We were planning on doing some more things for the community this year than we actually ended up doing, but circumstances worked against us. We were going to book some public ice for an inter parish skate party, and also book some barbecue pits in High Park for an inter parish picnic and barbecue. However, on applying for the space, we found that we had to sign off on a statement of values which we, as Catholics, could not in good conscience do. The reason the city demands we sign this statement is probably due to the fact that some years ago they allowed a room in a library to be booked by a group of people who turned out to be neo , and therefore instituted this policy to make sure this mistake was never repeated. We fully recognize that not allowing them to use public space is desirable, but we are left with the unsettling truth is that the city regards practicing Catholics to be as bad as . As does the province. As does the federal government.
This is not the first time that doors have been closed to us. A hundred years ago and more, many doors were shut to us here in this city and elsewhere. The Catholics of that time responded by building places like the church we are in right now. They also responded by founding the Knights of Columbus.
The dire situation of Irish and other immigrant Catholics in his diocese in Connecticut inspired Fr. Michael McGivney in 1882 to start the Knights amongst a small group of men at his parish. At the time, signs stating 'no dogs or papists' were a common sight. You could be fired for being Catholic- or more likely, you were never hired in the first place. The jobs open to you were mostly brutally menial and low paying, and death on the job was common. McGivney began the Knights as a mutual aid society, whose primary function was to provide money for the member's widows and orphans should they die on the job. From there it developed into a fraternal society and into a colossal insurance company which gives excellent opportunities for insurance and investment vehicles at very competitive rates.
I could go in this vein for some time, and there are those higher up in the organization who would like me to do so, but I would rather speak about us here, and this building. Let's go back one hundred years.
St Cecilia's at that time was a much different parish in a much different city than the one you see now. The people here in this church were also much different. In 1918, they were predominantly Irish, but that was starting to change. The eldest among the congregation could remember how, in 1858, the Protestants had attacked a St Patrick's Day parade and murdered one of the marchers. They would remember how, in 1875, the protestants attacked and threw stones at Catholics and rioted for hours in the streets of Toronto because the Catholics had dared to be publicly Catholic outside their own little enclave. They would also remember how Archbishop Walsh's carriage was stoned by Orangemen as he rode to take his seat in the Archdiocese in 1889. Even a hundred years ago, that was a while back, but still in living memory. The 'No Irish need apply' or 'no papist or dogs' signs are not as common in 1918 as they once were, but they can still be found. It has been almost forty years since the last St Patrick's Day parade, but every July, the Orangemen would make a point of marching past your church to remind you that they are in charge, and you are not. This is still their city.
Much of what you see here today was not here then, but the people were working hard to get it. The statue of Mary, behind me on her altar, was bought by the children of this parish using the nickels and pennies donated from their lunch money. Other statues and paintings were paid for by drives and donations. Either the Sacred Heart statue or the statue of St Rita was donated by a bishop. The windows are being put in as the money is found. I have been told that there were supposed to be a statue of St Peter and another of St Paul flanking the main alter, where the electric candelabra now stand, but my understanding is that war was declared sometime between the statues being purchased and their being shipped. The vessel carrying them was torpedoed, and they are now decorating the bottom of the North Atlantic somewhere. They were never replaced.
If you attended here you lived near here, and you probably worked near here. You most likely walked to and from work, you walked to go shopping, and you sometimes walked in the evening just to see who else was walking. Your daily routine would have carried you past this church several times a week, if not daily, and it was nothing to stop, come up the steps and come in to say a prayer before the blessed sacrament, or light a candle, or simply see if any of your friends were here. Because there were always people here, the doors were always open.
In 1918, the organ was only three years old. It was purchased from Casavant Freres of St. Hyacinth Quebec at a fair expense, built during the last golden age of organ building. If you were a parishioner here, you were probably present when the organ was dedicated and received the official blessing of organs. There was probably a dedicatory recital, and recitals would have been a regular part of the life of the parish. If you liked music, you came and heard it here.
That's just up here. Down below in the basement there was a steady round of events. Dances. Recitals of music. Temperance meetings. Intemperate meetings. Politics. Lectures from experts in their field for your education and edification. Plays were performed on the stage by professionals and rank amateurs and everyone in between. Not to mention the constant meetings of the various councils, guilds, leagues, legions, sodalities, groups, and, of course, bingo.
Chances were there was even more. Many parishes had sports teams for their youths. In the days before professional leagues, if you liked sports you either played or you cheered your parish team, lead on by your parish priest as the chief cheerleader.
Even if you weren't here, your church would still find ways to make its presence felt. The bell up in the tower, now silent, used to ring for the morning matins, the noon angelus, and the evening vespers, a call to prayer, and a reminder that the sacred is not merely confined in here, and that your time is not wholly your own. At funerals it rang to call you to pray for the dead and to remind you that one day it would toll for you. On Sundays it would ring out at the consecration, announcing to all the that a miracle was taking place in their midst.
One hundred years ago there was a war going on. By the door from the narthex into the apse of the church there is a brass plaque. On it are the names of fifty-two men from this parish who died fighting that war. Every one of those men was someone's son, brother, father, friend. Had you been here at that time, you would have known several of those men. The parishioners felt the bonds with those men so strongly that they raised not one but two memorials to them- the second being a stained glass window by the stairs leading up to the choir loft.
Faced with a world that shut them out, the people of this parish turned within, to the parish. They turned this church and others like it across this city into their second home, the heart of their community, for they had built a true community here.
That was then. Now? Now we have a banner hanging on the wall behind me that proclaims this to be a Catholic Community based in Faith, Hope and Charity, but on that is simply not true. Let us be honest: a group of people who by and large come here on Sunday, leave as soon as Mass is over, leave slightly before Mass is over, and never come here again until next Sunday, never speak to any of their fellow parishioners is no community. And it is killing us.
When we leave here shortly, it will be to go out into a city and a world that would prefer us not to be at all. Most of us will not hear one word spoken in praise of our will likely hear absolutely nothing that is spoken in support of our faith. The Orangemen of the past attacked the Catholics directly. Those who are against us here today sometimes attack directly, more often indirectly, and most often they don’t bother to attack us at all, but instead treat us as though we are already defeated. We have become the punch line to a joke no one need even bother making. How often have you heard this? Catholics. . Heh . I have heard it many times. And more doors are closed, more restrictions placed upon us. Why? Because Catholics. . Heh .
For many of us, the response is to hide, to pretend we are not what we are, or to nod politely when someone babbles some utter nonsense about our Faith. We may even join in the laughter at what we have become. The Catholics of the past had to stand against their enemies. We are often in the more awkward position of having to stand against our friends. And we are falling away.
What are the Knights? We are not the answer to all our problems, but we can help. We are an insurance group, an investment opportunity, a mutual aid society, a society devoted to charity, unity and fraternity within our own community, and to help build or perhaps rebuild that community. But most of all, we are a brotherhood of Catholic men. If you want to know what that means, turn your gaze to my left and witness the crucifix there. As you look upon it, remind yourself that the servant is not greater than the master. The world that did that to Our Lord will not hesitate, no, not for one second, to do so to us. But when you are with us, even if only for a little while now and then, at one of our meetings, or our events, or flipping hamburgers or hotdogs or pancakes or setting up tables, or praying at a retreat, you won’t have to pretend, you won’t have to deny, you won’t have to join in at the laughter at Catholics. You can be the Catholic man you are, the Catholic man you were meant to be. Because my friends, in the end, we are all required to stand and be true- yes, alone if we must, but it is a little easier to stand when you stand with a brother.