Archbishop Neil McNeil became archbishop of Toronto in 1912, and a year later brought a number of charities serving the archdiocese under the umbrella of Catholic Charities. Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto

Lending a helping hand for 100 years

  • May 9, 2013

One hundred years of helping.

This simple theme, coined to highlight the centenary celebrations for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto, neatly summarizes what Catholic Charities has been doing since 1913: Delivering a variety of practical, life-affirming services to the poor and the marginalized in response to the Gospel call to love one’s neighbour.

Behind the brief summation, however, there is a rich history reflecting the vital role Catholic Charities has played in bettering the lives of people throughout the archdiocese. Over the years, Catholic Charities has undergone a variety of name changes and location changes, working in partnership with a number of religious communities, while the list of member agencies has fluctuated from decade to decade as times — and needs — have changed. As the face of the archdiocese has changed, Catholic Charities has changed with it, ensuring that the services it helps to provide meet existing needs while anticipating future ones.

What has remained unchanged, however, is the mandate at the heart of Catholic Charities: to serve as an umbrella organization for member agencies, currently numbering 27, providing social services, leadership and advocacy for those groups and the people they serve. At its core is Catholic social teaching, which focuses on the poor and marginalized, urging citizens to build a just society and safeguard the dignity of every person.

Today, Catholic Charities’ member agencies service five key areas: community/family services; people with special needs; children and youth; young parents; and seniors. Supported largely by ShareLife, the fundraising initiative of the archdiocese of Toronto, Catholic Charities responds in a committed, caring and empowering way to those who need its help, delivering assistance in a manner that reflects the values and mission of the Church.

The concept of an umbrella organization overseeing the efforts of individual Catholic charities was the brainchild of Toronto Archbishop Neil McNeil. By the time he was named archbishop of Toronto in 1912, those in need were being served by several well-established Catholic organizations, including Sacred Heart Orphanage and the House of Providence, both run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Children’s Aid Society of St. Vincent de Paul, (St. Vincent de Paul also ran individual parish conferences), a shelter for young women in trouble with the law run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, St. John’s Training School for boys, and St. Elizabeth Visiting Nurses Association.

But McNeil recognized that the delivery of services was sometimes uneven, and there was no central body to oversee individual charities while keeping the chancery office informed and making long-range plans to meet future needs. In response, on Sept. 27, 1913, the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, he appointed Fr. Patrick Bench to the role of superintendent of the newly created Catholic Charities.

Handed a small office on Church Street, Bench was given a mandate to co-ordinate and oversee the efforts of various Catholic charities, ensuring even distribution of services and offering an annual report to the archbishop. Because the agency’s role was one of co-ordinating and making referrals rather than offering financial support, it was given no budget. However, it had an invaluable resource in its superintendent. Determining, for example, that there was a need to branch out into court work, Bench himself served as a probation officer for Catholic men charged before magistrates.

The organization’s first-ever financial statement, produced in August of 1914, indicates total expenses of $739.32 for the year, including office and telephone charges, as well as 50 cents for “two meals for poor women” and 60 cents for women’s galoshes. Asked years later how he managed to pay for these expenses with no operating budget, Bench noted that he “begged” for donations through his weekly column in The Register, proof, he said, of the scriptural assertion: “Seek and ye shall find.”

Flourishing, Catholic Charities moved its offices to Bond Street the next year. In a classic example of the forward thinking that has been a hallmark of Catholic Charities throughout its history, Bench recognized that many of the problems Catholic Charities witnessed in young girls and women stemmed from unemployment, and so he created an employment bureau. Also in 1914, Bench invited the Sisters of the Misericorde to open St. Mary’s Infants’ Home, a haven for unmarried mothers and their babies that we know today as Rosalie Hall. Soon the Catholic Big Brother Movement and the Catholic Big Sisters Association were added to the fold.

Catholic Charities experienced a significant shift in its operations in 1919, with the formation of the Federation of Community Service. Prior to this, individual charities were on their own in terms of fundraising. The federation represented an attempt for a broader network of agencies, regardless of religious affiliation, to pool their efforts to fundraise, resulting in a dramatic increase in funding for member agencies. Figures from the period show that the 11 Catholic members of the federation, including the Catholic Charities office, received in excess of $100,000 in slightly more than a year.

