St. Augustine’s told the city, ‘We’re here’

  • August 30, 2013

A Presbyterian prayer around the turn of the 20th century rather summed up the position of Toronto’s Irish Catholics before the First World War.

“O Lord we approach thee this morning in an attitude of prayer and likewise of complaint. When we came to Canada we expected to find a land flowing with milk and honey, but instead we find a land peopled by the ungodly Irish. O Lord, in thy mercy drive them to the uttermost parts of Canada, make them hewers of wood and drawers of water, give them no place as magistrates, policemen or rulers among thy people. If ye have any favours to bestow, or any good land to give away, give it to thine own peculiar people, the Scots. Make them members of Parliament and rulers among thy people, but as for the ungodly Irish, take them by the heels and shake them over the pit of hell. But, O Lord, don’t let them fall in, and the glory shall be thine for ever and ever. Amen.”

In 1913 Toronto’s Irish Catholics couldn’t get a job at city hall, with the police or anywhere near the city’s elite. But the Irish had two champions — the Catholic Church and the man who brewed their beer, Eugene O’Keefe. The Church was their refuge and O’Keefe was rich. He made a fortune running the Home Savings and Loan Company Limited and by owning the O’Keefe Brewery Company of Toronto Limited.

He also gave generously to the Church and, a century ago, became the driving force behind the construction of St. Augustine’s Seminary. Officially opened on Aug. 28, 1913, St. Augustine’s is now 100 years old and is set to mark its centenary with a year of celebrations.

O’Keefe is just part of the story. In 1911 his wealth found a perfect match in Archbishop Fergus McEvay’s ambition. McEvay was a true son of Ontario, born in Lindsay and educated at St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto before he had to shift to Montreal’s Grand Seminaire to study for the priesthood — like every other English Canadian priest of his time. McEvay had been bishop of London, Ont., for nine years before he arrived in Toronto in 1908. He was determined the English Canadian Church must take its place in building the nation and the Kingdom of God.

McEvay started the Catholic Church Extension Society, built up The Catholic Register as a voice for Toronto Catholics, encouraged Fr. John Mary Fraser who would later found the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society, and decided Toronto must lead the way in training men for the priesthood in English Canada.

There was only one way to get a seminary built in Toronto. McEvay deputized St. Michael’s Cathedral rector Fr. Martin Whelan to call on O’Keefe. O’Keefe underwrote the whole thing to the tune of $450,000 — over $10 million in 2013 dollars.

O’Keefe had already built St. Monica’s Church in north Toronto. Named after the saintly mother of St. Augustine, this church also honoured O’Keefe’s late wife, Monica. Naming the seminary after St. Monica’s son, Augustine, the Christian genius at the root of Western theology, made perfect sense.

Now past 80, having lost his son to an accident, O’Keefe sold his stake in the brewery in 1911 and was making a habit of philanthropy to the Catholic Church — building a legacy. He gave to Peter’s pence, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Michael’s Hospital and financed the repair of the St. Michael’s Cathedral rectory. One day he noticed a troop of Polish immigrants walking through the snow from their west end neighbourhood all the way to St. Michael’s Cathedral. So he bought the West Presbyterian Church on Denison Avenue and gave it to Poles who transformed it into St. Stanislaus Kostka Church.

Whelan didn’t have to pry money for the seminary away from O’Keefe. The successful Irish immigrant was all in from the get-go. The project advanced rapidly.

In 1909 the archdiocese bought a bit of farmland near the Scarborough Bluffs. That same year O’Keefe became the first Canadian layman to be named a private chamberlain in the Pope’s household.

By Oct. 23, 1910 McEvay was ready to lay the cornerstone on St. Augustine’s Seminary and to reveal the scale of his intentions. The cornerstone ceremony was attended by the bishops of Hamilton, Peterborough, London and Sault Ste. Marie. This was not going to be a little diocesan seminary. St. Augustines was being built for a growing Church and a growing nation. This new seminary would provide priests for the city, for the farm country and for the missions.

