St. Paul’s Church and the rectory in 1914. The parish was established in 1822. Photo courtesy Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto

Finding faith on the frontier

By  Bill Steinburg, Catholic Register Special
  • May 25, 2017

Baptisms. Weddings. Funerals. Masses. Confessions. These routine aspects of Catholic life today were rare and often inaccessible just five generations ago.

The birth of the Archdiocese of Toronto in 1842 predated Ontario railways, telegraphs, radio and Canadian Confederation. Transportation was challenging and waterways offered the easiest routes to travel across the Church’s new frontier.

“The distances are staggering,” says Mark McGowan, Professor of History at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. “The regular rhythms of Catholic parish life cannot be taken for granted when we are talking about early 19th-century Upper Canada.”

Only a few parish churches were staffed. They served as outposts of faith in a sparsely populated wilderness. The priests of the day ventured out to minister to the faithful. Some parishes were visited once a month or, in more remote areas, maybe once a year.

Small groups of Catholics formed communities to pray together and study scripture, but they needed priests to support their sacramental lives.

“So when the priest does go (to a frontier parish) there is a multitude of tasks,” said McGowan. “First of all, is there a building there? Or, as was the case in many rural areas, a local Catholic would offer their house for Mass.

“And, of course, it’s not just Mass. It’s baptisms. It’s reconciliations. A (deceased) person might be buried but there might be a blessing at the graveside.”

Below is a look at the 14 churches that existed in 1842 to serve the vast territory that evolved into today’s Archdiocese of Toronto.

St. Paul’s Basilica, Toronto (est. 1822)

In the 1820s and ’30s St. Paul’s was important as a staging base for priests to venture out into the hinterlands of Durham, Simcoe and Peel counties. When  St. Paul’s Church opened in 1824 — a Gothic-style red brick building — it was the only Catholic parish between Kingston and Windsor. As the sole place of worship for Toronto Catholics it was by default the seat of Bishop Michael Power.

“It was a hub because it was the only canonically erected parish for the longest time in Toronto,” explained McGowan. “There were other parishes erected in the East and the West, but for central Ontario, St. Paul’s was it.

“Bishop Power created it as his cathedral even though he had plans to build another one. It sort of becomes Power’s diving board. His priests were located at St. Paul’s but they fanned out over what we now call the GTA to serve Catholics in what was a huge area.”

By 1842, when the Diocese of Toronto was created, 13 other churches had been built in the outlying area that today remains part of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

A commemorative history, written in 1892 for the 50th anniversary of the diocese, described those parishes. Brief excerpts from Jubilee Volume – The Diocese of Toronto offer a glimpse of life in those 13 frontier parishes.

st patricks phelpston webSt. Patrick’s parish has served the town of Phelpston, Ont., since the 1830s. (Register file photo)

The Parish of Toronto Gore – St. Patrick’s, Brampton (est. 1830)

Here, near Wildfield post office, stands one of the oldest landmarks in the archdiocese — St. Patrick’s Church… attended by Father Lawlor. But the first resident pastor of the Gore of Toronto was Father Eugene O’Reilly, who completed the church, and who, after serving the mission for many years, died about the year 1860.

The Parish of Adjala – St. James, Colgan (est. 1833)

Bishop Macdonell (Bishop of Upper Canada) wishing that, in advancing to the back portions of the country, his people should not be scattered, advised particular sections. Amongst these was the fertile township of Adjala. In order still further to secure his object, a verbal agreement was entered into with the English church authorities that all Protestant settlers should be advised to go to the neighbouring townships of Mulmur and Mono, and Catholics to Adjala.

The Parish of Caledon – St. Cornelius, Caledon (est. 1834)

As in all other districts, the holy sacrifice was first offered in private houses. But as early as 1834 a log church was built and served by Father Lawlor. This made way for a frame one which Father Eugene O’Reilly erected in 1843, and which did duty for over 40 years. In the year 1885 it was torn down, and a substantial brick church, dedicated to St. Cornelius, raised upon its site.

