15 February 2011

Part One of the Conclusion of the Brief History of the Diocese of Toronto


Most histories of the Church or of any diocese usually focus on the bishops or the top priests. I have decided to turn away from that course now. Bishops came and went, as Bishops are wont to do. Most of them were decent fellows, worked hard, kept the diocese up and running, handed it off to the next guy. Each could easily have a book or books written about him, or a blog. But my theme, so far, has been the identity of Catholics in Toronto. The bishops, particularly Power and Charbonnel, played a huge role in establishing this identity. We have seen this identity put to the test and attacked, and we have seen it survive and triumph. But, then what? In the conclusion of this piece, we shall turn and look at what it meant to be a Catholic in a time of non- crisis, say, from about 1880 to around the Great Depression or so. I am trying to examine what was it like to be an average Catholic, and, lastly, to turn an eye towards the question what happened to the Church Toronto in the last half of the twentieth century?

While there was no great crisis in this period, it would be wrong for me to leave the impression that the Jubilee Riots of 1875 brought an end to all the problems faced by the Catholics of Toronto. The Green and the Orange would clash again and again in the coming years. Signs bearing the legend "No papists or dogs" were still to be seen in shop windows well into the Twentieth Century. Even when Catholics could find work, they often found themselves stranded on the lower positions. In Maureen Jennings' meticulously researched (but also deeply flawed) Detective Murdoch books, set in 1890's Toronto, Murdoch is acutely aware that, as a Catholic, his chances for promotion in the police force of a city of Orange men and Freemasons are non existent.

Anti-Catholic prejudice sometimes took strange forms, and does not always appear, at first glance, to be specifically anti Catholic, and occasionally seems almost whimsical. For example, in the early years of the twentieth century, Toronto council, made up mainly of well off Protestants, were considering a pressing problem of the day: tobogganing. At the time, working class (largely Catholic) parents often worked fourteen hours a day, five days a week, with a half day on Saturday. The only day off to play and enjoy themselves was Sunday. In winter time, one of the easiest and cheapest forms of entertainment was tobogganing. The family would get some kind of sled, usually made by the father, head for the nearest snow covered hill, and then spend a day laughing as they sped down the slope again and again.

The city council was horrified. Unlike the Catholics, whose religion allowed the faithful to enjoy Sunday any way they saw fit once they had fulfilled their obligation and gone to Mass, the Protestants treated Sunday far more seriously, and felt the sight of Catholic families out in the snow, laughing and playing, was a sort of blasphemy. The papists, the protestants thought, should be more sober and spend their Sunday in a more spiritually profitable manner, such as contemplating their souls' damnation. So, in 1912, council passed the Lord's Day Act, which banned tobogganing on Sunday's. The law stayed on the books until the 1961. (Incidentally, skating, which was not banned, suddenly became the most popular Sunday afternoon wintertime activity.)

The Catholic population was also beginning to change. By the end of the Nineteenth century, Irish Catholics constituted 75% of the Catholic population, as new immigrants, particularly Italians, began to arrive on the shores of Toronto. The Catholic population would change many times over in the coming century. Perhaps no greater example of this can be found than the fate of the sixth church built in the city, and the third oldest still standing, the original St Patrick's. Built in 1861, the Irish Catholics finally had a church named for their patron. In 1905, the growing congregation built a larger church, the current St Patrick's, but left the original church still standing. That church was renamed Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and turned into an Italian parish. In time it would be a Portuguese parish, and then the home of the Mandarin Chinese Catholic community. The new St Patrick's is now, among other things, the home of the German speaking Catholic community in Toronto.

One thing the Catholics had in common, whatever their origin, is that they were usually on the bottom rung of the social ladder. The average Catholic worked as a labourer, lived in low cost housing in one of the areas of Toronto. To understand them, we must first examine a little more of working class life in Toronto.