McEvay died the following spring but his successor, Archbishop Neil McNeil, clearly caught the spirit. McNeil had been bishop of St. George’s in Newfoundland and archbishop of Vancouver before bringing his national perspective to the growing commercial centre of English Canada as archbishop of Toronto. He knew that not just Toronto and not just the Irish needed a seminary and needed priests.

“A seminary can do much to harmonize the many elements of Canada’s population,” McNeil wrote in his Lenten Pastoral Letter of Feb. 4, 1913. “Our Church and our country are both vitally interested in securing this harmony. We have it in our power to do a great work for the Church and for Canada by means of St. Augustine’s Seminary, and the Catholic laity of this archdiocese will respond to the call of duty and of patriotism.”

That year the first-ever seminary collection came to $29,067.66, nearly $600,000 in today’s money, from a city of fewer than 500,000, less than 15 per cent of whom were Catholic.The seminary had a practical purpose — to train priests for English Canada. But it also was a statement. Architect Arthur Homes based his design on Florence’s magnificent cathedral and began by drawing the dome.

“There’s no reason to put a dome on anything except to say we’re here,” notes Toronto Auxiliary Bishop John Boissonneau.

At its opening in September of 1913 St. Augustine’s was ready to house 90 seminarians. “There was always some question of the size of St. Augustine’s,” said Boissonneau. “Because it’s rather a massive building.”

But not massive enough after the First World War. In 1919 McNeil began raising money for an annex. Kehoe Hall was completed in 1926 to house an additional 50 students. Even that wasn’t enough. In 1932, 26 more rooms were added in the basement.

While some questioned the size of St. Augustine’s others groused at its remoteness. Scarborough wasn’t a borough of the City of Toronto until 1967, and even then there were still farms operating through much of the eastern extremity of the city. Exiled to the rural fringe of Toronto, seminarians and seminary professors knew perfectly well that a first-class university lay just beyond their grasp.

In 1951 a few of the philosophy students destined for a B.A. moved downtown to an old Basilianowned building at 21 St. Mary’s St. Cardinal James McGuigan wanted his seminarians fully prepared for a modern world. Putting them on the campus at the University of Toronto to study philosophy meant contact with Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, two great 20th century neo-Thomist philosophers, just for a start.

But the old St. Mary’s Street Building was a bit of a wreck. By 1960 it had to be torn down and McGuigan was scrambling for somewhere to put between 30 and 40 seminary philosophy students. It fell to McGuigan’s successor, Archbishop Philip Pocock, to come up with a solution.

St. Michael’s College could not provide a downtown campus for St. Augustine’s and Pocock saw that the seminary and its students needed a separate identity in a program that linked the three years of philosophy with four years of theology.

In 1962 Pocock announced a $3-million plan to build St. Augustine’s College Seminary in Scarborough.

In the post-war period the Church in North America went through the most extraordinary boom in vocations. Through the 1950s McGuigan had had to turn away seminary candidates for lack of space. In 1955, the high water mark, St. Augustine’s graduated 53 men ready for ordination. Going into the Second Vatican Council in 1962, many had come to assume this exceptional influx was the new normal. St. Augustine’s College was built on that assumption.

For the 50th anniversary of St. Augustine’s, Pocock laid the cornerstone of what people were calling the “new seminary.” In the fall of 1964 more than 100 students were enrolled in the three-year philosophy program.

Pocock raised the money the same way his predecessor Archbishop McNeil had in 1913. In 1963 he launched a diocesan appeal that linked giving to the seminary with Lenten sacrifice. Seminary students were able to earn a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Ottawa. By 1965 St. Augustine’s theology students were receiving a Bachelor of Sacred Theology (STB) from Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

But by 1965 the tide had turned on post-war vocations. Pocock wrote to his priests, “I cannot hide from you the fact that the shortage of vocations is a grave worry to me. At present we have only half as many seminarians as will meet our essential needs.” In 1968 a seminary professor reported to Pocock that “well over 100 students have either quit or been dismissed.”