The Parish of Caledon – St. John the Evangelist, Albion (est. 1834)

Belonging to the parish there is a second church, that of St. Alphonsus (later St. John the Evangelist), in the township of Albion, built also in 1834. It was the first sacred edifice in Albion, and is still in good preservation.

The Parish of Penetanguishene – St. Ann’s, Penetanguishene (est. 1835)

The first priest to visit Penetanguishene was Bishop Macdonell, who, accompanied by Father Crevier, passed through this district about the year 1830… in the short stay that he made here, administered confirmation, and so encouraged the few settlers that we find them, shortly after, erecting a small log church on a village lot given by Peter Giroux.

The Parish of Stayner – St. Patrick’s, Stayner (est. 1838)

Father Charest of Penetanguishene had formal charge of this district, and paid his first visit in (1838). After this he came once a year for four years, and then twice, to attend to the spiritual wants of the few faithful scattered through this wild forest of pine.

The Parish of Flos – St. Louis Mission, Mount St. Louis (est. 1839)

St. Louis’ (church building) in Medonte… is the third which has been erected upon this site, following the usual order — the first being a log building, which made way for a frame one, and this, being destroyed by fire, was replaced with the present brick structure. The cornerstone of the new church was laid by his Grace Archbishop Walsh, in 1891.

st anne parish webSt. Ann’s in Penetanguishene started out as a log church in 1835. (Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Toronto)

The Parish of Flos – St. Patrick’s, Phelpston (est. 1830s)

Mass used to be said in a log house belonging to Mr. McAvoy in the township of Medonte. There are three churches attached to the mission: the parish church, St. Patrick’s, in the township of Flos.

The Parish of Mara – St. Joseph, Beaverton (est. 1830s)

There is a second church, St. Joseph’s, in the township of Rama, north of Mara, which is attended by the pastor once a month.

The Parish of Barrie – St. Mary’s, Barrie (est. 1830s)

Upon one occasion Father Dempsey had been down in Toronto on business, and while at Holland Landing, waiting for the boat to take him up Lake Simcoe, he heard of a family who had settled in the neighbourhood of Barrie; so he determined to visit them…. He found his way to Mr. Bergin’s, who welcomed him most warmly, as he had not seen a priest during the seven years he had been living in that district.

The Parish of Dixie – St. Joseph’s, Mississauga (est. 1830s)

One of the oldest churches in the Diocese was that on the Fifth line of Toronto township, in the County of Peel (editor note: now the site of Pearson Airport), and which derived its name from its situation. It was built about the year 1830, and was the original parish church of this district. Since that time the parochial residence has changed from the Fifth line to Streetsville, and from Streetsville to Dixie…

The Parish of Thornhill – St. Mary of Immaculate, Richmond Hill (est. 1830s)

There is a second church attached to the mission, that of St. Mary’s at Richmond Hill, a village four miles north of Thornhill. Two acres of land were purchased ostensibly for other purposes, and a church erected.

The Parish of Newmarket – St. John Chrysostom, Newmarket (est. 1840)

A grant of half an acre of land was obtained from Mr. George Lount, and preparations were made to build. Accordingly, in 1840, the little band of Catholics of Newmarket (north of Toronto) had the happiness of possession a neat rough-cast church of the modest dimensions of 30 feet by 20, where the holy Mass was offered occasionally.

After the erection of (St. John Chrysostom Church) more Catholics settled around Newmarket, and a small congregation formed. A large number of immigrants came in 1847 and the following year; but the fever, which was raging at the time, crowded the cemetery rather than filled the church.

These frontier parishes were the seeds of Catholicism in this region. Some took root and flourished, some barely held their own and some branched off to form new parishes that thrive to this day.

Together, they constitute the foundation of the Archdiocese of Toronto faith community that is still growing 175 years later.