First thing, at the time, there wasn't really a Toronto. Or, there was, but it was more like a continuous collection of villages, or neighbourhoods. Some of the names have stayed with us to today, somewhat, with names like Kensington, or the Junction, or Corktown and Cabbagetown. A walk through some of the areas of city allows one to still see the old villages. These small regions in Toronto were usually self contained, with a main street which had a series of shops- butcher, groceries, shoe, tailor, barber, later on a movie theatre, a larger employer in the area of some sort, and a church, or often several churches of various denominations. People tended to stay within their area, and a trip out of the area was usually a special occasion.

The houses where working class people lived at the turn of the century are often still around, and ironically, their houses are often sought out by the young and upwardly mobile. The houses are usually close together, often with a frontage of fourteen to sixteen feet. Out front is a porch, which looks out into the public world of the street. Inside there is a small front room or parlour, a small dining room and a small kitchen, Upstairs is a bathroom and two or three bedrooms. The backyards of such places are likewise tiny, mostly taken up by a garage now. Back then, the yard was either a garden, or a place for animals, such as chickens, goats, pigs, occasionally a cow and, for a few, a horse. Even the backyard worked for food for the family.

These tiny houses were often the home of large families, four or more children were not uncommon, all squeezed into the house. If you were to ask how so many people could live in such a small house, the answer is, simply, they didn't. Not in the modern sense of how people live in a house. They ate at home, they slept at home, and not a lot more. They spent much of their lives outside the house, at work, or at a shop, or sitting on the porch in the cool of the summer evening, while other neighbours promenaded up and down the road, and the children played some game in the street. The priests of the local church were very much visible at this time, also frequently taking walks in the evening, greeting their parishioners. It was common for a Catholic to call out to a priest as they passed "Bless me father!" The priests would also stop and talk with parishioners and friends. They, too, were an integral part of the neighbourhood.

This life outside the house created some of the strongest bonds and biggest problems of the life of these old neighbourhoods. It has been said that the best thing about life in a small town is that everyone knows everyone else. It has also been said that the worst thing about life in a small town is that everyone knows everyone else. The adults of these neighbourhoods all knew each other. they worked together, shopped at the same stores, got haircuts together, drank, if they were so inclined, at the local pub (legal or less so) and prayed at the same church. One of the problems of these strong ties is that their children also knew each other.

As is the case today, it was common at the time for both parents to work in order to make ends meet. That meant the children were more or less unsupervised for much of the day. They, like their parents, lived outside he house, and formed their own close ties with other local children, except in their case, the ties they formed lead to the creation of what we would today call "youth gangs."

Toronto in late nineteenth and early twentieth century was in the grip of a crime wave, and idle, poor youth were to blame. The newspapers reported new crimes every day. In one daring escapade, a gang of boys pulled off a successful heist of a bakery delivery truck, and stole every pie it carried. Horrifying news at the time. It seems almost quaint to us today. My own father used to tell me stories of his criminal adventures in the west end of Hamilton during the Depression, when he ran amok with his own gang, a gang made up of boys who met as altar boys at the new Christ the King Cathedral.

Despite the crime rate, it was rare to lock one's doors. Often, the young criminals, when fleeing, would dart through an open door and run out the back of the house to escape pursuit. A family may have been sitting at dinner, when suddenly the door may burst open and a young neighbour come racing through, saying "Hi Mrs C! Bye Mrs C!" as they raced out the back.

One of the most important institutions in these old neighbourhoods was the local church. Just as the neighbourhoods were different back then, so was the role of the church. Today, most Catholics only go to their church on Sunday, if at all, for Mass. Many churches today are only open for Mass, and quite a few only for Sunday Mass. Back then, the doors of the church were never locked, and in addition to Mass, the churches commonly offered a large range of devotions. Catholics were often praying at church a few times a week, and not even for a service. It was common for a Catholic who was just passing by to pop into church and say a few prayers, or light a candle. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. People did much more at church than attend Masses and prayer services.

A second way they were involved with the life of the parish was in serving the Mass or the church. Choirs and altar guilds are still with us today, but back then, they tended to be much larger. It was common, for example, for churches to have large choirs. One rather average parish I used to attend had, locked in a storage room, books and robes for a choir of fifty. The same church was overjoyed today to have a choir of ten. People would be at the church sewing cloths, or embroidering banners, or practicing music, or cleaning up. They also often took part in the decorations, or even the building of the church. Where today, the ordinary Catholic usually donates money to hire someone to build or repair or paint the church, back then the parishioners were far more involved in doing it themselves. Their church was in a very strong, almost literal sense, their church.

