Freelance journalist Dan O’Reilly, above, with a photo album of pictures taken by Fr. Leo O’Reilly, right, a cousin of Dan’s father, at the Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Priest’s pics show world on verge of change

  • June 2, 2023

Freelance journalist Dan O’Reilly loves history — particularly the ways history persists in his own parish, family and community. 

The whole package — history, family, Church — all came together for O’Reilly just before COVID when the writer and amateur historian donated a photo album to the Archdiocese of Toronto’s archives. The album of early 20th-century photographs represents a unique and very Catholic perspective on history.

“It’s a glimpse into a world that does not exist any more,” O’Reilly told The Catholic Register.

That glimpse has now been digitized and is available online at the Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto (

The photos were all taken between 1912 and 1914 by a Toronto priest, a cousin of O’Reilly’s father. They’ve been passed down through the O’Reilly family until they arrived a few years ago in the hands of the priest’s cousin’s son.

“I thought, ‘You know, these ought to be in the public realm,’ ” O’Reilly said.

Fr. Leo O’Reilly produced this album of 127 photos in the years when he was studying for a Doctor of Divinity at the Angelicum University in Rome. Over that period he visited Lourdes, Geneva, Venice, Turkey, Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt and more, travelling by boat among pilgrims and refugees. In the uncertain years before the First World War, the young priest-scholar was witness to a world that was changing, but hadn’t quite changed yet. He captured images of a caravan of camels passing through Jerusalem, Russian Orthodox pilgrims visiting Bethlehem and Constantinople when it was still the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

The photo of Russian pilgrims is one that fascinates O’Reilly.

“I’m thinking, ‘This was 1913. What happened to those Russian pilgrims?’ There was the First World War right after. Were they killed in the First World War or the ensuing (Russian) civil war?” O’Reilly asked

Fr. Leo O’Reilly wasn’t a bad amateur photographer. But a keen eye and the basics of correct exposure was hardly his most notable accomplishment. The young priest came back from Rome to teach philosophy and moral theology at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary. He was quickly elevated to the position of vice president of the seminary and embarked on a career of public speaking and writing in response to calls back then for a more educated and responsible laity to build up the Church.

He died young — just 43 years old — on Oct. 5, 1930 from a fast-moving case of pneumonia. His death, as reported on the front page of the Oct. 9, 1930 edition of The Catholic Register, was one of the most remarkable moments in the life of Catholic Toronto that year. More than 200 priests attended the funeral. Motorcycle police were employed to keep order in the crowd along the route of the funeral procession.

“They that are learned shall shine as the brightness of the firmament and they that instruct many to justice as stars for eternity,” preached Msgr. J.A. O’Sullivan from Daniel 12:3. 

In his time, O’Reilly represented the modern vigour of the Church, responding to new developments in media (movies, radio and daily newspapers with access to wire services covering the globe) and a more connected world in which a young man from Wildfield, Ont., (now the north end of Brampton) was able to see Europe and the Holy Land for himself. O’Reilly promoted the then modern devotions to St. Bernadette of Lourdes and St. Térèsa of Lisieux, canonized in 1925.  

The scholar priest was born in Wildfield and grew up in the same parish where Dan O’Reilly still attends Mass at the Archdiocese of Toronto’s second oldest parish, St. Patrick’s. He was ordained in 1912 at St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, Ont. 

“His death was a major, major event,” said Dan O’Reilly.

Had he considered selling the rare collection of photos on the antiquarian market? 

“I would never do that,” he said.

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