Msgr. Murray Kroetsch, chancellor of the Diocese of Hamilton, with library and archives director Dominy Williams and the historic papal bulls declaring Hamilton a diocese. Photo by Tony Gosgnach

For only the 40th time Hamilton diocese marks its proper birthday

By  Tony Gosgnach, Catholic Register Special
  • March 5, 2016

HAMILTON, ONT. - Although the Diocese of Hamilton has reached 160 years of age, only 40 times has it actually been able to celebrate its anniversary.

That is because it was on Feb. 29 in the leap year of 1856 that the formation of the diocese took place by the decree of Pope Pius IX. And it was on another Feb. 29, this time in the leap year of 2016, that local Catholics gathered to mark the occasion.

On Feb. 28 and 29, two days of events marked the growth of the diocese to the point where there are now 126 parishes, seven Catholic school boards, one Catholic university and three university Catholic campus ministries. Some 142 secular and 98 religious priests minister to more than 620,000 Catholics.

The anniversary proper was marked Feb. 29 with a Mass of thanksgiving celebrated by Bishop Douglas Crosby at the Cathedral of Christ the King, followed by a reception in the McNally Hall, but the larger celebration took place the day before. At the 11 a.m. Mass Feb. 28, apostolic nuncio Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi marked his first visit to Hamilton by giving the homily and bestowing the papal honour of Knight of St. Gregory upon Kevin Smith, president and CEO of the St. Joseph’s Health System. Smith was recognized for his engagement over 20 years in Catholic health care.

The original papal bulls establishing the diocese and naming John Farrell as the diocese’s first bishop were also on display in the cathedral, having been preserved in diocesan archives over the years.

When formed, the large diocese extended as far north and west as Winnipeg, and as far east as what was then Bytown — now Ottawa. The area was then still very much a mission territory, with some 28,000 Catholics served by an itinerant group of just four priests and three Sisters of St. Joseph in nine parishes and 16 missions.

Msgr. Murray Kroetsch, chancellor of the diocese, chuckled about how the diocese has only been able to celebrate an anniversary 40 times despite its 160-year history and reviewed some highlights from over the years.

He pointed first to the construction of the Cathedral Basilica of Christ the King, completed by Bishop John T. McNally in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression on the site of a former waste disposal area. McNally’s visionary leadership left a legacy that all local Catholics, and indeed the entire city, can now enjoy, he said.

“To build a cathedral in the Depression on a garbage dump at the edge of the city was not a popular project that attracted a great deal of interest and money from other parts of the diocese,” Kroetsch said. “But we’re not complaining too much now. It stands in such a prominent place in the city ... it really is a beacon ... a powerful sign of the Catholic faith in the city of Hamilton.”

The long reign of Bishop Joseph F. Ryan (1937-1973) marked the presence and influence of the Catholic faith in Hamilton in a big way, Kroetsch said. A post-war influx of Catholic immigrants prompted Ryan to establish many parishes and build many churches. He was also passionate about Catholic education and built a number of high schools — no small feat in an era when there was no public funding for high school ministry. He was also instrumental in elevating St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo to university status.

His successor, Paul F. Reding (1973-1983), put a great deal of emphasis on implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and established many new offices, including for religious education and family ministry, and expanded others, such as for liturgy and social awareness.

Following Reding’s death, Anthony F. Tonnos (1984-2010) made his mark by affirming Catholic health care and education, said Kroetsch. He oversaw the transition of leadership in the Catholic health system from the Sisters of St. Joseph to lay governance and led the way for Jubilee 2000 celebrations and the diocese’s 150th anniversary.

“His legacy was really keeping the ship afloat on an even keel,” said Kroetsch.

Under Crosby, the diocese is seeing continued growth, with a new church slated to be built in Milton.

Kroetsch sees the diocese’s challenges as mirroring those in the Church at large — evangelization and finding new priests.

“We’ve been lucky so far... But it’s a constant concern. We are blessed to have over 30 seminarians, which is good ... but the work of vocation promotion is ongoing.”

(Gosgnach is a freelance writer in Hamilton, Ont.)

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