By 1973 the residential wing of the new college was torn down and the college itself became Cardinal Newman High School.

It wasn’t just numbers driving the change at St. Augustine’s in the 1960s and ’70s.

“The seminary in a lot of ways reflected Vatican I when it opened and Vatican II when the changes were made — reflecting the changes in the Church,” said Boissonneau.

As the hierarchy sought to empower and collaborate with the laity, and to serve to the best educated Catholic population in history, it was making new demands on priests. The regimented and isolated formation program had been successful up through the 1950s. But it was simply not working in the 1960s.

“Nobody liked the old formation,” recalled Boissonneau. “It’s not like anybody was saying those were the good old days.”

The old program depended on routine to form men with a regular spirituality and certain habits of mind. The horarium or daily schedule dictated when seminarians woke, when they slept, when they studied, when they prayed. School-aged children had more freedom and responsibility for how they conducted themselves.

Radios were banned and newspapers were kept out of sight. Seminarians in the 1940s and 1950s would “go to China” in their free time. “China” was their shorthand for the China Mission Seminary (it would eventually become the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society and now the Scarboro Missions) where the relatively liberal missionary seminarians had a record player.

In the immediate post-war years the seminary was under the direction of Msgr. John Henry Ingoldsby. He had served as a Royal Canadian Air Force chaplain during the war and was endlessly impressed by what he had seen on a visit to the West Point Academy, the U.S. Army’s elite officer training institution. In those years, even when students got a day off (Thursdays) and permission to go into the city (rarely), they were “strictly forbidden to go to their homes or to enter hotels, theatres and other places of amusement,” said the student rule book of 1953.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council seminarians became clerics step by step. During first year of theology studies students received the tonsure, which designated them clerics. Rather than the full bald spot, 20th-century practice was five symbolic snips of hair for the five wounds of Christ. In second year there were the first minor orders of porter and lector. At the beginning of their third year they were ordained exorcist and acolyte, then by the end of the third year were made subdeacons. At subdeacon things got serious, with a canon law requirement of celibacy and daily recitation of the Divine Office. That’s also when McGuigan had the seminarians sign a written oath promising not to drink alcohol for the next 10 years.

Fourth year started with major orders — ordination to the diaconate. The deacons got their chance to preach to their fellow students in the chapel. The year ended with ordination to priesthood in St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Vatican II swept the system away. Some minor orders (exorcist and porter) were abolished. Acolyte and lector are still on the books but simply ignored.

By the 1970s seminarians were travelling daily to the University of Toronto campus to take courses at the Toronto School of Theology, a consortium of three Catholic and four Protestant schools offering Master of Divinity and other theology degrees. St. Augustine’s was a founding member in 1969. The seminary stopped offering a three-year philosophy program, preferring to accept only students who had already earned a bachelor’s degree then fill in any missing philosophy along the way.

Under the old system there was no reason to worry about attracting seminarians. If anything, there were too many. Nor did anyone fret over which candidates were a good fit. The rule and the rigour of the program would weed out any who didn’t measure up.

“When I came to the seminary (in 1967) you just walked in the door basically and filled out a form,” said Boissonneau.

Boissonneau spent more than 30 years living at St. Augustine’s, starting off as a student and winding up with a nine-year run as rector. He saw the change from the one-size-fits-all spiritual life of discipline and regimentation to an emphasis on human formation and a deepening call to serve in the spiritual life. Rather than rely on the program to sift wheat from chaff, St. Augustine’s joined with seminaries around the world in employing psychological assessments and long periods of spiritual discernment before entrance to ensure that students accepted into the program were those likely to succeed as seminarians and as priests.