Continuing his desire to ensure the right services were getting to the people who needed them most, McNeil commissioned an archdiocese-wide needs assessment. The results led to the creation of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, which was responsible for providing services for Catholic Charities, including family and child care services. The survey was overseen by Brother Barnabas, the new superintendent of Catholic Charities, who was also in charge of a growing staff, one that included a part-time prison worker, an interpreter and a family care worker.

Unfortunately, the benefit provided by belonging to the Federation of Community Service was not to last long. In 1927, the federation announced abruptly that Catholic agencies and institutions would not be eligible to receive any funds in the coming campaign, scheduled for the next month. Explanations for the decision vary. Some touch on the anti-Catholic bias then rampant in certain segments of Toronto. The most obvious reason, however, is that Catholic charities’ share of funding outstripped the Catholic population, reflecting the reality that Catholics, many of them immigrants and many of them with larger families, represented a disproportionate number of those in a lower income bracket needing help.

Stunned by the decision but aware of the need to act quickly, McNeil turned to the Catholic community for help. He was not disappointed. Together with religious and lay leaders, the archbishop launched the Federation of Catholic Charities, a reorganized version of Catholic Charities that included a fundraising component, and in three weeks raised $178,000, a display of support that no doubt inspired Archbishop Philip Pocock nearly 50 years later when he established ShareLife in the face of a different — but equally threatening — challenge to Catholic Charities.

The next big challenge lay in the Great Depression, which prompted salary cuts and budget tightening. The federation was buoyed, however, in a number of ways. First, others stepped in to lend a hand. The Redemptorists at Toronto’s St. Patrick’s parish, for example, founded Catholic Settlement House in 1931. Staff at member agencies and a fleet of volunteers rose to the challenge of tough times, taking to the streets for Shamrock Tag Days, a gentler way to raise funds while also keeping Catholic charities in the public eye.

The federation was also blessed with the leadership of Fr. Hugh Gallagher, appointed director in 1932 after studying social work at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Like Bench, Gallagher was not afraid to engage in creative problem solving — and sometimes pinch hitting — to help out in tough times. When the Big Sisters’ sewing circle needed a place to hold Saturday meetings, for example, Gallagher offered his office. And when young campers had no way of getting to camp, he often served as chauffeur, quickly learning to take a supply of paper bags with him to hand out to excited campers prone to car sickness.

The end of the Depression and the resurgence of the job market due to the needs of the Second World War meant Catholics were once again able to support the federation’s charities, and the federation exceeded its donation goals in 1941 and ’42. With Toronto now united against a common enemy, the city saw a return to a unified charitable effort with the creation of the United Community Fund, the precursor to today’s United Way, which replaced 18 individual campaigns, including Catholic and Jewish charities. It was such a success that Catholic Charities was able to raise salaries, expand services and improve agency facilities.

After the war, the federation, now operating under the name the Council of Catholic Charities, found a new director in Fr. John Fullerton (later Msgr. Fullerton). Known for his people skills, Fullerton was a ready resource on faith and morals for staff and agencies confronting the increasingly complex social issues arising in the post-war years. He also had the diplomacy and intelligence needed to negotiate budgetary issues with the United Community Fund, as well as handle increasing negotiations with the provincial government. In a clear indication of Catholic Charities’ increasing public profile and recognition of its sound operations and solid history, Fullerton was asked to serve as vice-chair of the three-person Ontario Hospital Services Commission.

In this role, his recommendations contributed to legislation that led to the eventual creation of OHIP, Ontario’s public health insurance plan, relieving Ontarians of the burden of worrying how to cover medical bills.
The 1960s saw a great expansion of services for the Council of Catholic Charities, including parish visiting, foster day care projects and the establishment of Sancta Maria House, a home for girls with special needs. In 1971, Fr. Paul Lennon joined the staff as assistant director. In a sign of the maturing of both the council and its members, agencies were urged to become separately incorporated and create their own boards to govern their respective agencies. Life was good for Catholic Charities.

