the police would either not interfere with the Green and Orange clashes, or they would join in with the Orange, then arrest the Greens. In 1863, 58 percent of all those incarcerated in Toronto jails were Irish.

A sign of the increasing intolerance of the city may be seen in the Anglican Cathedral, St James. Following the consecration of St Michael’s Catholic Cathedral in 1848, the Anglicans, who were the single largest religious denomination in the city, had only the second largest Cathedral. This must have been intolerable to the increasingly militant Orange Lodge, so it must have seemed almost providential when Old St James was destroyed in a fire that ripped through the downtown core in 1849. Plans for a new, larger, Cathedral, one which would be bigger and even more splendid that the Catholic one were begun almost immediately. It was finished in a few years by 1853. The Cathedral is well known in Toronto for its stained glass window, including this one:

It is an angel, bearing a laurel wreath, signifying him as a prince of heaven, perhaps even Michael himself, holding a picture of the new St James. He is saying to the viewer and the protestant, orange, congregation: This is my cathedral.

In addition to being discriminated against by the Orange police and the city council, shut out of municipal jobs, the unskilled Irish Catholic labourers also found themselves at the mercy of their employers. Last hired, first fired was often the rule of the day. There were few places they could go to learn new skills, and few places would hire them if they did. However, one of those few places where they could learn new skills was the unfinished St Michael’s Cathedral. Volunteer work was important for the construction of the nearly bankrupt Cathedral. Under architect William Thomas (a Catholic who ended up buried as a Protestant in St James cemetery after a disagreement over his design for St. Michael’s steeple) the Irish learned skill trades which prepared them as construction workers or building contractors- useful skills for a program of building Catholic schools, churches and other institutions necessary for the Catholic identity. Useful businesses, that would not hang out signs banning Irish Catholics from the workplace.

The job of helping the Irish Catholics should have fallen upon the priesthood, but they were in disarray, learderless. Power had confided to his fellow bishops in Quebec that none of his priests were bishop material. The cream of the crop, Father Hay, Power's right hand man who ran the diocese in Power's absence, did not survive Power for long before he succumbed to tuberculosis. He was buried in the crypt near Power. With his death, the situation in Toronto grew worse, and an ocean away the scramble to find a new bishop intensified.

But in the early years of the arrival of the famine Irish Catholic identity was a hindrance and a drawback. They were the people no one wanted, washed ashore and forever after unwashed, bearers of disease, superstition and poverty. It would take something or someone extraordinary to help them find their own, separate identity, and help them become self reliant and proud of their separate heritage.

 When that someone who was something arrived, he came from, of all places, France. He was the new bishop, arriving in 1850 to fill the three year void left by Michael Power’s death in 1847. His name was Bishop Armand Charbonnel, and he arrived not a moment too soon.

[1] all figures from Murray W. Nicholson “Peasants in Urban Society: Irish Catholics in Victorian Toronto” Gathering Places: Peoples and Neighbourhoods of Toronto, 1834-1945, ed Robert F. Harney. Multicultural History Society of Ontario; Toronto, 1945. pg 53.
[2] To be fair, the Orange Lodge fought just about everybody, including two rather odd riots of 1857: Orange vs. Orange in the Fireman’s Riot, and- my personal favourite- Orange vs Clowns in the Great Toronto Circus Riot.

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