“You’re doing your due diligence at the beginning of the process to weed out people who weren’t likely to be successful,” Boissonneau said.

But it wasn’t just the priestly formation process that changed with Vatican II. Pocock came back from the council convinced that Toronto Catholics would be well served by a revived permanent diaconate. Married deacons would reorient parishes to serve the poor and the marginalized through their own work and by encouraging others. Beginning in 1972 St. Augustine’s became the hub for a growing community of men and their wives dedicated to service in the Church.

The need for training, spiritual formation and formal education never was limited to the ordained, and in 1988 St. Augustine’s stepped in to offer programs for lay Catholics. For 25 years now the Institute of Theology, inaugurated under Jesuit Father Gerald Tait, has been offering a Master of Divinity (the standard, basic professional degree for ministry in Canada), Master of Theological Studies (usually preparation for further graduate studies), a Diploma in Theological Studies and a Diploma in Lay Ministry.

“There is such a need, such a hunger for theological formation in our society when we do surveys,” said Boissonneau. “When we did the pastoral planning, that comes up very strong. They want training for youth ministers. They want people with financial backgrounds to help with administration of parishes, etc.”

The simple view of a seminary had always been of a kind of factory to produce priests. In the era of the new evangelization the seminary is a ministry that serves the whole Church.

As Toronto’s Church entered the 21st century it had to come to grips with 21st-century realities. Anybody born after 1980 in the developed West has been hardwired for distraction. A generation has now grown up in front of computer screens, tethered to their phones, with a Gameboy or Play- Station console constantly within reach. Beginning in 2011 Cardinal Thomas Collins added a propaedeutic (Greek for preparatory discipline) year dedicated to the kind of spiritual discipline, contemplation, meditation, pilgrimage, discernment and prayer that is so easily diverted by the next e-mail, next text message and a constantly shifting Facebook status.

The propaedeutic year operates under the less formal title of spiritual year and really only lasts eight months during which seminarians are introduced to Ignatian spirituality in spiritual direction, go on three pilgrimages, begin to grapple seriously with Scripture and take in an overview of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Sometimes when you’re studying about Jesus all the time, you’re writing exams on Jesus and all that, you may never stop to think, do I give my heart to Jesus? And do I give my whole life to Him?” Collins told The Register as the spiritual year launched. “And so what we want to do is (give seminarians) the chance to do that — to do it together, to do it with an outward reach of service, with an inward focus of prayer.”

Not surprisingly, when Collins sat down to lay out a road map for the future of his archdiocese in 2012, the seminary was at the heart of plans to equip the Church in Toronto with tools necessary for the new evangelization. In the archdiocese’s Pastoral Plan, St. Augustine’s Seminary is key to “centralized and decentralized teaching and formation programs for the laity throughout the archdiocese.”

Ongoing formation programs will mean that St. Augustine’s is always there as a resource for priests of the archdiocese.

But the founding mission of St. Augustine’s, to form men for priestly leadership, remains.

“A continuous model of discernment and formation will benefit seminarians studying at the level of philosophy and theology,” reads the Pastoral Plan. “We will also ensure that the formation programs for ordained ministry (i.e., priesthood and the diaconate) are based on a holistic model of intellectual, spiritual, human and pastoral formation.”

“We’re on the cusp of some significant changes in the service of the seminary and in the presence of the seminary within the archdiocese,” explained Boissonneau.

While the priestly formation program continues to evolve, Boissonneau feels he can always tell a St. Augustine’s man. Downto- earth, focussed on pastoral needs, unlikely to take themselves too seriously, the St. Augustine’s graduate knows who he is and why he serves.

“There’s always been a special esprit de corps,” he said.

In a century the ambitious seminary started by Archbishop McEvay, with the help of an Irish immigrant who did well, has graduated close to 2,000 men who gave themselves to priestly ministry. It has given Toronto more than 200 deacons. It has made a statement that rings down through the ages.

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