But in 1976, Catholic Charities faced yet another crisis when United Way voted to admit the Planned Parenthood Association of Toronto, a group offering abortion counselling. While Planned Parenthood’s admission represented only a sliver of United Way funding, its presence in the umbrella organization represented an insurmountable moral obstacle, standing in opposition to Catholic Charities’ firm commitment to guarding and serving life at all ages and stages. After several rounds of negotiations between United Way and Archbishop Pocock proved fruitless, the Council of Catholic Charities withdrew from United Way. To replace the lost funding, a new fundraising plan was drawn up, a fundraising goal of $1.3- million was set up, and a new campaign, ShareLife, was launched to raise funds.

With the latest crisis resolved, and a formal route of Catholic fundraising established, the Council of Catholic Charities could return its focus to the growing needs in the rapidly expanding suburbs. Lennon, now serving as executive director, oversaw the establishment of Catholic community services in the regions surrounding the city of Toronto. He also saw the addition of several new member agencies, including Silent Voice Canada, serving the deaf and hearing impaired, Matt Talbot House, a residence for older men who want to live in sobriety, and the Natural Family Planning Association. Several changes took place to alter the legal structure of the organization, the most obvious being the adoption of the name still in use today: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto, a name selected to signify that while Catholic Charities works with its member agencies, it also interacts with ShareLife and various ministries and governmental agencies.

As Catholic Charities approached its 75th anniversary, it again demonstrated its readiness to work with the times, appointing Doreen Cullen as its first lay person to serve as director. Under Cullen’s watch, Catholic Charities saw a further increase in member agencies, and by 1988, its 75th anniversary, its budget had reached $4.1-million, more than three times the goal set only 12 years earlier.

The intervening years have seen great successes and profound challenges for Catholic Charities and its member agencies. Increasing membership reflective of the diversity of services under the Catholic Charities umbrella is one of the most obvious signs of success. Mary Centre, serving older adults with developmental disabilities, joined Catholic Charities in its 75th anniversary year, followed by Loyola Arrupe Centre for Seniors in 1991 and Marguerite Bourgeoys Family Centre in 1994. In 2009, both Covenant House and Birthright joined Catholic Charities as associate agencies.

In keeping with Catholic Charities’ long history of staring down adversity to better serve the marginalized, it has even been able to work productively in the face of tough and uncertain economic times, which mean donation dollars have to stretch that much farther to meet increased need. One key step is working on developing a system of sharing services among member agencies to produce greater efficiencies, for example seeing smaller agencies sharing financial systems and human resources to create efficiencies based on economies of scale. That means smaller agencies can take advantage of services they might not otherwise be able to afford, ensuring that funding can be stretched as far as possible.

Revisions to the allocations process, which determines how funds are parcelled out to agencies, and the membership review process, which examines how agencies are measuring up to the standards required to be met to earn funding, have served to highlight the accountability of agencies to their Catholic communities of support, as well as promoting standardized professional services for all member agencies. Catholic Charities is particularly proud of its renewed policy on Catholicity, drawn up in consultation with leading theologians.

The policy is designed to help member agencies ensure that, while they serve an increasingly diverse population, their delivery of services and interpretation of their mandate conforms to the virtues and values at the heart of the Church.

When he was at the helm, Lennon expressed a desire that the work of member agencies would no longer be seen in a pitying way but as an integral part of the mission of the Church. He also wondered whether people would “continue to see the poor primarily as problems to be solved ... or as a privileged source of God’s presence and salvation, especially in our times.”

Today, Catholic Charities and its member agencies, under the leadership of executive director Michael Fullan, are working hard to fulfill both of Lennon’s stated desires. Now located at the archdiocesan Catholic Pastoral Centre in midtown Toronto, Catholic Charities works with member agencies spread out across the archdiocese, reaching from Durham Region to Simcoe County to Dufferin-Peel. With a budget of $9 million, Catholic Charities assists its member agencies in serving more than 200,000 people annually.

(Mulroney is the editor of the Living with Christ missalette published by Novalis and is a member of the board of directors of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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