In 1913, Archbishop Neil McNeil (seated) invited Paulist Father Thomas Burke, second from the left, to Toronto to minister to the University of Toronto’s 250 Catholic students. Burke set up U of T’s Newman Centre. After a century in Toronto, running St. Peter’s parish, the Paulists are returning to the United States due to declining vocations. Photo courtesy Toronto’s Paulist Fathers

Paulist presence ends, legacy lives

  • June 20, 2015

TORONTO - The Paulist Fathers don’t want to leave Toronto, they have to. That strange uptick in vocations after the Second World War has now worked its way through the system and there aren’t enough priests left to staff the ambitious little empire of Paulist ministries that once dotted cities across North America. So, after a century in Toronto, the U.S.-based Paulists are going home.

“This is a decision no religious community wants to make,” said Paulist Fathers president Fr. Eric Andrews. “If we had unlimited resources and manpower we would have continued to advance, but at the end of the day it was too much for us to bear… A lot of men who entered in the ’50s and early ’60s — a big, large cohort — they’re all in retirement now.”

Paulist ministry in Canada — which once included parishes, university chaplaincy and Catholic information centres in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal — was never an anomaly for the American religious order. Founded in New York City in 1858 by four converts to Catholicism, the Paulists weren’t ever shy about crossing the border.

The first time was on an open sleigh in the middle of a snowstorm in 1859. The driver of the sleigh was having no mercy on either the horses or the white-knuckled evangelists behind him.

“To one unacquainted with the mysteries of Canadian horsemanship, the speed suggested that the drivers all had bad consciences and that the devil was behind them,” wrote Fr. Augustine Hewit after the Paulists arrived in Quebec City.

The Paulists didn’t arrive with just the zeal of missionaries. They brought with them an insight about the Church. The original Paulist, Fr. Isaac Hecker, saw that the Church was not its cultural legacy, as precious as that may be. For Hecker the Church had to be alive in every culture and every period of history.
Hecker managed to bring down the wrath of his first religious order in the 1850s by showing up in Rome with the idea that there should be parishes in North America conducting everything in English. That got him kicked out of the Redemptorists, but led directly to him founding the Missionary Priests of St. Paul.

“Hecker’s idea was to take the values he could see in Catholicism and in the American system and broaden it, bring it elsewhere,” said Paulist Father Jim Haley.

Hecker understood that North American cities and the democratic spirit in English-speaking North America had a lot to do with a Protestant model.

“Toronto especially was built on a Protestant model,” said Andrews.

The challenge was how to evangelize such a society as it existed. The first Paulist answer to that challenge was parish missions. Though some of those missions followed the Redemptorist model aimed at reviving the spirit in existing Catholic parishes, the Paulists also appealed to Protestants and looked for opportunities to speak to non-Catholic audiences.

They were doing it in Montreal as early as 1892. In 1911 Fr. Thomas Burke and his mission team came to Montreal and Burke preached more than 50 sermons through Lent and Easter to Catholics and non-Catholics. In 1912 he brought the same team to Toronto, preaching at St. Basil’s, St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s.

It was the great era of public speaking, when there was nothing better to do on a Saturday night than go to hear a lecture — a century before TED Talks took over YouTube.

pic005Canadian-born Paulist Father Frank Stone became one of the most influential Catholics in Toronto during the 1960s. (Photo courtesy Toronto’s Paulist Fathers)

But the Paulists also saw that in addition to preaching missions, bringing the Church into North American culture required an outreach to the best and brightest young minds. Campus ministry became a Paulist apostolate at the University of California, Berkeley in 1907 and the University of Texas, Austin in 1908. It was natural for the Paulists, with the encouragement of Archbishop Neil McNeil, to add the Newman Centre in Toronto in 1913. Eventually the Paulists would also minister on campus at McGill University in Montreal and at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

But there had to be a way of getting beyond the elite, and a way of reaching Protestants who were unlikely to wander into a Catholic Church. In the age of radio and the silver screen, public lectures began to lose their appeal. So in the 1930s the Paulists started to open Catholic Information Centres in New York and Austin.

When Canadian-born Paulist Fr. Frank Stone finally got the Catholic Information Centre built in Toronto it was far from the first. But it soon became a leader.

Stone was a gifted evangelist who as a young priest asked permission to focus exclusively on convert work. In 1946, his first year working full time on conversions, he brought 100 people into the Church. Stone had a way of getting himself onto radio and into Toronto’s daily newspapers. He became director of something he called the National Catholic Communications Centre, produced radio and television broadcasts and chaired the CBC’s National Religious Advisory Council in the 1960s.

In 1965 the Toronto Daily Star named Stone one of the city’s 10 most important Catholics, right after Marshall McLuhan and Archbishop Philip Pocock.

“He was one of our brightest,” said Andrews. “He was a charismatic individual. He certainly was an able preacher and teacher. He drew many people to himself.”

The centre with its classrooms and library and openness to new media (television, film, radio) was perfectly situated to bring the insights of the Second Vatican Council to Toronto’s Catholics. Over the years a long list of some of the world’s most distinguished theologians stopped by to give popular lectures — Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown, ecumenist Fr. Gregory Baum and others.

But by the 1970s Vatican II also became the undoing of the centre. When the Rite of Christian Initiation came to every parish, the Paulists and the Catholic Information Centre were no longer the focal point for convert work.

The first time a young Fr. Jim Haley came to Toronto as an associate pastor to St. Peter’s parish, it was an opportunity for the Nova Scotia-born Paulist to experience multiculturalism up close. In 1973 St. Peter’s had Masses in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and English. The diversity of the parish was a challenge, with essentially four communities all vying for the same parish hall. But it was also a source of life.

“It was kind of interesting to have all the different communities here,” Haley said. “That was the great value of Toronto and I think one of the aspects that we as a Paulist community are losing — sort of the international perspective. Even today, to have an American (Paulist) come up and spend some time here in Canada, it broadens their experience and broadens their perspective on life and culture.”

pic006Before parishes took responsibility for RCIA, the Paulists ran classes for all Toronto converts at the Catholic Information Centre. (Photo courtesy Toronto’s Paulist Fathers)

Over the years the downtown parish changed. Immigrant families moved to the suburbs. Today it’s an exclusively English-speaking parish and the surrounding Annex neighbourhood has become an expensive, gentrified corner of the city.

The Paulists have tried to appeal to the overflow of University of Toronto students in the area and young families. Summer film nights held outdoors in the parish courtyard have been a big success in recent years. A Saturday, 6 p.m. Mass and an emphasis on quality music has also produced results.

But the challenge has shifted again. Where once the Paulists sought converts from the Protestant majority and revitalizing Catholic communities, they now ponder the universal shrug of a secular society, said Haley.

“I don’t think people are angry with the Church or religion. They just don’t care. It’s sort of an apathy. That’s the great mission,” Haley said. “How do you respond to it, that’s the big question.”

Andrews looks north and sees Toronto tackling secularism directly with Cardinal Thomas Collins’ plans for Cathedral Square just steps from Yonge and Dundas.

The dream of a centre in the middle of the city where the New Evangelization can take place is a natural continuation of what Frank Stone started at the Catholic information centre, according to Andrews.

And that makes Toronto still an attractive place for Paulists.

“We’re always going to be thinking Canada and hoping for the day when we come back,” Andrews said. “Tell them, on behalf of the Paulists, how grateful we are for the 100-plus years of learning and experiencing the faith of parishioners and all the folks in Canada whom we served. It really helped us to grow in the spirit.”

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