There was a whole other world of parish activity happening below the sanctuary, in the parish hall. Today, many of the parish halls are musty storage rooms, and haven't been used for their original purpose in decades. The halls, however, were once the home of a very active parish life. The space below the church was versatile and could be used for a myriad of purposes.

For example, as is the case today, it was used for banquets and gatherings of the various parish guilds and committees, or the Catholic Woman's League or the Knights of Columbus. It could be used for dances, or for coffee and tea after Mass. It could be used to serve meals to the homeless and starving, or blood donor drives. They were often used for sports and athletics, of which I will have more to say shortly. They were also the host of a whole series of nights of entertainment. Bridge clubs and euchre nights could be held in the hall. The almost legendary bingo nights were also put on down there. But whereas today's parish halls are very often a large open room, the old halls usually had one different feature: At one end of the room was a stage.

The presence of the stage changes the room considerably. Now the room could also be used for recitals, or public speaking, both by local members of the congregation, or by an outsider, or a touring company, Public meetings, and not merely parish meetings, could be carried out here. Drama groups could stage plays. The stages were often used by guest lecturers, who came to the parish to instruct and edify the people on a variety of topics. It wasn't just the local parishioners who performed and showed their talents. Touring actors and singers often dropped by for a performance. In the twentieth century, Monsignor Ronan and the St Michael's Boys' Choir regularly toured parishes around the diocese, raising money for both the boys' school and the host parish. Their performance was always a guaranteed sell out. People would come to be entertained and informed.

And there was still more going on at the parish. Very often the parish hosted several amateur sports teams, some of which were very nearly semi professional in their quality of play. The church yards were host of the lacrosse teams during the lacrosse craze of the late 19th century. (So great was the craze, for years the official national sport of Canada was Lacrosse) or baseballs teams. in the winter the yard was often flooded and turned into a place where they could play a newly invented game- hockey. In the days before broadcast sports, it was far more common for the sports fans to follow the neighbourhood amateur team. They had no other alternatives. The churches often formed leagues, and one parish would play another in fierce Christian competition. The priests were often the most fervent fans of the teams. Priests could often be heard addressing the team before a game, saying words along the lines of: "Now, I want you all to remember that it's not whether or not you win, but how you play the game. Now let's get out there and show the people from St X. how real Catholics play hockey!"

An old parishioner of one of my former parishes once told me of a long ago softball game at the parish. When it was her turn at bat, she smacked the ball with a mighty swing, and sent the ball much farther than anyone expected. So far, it sailed through one of the stained glass windows of her church. The priest, who was inside at the time, came rushing out of the church, holding the ball In his hand. "Who hit this?" he demanded. Trembling from head to foot, the girl raised her hand. "Oh, thank goodness," the priest said in relief. "I was afraid it was the other team." He tossed the ball back to the teams. "Good hit, dear," he said with a wink. "And don't worry about the window."

People participated in the many activities on many levels. People joined in the church activities out of piety, out of loyalty, to be with one's friends, or just to have something to do. The church actively recruited parishioners to join in the activities. The church actively recruited people to join their groups. They often targeted the young, to give them something to do and keep them out of trouble. In the sports, those who could, did. those who couldn't cheered them on, and frequently paid for the privilege. The church was not just a place of prayer, it was an integral part, the centre of lively, tightly knit communities. Parishioners could find themselves attending their church or a church sponsored event several times a week, often for reasons that had nothing to do with prayer,  The people who found themselves shut out from other aspects of society, closed in on themselves and their community home.

Over the course of the twentieth century, this picture slowly unraveled. I will begin to examine the question, what happened? There are many aspects to the answer, and the first aspect I will examine is a little conflict which started in 1914.


1 comment:

Patience said...

The picture you paint sounds nice. You should submit this somewhere professionally.
This was the church my mom converted into. It doesn't bear much resemblence to the church I grew up with. It's too bad there are so many outside distractions and competitions.