St. Andrew’s, built in 1859, is the oldest church in Oakville, Ont., and the site of a special Mass Nov. 3 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first Mass in Trafalgar Township. Above photo courtesy Julie Hawryszko

Two hundred years of growing faith

  • October 24, 2019

Like many Catholic communities in English Canada, the faithful in Oakville, Ont., can trace their roots back to early Irish immigrants. 

But it comes with a unique twist in this town west of Toronto on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. Unlike many other communities, the Catholic origins date back to before the mass exodus from the Emerald Isle in the 1840s as thousands of Irish escaped the poverty brought on by the Great Famine that left many with the choice to flee or perish in their homeland.

“It’s a different story to that Irish story of the immigrants who came into Toronto who start at the bottom and work their way up,” said Fr. Con O’Mahony, pastor at St. Andrew’s Parish, the oldest Catholic parish in Oakville.

These immigrants were well established in the community. Many were very entrepreneurial and part of the business landscape, said O’Mahony. St. Andrew’s was built originally as a mission church to serve the dock workers living in a bustling community that would soon expand with the construction of saw and grist mills.

“The community was very successful,” he said.

What the faithful in an area known as the “Catholic Swamp” lacked, however, was a parish to call their own, where they could celebrate their faith among the like-minded.

The path to claiming a parish began in 1819 when, according to Terry Murphy-Johnson, who with her husband is the resident historian of St. Andrew’s, Charles O’Hara and Bartholomew O’Connor walked the almost 40 kilometres to Dundas, northwest of Hamilton, to ask a priest to say Mass in the O’Hara cabin on the northern part of Ninth Line. It was to lead two decades later to the construction of the original St. Andrew’s — much of which still stands today — where the church celebrated its first Mass on Oct. 26, 1840.

That Mass in the O’Hara homestead 200 years ago was commemorated with a Sept. 15 celebration at St. Mary’s Cemetery, located on the 20-metre banks of Sixteen Mile Creek a few blocks from St. Andrew’s. The Mass “acknowledged the gift that our ancestors gave us,” said O’Mahony, while also honouring St. Mary’s as an important part of that heritage. 

A second celebration will take place Nov. 3 with Hamilton Bishop Douglas Crosby celebrating Mass at St. Andrew’s, followed by a Nov. 15 retelling of the Irish experience in the area and a screening of Black ’47, a 2018 film about the Great Famine.

“The bicentennial of the first Mass in Trafalgar (Township) provides an opportunity to remember with enormous gratitude the gift of our faith heritage as Catholics, as members of our local parish St. Andrew’s and as individuals whose families and friends have bequeathed us an incredible legacy,” Murphy-Johnson, a distant relation to Charles O’Hara, told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

Adding to the uniqueness of the St. Andrew’s story is the cordial relations that existed between Catholics and other Christian faiths. 

The land on which the church was built was actually donated to the parish by George Chisholm, a Scottish — and Presbyterian — lumber merchant who employed many Catholics. It was unlike their homeland, where many couldn’t celebrate their faith due to persecution of the Church by the English who ruled over Ireland.

“They have a freedom to be able to do that that their families back in Ireland do not have access to, especially if they came from rural Ireland,” said O’Mahony, an Irishman from Cork who immigrated to Canada in 1982 as a newly ordained priest.

In turn, the Catholic community named the parish St. Andrew’s, not a common name for a parish since the Reformation, as “an acknowledgement of the gift to the Presbyterian owner of the property,” said O’Mahony. In later years, the Catholics would aid the Presbyterians when they rebuilt their church.

Murphy-Johnson said a glance at the names on the gravestones at St. Mary’s Cemetery show the stories of neighbours practising “ecumenism and diversity a century before these words became popular.” The area’s earliest pioneers may have been Irish, but “St. Mary’s reveals a culturally rich community including French, German, Slovenian, Dutch, Czech, American as well as British parishioners,” plus an Underground Railroad connection.

Many of the earliest families continue to have connections to the area, said O’Mahony. Murphy-Johnson’s family settled in the area in 1852, and five generations of her family have celebrated weddings — including her own in 1988 — in the picturesque “White Church” nestled in the area’s heritage district just steps from the Lake Ontario shoreline. 

Her parents met when they sang in the choir together and many family members have been active in parish life, including a great aunt who was the church organist and her great grandfather who was tasked with lighting the stoves early Sunday mornings to heat the church before central heating was installed in the mid-1900s. 

The parish is a prominent stop along Oakville’s Heritage Trail and its doors are open late to accommodate the many who travel the trail.

Much like the original parish was a welcoming place to immigrants, O’Mahony says its doors still remain open to all. Today’s parishioners are not unlike many Catholic parishes in urban areas around the country. Catholics from southeast Asia and South America make up much of the congregation at any given Sunday Mass, joining those with historic connections. 

St. Andrew’s was among the many parishes sponsoring refugees over the years, including 2015 when parishioners helped raise funds to resettle two families fleeing the Syrian civil war.

While many parishes are feeling the effects of dwindling numbers, O’Mahony said the St. Andrew’s community remains “very strong, it’s a vibrant community.”

He expects this will continue with as many as 20,000 new residents expected from proposed development to the north, he said. And it could be a matter of history repeating itself for St. Andrew’s as more newcomers are welcomed to Canada.

“I think immigration is going to play a very significant part in shaping what the parish is going to look like,” he said.

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