Toronto’s St. Vincent de Paul parish ends its centenary celebrations with a Mass of Thanksgiving Oct. 3. The 100-year-old parish was founded by Fr. Lancelot Minehan. Photos by Jean Ko Din

St. Vincent de Paul parish undergoes 100-year revival

By 
  • September 25, 2015

TORONTO - On the evening of Aug. 4, 1914, news of Britain declaring war on Germany had just reached Toronto. While the city buzzed with tension and excitement, a group of men were meeting Fr. Lancelot Minehan in the basement of St. Helen’s Church to talk about forming a new parish in the growing suburban neighbourhood on Roncesvalles Avenue in the city’s west end.

They got their wish, and now St. Vincent de Paul parish has been a part of the Archdiocese of Toronto for the past 100 years.

After a year of celebrations, the parish will mark the end of its first century with a Mass of thanksgiving at the church on Oct. 3, commemorating the parish’s first Mass in the church building. Bishop John Boissonneau will preside over the celebrations.

Minehan, founder of St. Vincent de Paul Church, would serve the parish for 16 years — through the Great War, the beginning of the Great Depression and a time of great social change.

Fr. Daniel Utrecht, today’s pastor at St. Vincent de Paul, said that for a long time, the church was a notable Catholic presence in the neighbourhood. As more Catholic churches were built in the surrounding area, such as Our Lady of Lebanon Church and Holy Family Catholic Church, St. Vincent’s has become a smaller, but still vibrant parish.

“We’ve really been hoping that this anniversary would increase our visibility of the parish in the neighbourhood and get the new people that moved in recent years to be aware of how great a parish we have over here,” said Utrecht. “Now, there are many, many young families moving into the neighbourhood. It’s an opportunity for growth.”

In reflecting on the parish’s 100th anniversary, Utrecht said the past year of celebration has been a very positive experience for the parish. Many people connected to the history of the parish have come back for different celebrations and shared their own memories of their time in the community.

“I think it’s always important to mark that kind of milestone,” he said. “But as Catholics and Christians, our faith is historically based and everybody knows the importance of knowing who you are requires something of knowing where you came from.”

An important part of St. Vincent’s history is their founder. Minehan was a very notable man of his time.

Kathleen McGinnis, who has been gathering old photos, news articles and other archival items for the parish’s centenary year, said it was not hard to find material about Minehan or the parish.

“I found tons of newspaper articles in The Catholic Register... but I also found articles in the Toronto Star, the Toronto Telegraph, the Globe and Mail,” said McGinnis. “He was involved in a lot of social causes. He was extremely ecumenical which was really strange a hundred years ago. He spoke at conferences for different faiths. He was also a really strong apologist for the Catholic Church. He wrote letters to the editor that I found in the Toronto Star.”

Minehan, who was also a contributing editor at The Catholic Register, chronicled the building of the church in a series of columns called From the Church to A Church, which ran in The Register in the summer of 1923.

“Perhaps no other church in Toronto began under humbler circumstances than did that of St. Vincent de Paul,” he wrote in the July 12, 1923 edition.

“I might remark that a Chinese laundry now occupies, and has for years, the store which served the newly established parish of St. Vincent de Paul as a chapel for a year. What a descent from spiritual to material purification!”

That first Mass was held on Sept. 27, 1914, in a log cabin storefront at 231A Roncesvalles Ave.

On Aug. 15, 1915, construction began on the church and the cornerstone was laid by Toronto Archbishop Neil McNeil, who would also officiate the dedication of what at first was a “basement church” on Oct. 24 that same year.

During the 1920s, the parish was looking to expand the basement church to add more floors above the original structure. Minehan used his column to tell people about the progress of the construction of the parish’s new building.

“A basement church at best must be an inconvenient affair,” wrote Minehan in his July 19, 1923 column. “Whilst that of St. Vincent de Paul was one of the best of its kind, its worshippers eagerly looked forward to the time they would have a real church.”

McGinnis said that during these early years of the parish, the community sacrificed a lot for their church. Most of the parishioners were working-class families that used their own money, labour and resources to build their parish together.

“What I had been really struck by was the sacrifice that regular working-class people made to build a beautiful house for God,” said McGinnis. “One of the things that I found was that these ladies of the parish were just energy balls because they would have a bazaar that would last for an entire week.”

McGinnis said that on top of regular collections, parishioners hosted tea parties, put on plays and formed community sports leagues to raise money for the church’s expansion. On Sept. 20, 1923, the new church building was finished. Today, McGinnis said that the church is, in a sense, experiencing a new revival.

“We’re a small parish community, but there’s a lot of people that are very active and very involved,” she said. “We’ve had things like our St. Vincent de Paul Society most notably started up again this year. I find now that even more than ever, the church is very busy.”

After the thanksgiving Mass at 10 a.m., there will be a reception at the parish hall where stories, photos and artifacts will be displayed for parishioners to learn more about the founding families. Utrecht hopes to gather all of these stories and artifacts in a book on the 100-year history of the parish.

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