A class of boys from Toronto’s St. Paul’s Elementary School in 1912. Photo courtesy Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto

Catholic education remains faithful to its roots

By  Mickey Conlon, Catholic Register Special
  • May 25, 2017

The education system as we know it in the Archdiocese of Toronto looks nothing like it did 175 years ago. What does?

From a one-room schoolhouse in 1842 in the new Diocese of Toronto under its first bishop, Michael Power, it has evolved into a massive system encompassing five school boards, a number of private high schools, the University of St. Michael’s College at the the University of Toronto and St. Augustine’s Seminary.

But despite continual change, one thing has remained constant going on two centuries — a fidelity to what a Catholic school system is all about, says John Kostoff.

“It has changed and evolved but it has remained faithful to what it’s meant to be, which is a system that catechizes and evangelizes students into the Catholic faith,” said Kostoff, the former director of education with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, now executive director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association.

“It’s certainly not the system it was 175 years ago. It’s not a museum, it’s not a relic. It’s evolved to meet the needs of students and families in many different ways.”

To reach this point, the system has had its share of struggles. Yet it still stands strong, claiming small victory and some not-so-small victories along the way.

Dr. Robert T. Dixon, in his 2008 book We Remember, We Believe, details the long battle Toronto’s Catholics have fought for the right to educate their children.

“The Toronto Catholic school boards have throughout their history regularly been in the forefront to protect and advance the constitutional rights of separate school boards,” Dixon writes.

Indeed, when Bishop Power arrived in the Diocese of Toronto — shortly after a papal bull on Dec. 17, 1841 by Pope Gregory XVI carved the diocese out of the Kingston diocese — state-funded separate schools had a constitutional right to exist under the terms of the Common School Act of 1841. On paper at least.

But the bishop arrived to find no Catholic schools in Toronto whatsoever to teach the children of the mostly poor Irish immigrants (and some Germans) who had left their homelands to carve out a better life an ocean away. That wasn’t to last long. By 1843 Bishop Power had secured the first separate school in the city, and more were on the way. Bishop Power dedicated himself to expanding the system and by 1847 — and his untimely death, another victim of the typhus outbreak that ravaged the Irish community — a second school had opened in the city and six more in communities around the vast diocese.

Bishop Power, whose contribution can not be underestimated, was not alone. While he got the ball rolling, he had help along the way. Significant was contributions by five members of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary — the Loretto Sisters — who arrived at Bishop Power’s behest in 1847. These trailblazing Irish nuns, led by 24-year-old Sr. Gertrude Fleming, embarked on a gruelling six-week journey from Dublin to Toronto via Liverpool and New York only to arrive in the middle of the typhus epidemic mere days before Bishop Power’s death. Yet within two weeks they were preparing their young charges for responsible service to the Church and society. Two years later they took more children under their wings as St. Francis Xavier School opened on Church Street near under-construction St. Michael’s Cathedral.

st paul elementary webThe Grade 8 girls class from St. Paul’s Elementary School in Toronto, 1910. (Photo courtesy Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto)

The sisters continued their calling in this new world of hardship and poverty despite the city’s indifference, even hostility, to their plight. And more were to arrive after Bishop Armand-Francois-Marie de Charbonnel sent a plea to Archbishop Murray of Dublin.

“These good ladies have suffered more than I can say,” Bishop Power’s successor told Archbishop Murray, relating their heroic work in trying conditions. “They are sinking under the hardships of their situation.”

Within a decade, 34 novices had entered the order and were teaching in separate schools near their Simcoe Street convent.

It was not long until more religious orders made their presence known. The Christian Brothers, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Basilians arrived, and their presence continues to this day in Catholic education circles, despite dwindling numbers.

Bishop Charbonnel continued his predecessor’s work in building the Catholic system, often at his own expense, until the separate school law of 1855 provided more tax revenue. Still, this much-needed funding was not enough to cover the costs of the schools and the diocese continued subsidizing the system to the tune of thousands of dollars annually. It wasn’t until 1873 that Catholic schools became self-supporting. Even then, the system wasn’t exactly flush with cash. Whereas it took $11 to educate each student in public schools, the separate schools were getting by on $3 per pupil. It’s an ill that plagued Bishop Charbonnel and his successors well into the next century.

This inequity wasn’t due to a lack of trying by Catholic leaders to secure equal funding. But in a staunch British colony they were up against a ruling class dominated by a small clique of English and Scottish citizens who were Protestant and considered the Catholic minority an underclass of ignorant peasants in the throes of the dictates of tyrant bishops and the pope. Not much would change in the short term. While section 93 of the British North America Act enshrined the rights to a Catholic education, these were more administrative concessions than rights.

“Catholic schools were doomed to remain the hobbled poorer cousins of the common schools,” writes Catholic author and historian Michael Power (no relation to Bishop Power) in A Promise Fulfilled, his political history of separate schools in Ontario.

For those of a certain age in Ontario, this is familiar. It was not until September 1985 that equitable funding was granted to Catholic schools under Premier William Davis and his Progressive Conservative government after much pressure from stalwarts like Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter, Archbishop of Toronto, and Jesuit Father Carl Matthews, the former editor of The Catholic Register, who used their pulpits to encourage a change of heart at Queen’s Park.

Through all these battles, what was never lost was the mandate of a separate Catholic education system which has paid dividends to Toronto, the province and the nation. Cardinal Thomas Collins notes the countless students produced by Toronto’s Catholic schools “who have become dedicated to the service of other people by living their faith fervently.”

“Many people have had their faith deepened through the experience of Catholic education over the last 175 years,” said Collins. “If you are suffering in this province, it is someone with a religious motivation who will help you, most likely. I know of no hospitals founded by an atheist group… If the lessons of Catholic education are fruitful, they are beneficial not only to the Church but also to society.”

teresa school webTeacher Vanessa Pinto with a group of students from Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School who were studying Native Canadian literature in Toronto in 2012. (Photo by Michael Swan)

Kostoff sees this in today’s education system.

“Many of the things that Catholic schools were talking about, we’re now seeing other boards in the province doing, like the Catholic Graduate Expectations and what is expected of grads, similar things are being developed in public boards,” said Kostoff.

And while full funding came with certain conditions, including opening high schools to students of other faiths, it’s just another in a long list of challenges faced — and met — by Catholic educators.

“Still Catholic schools provide a fundamental opportunity to present Christ in the lives of our students,” said Kostoff.

As it was and so shall it be.

There is a common thread throughout the system’s history, Kostoff says, and that is the leaders in the archdiocese and their respect for and valuing of Catholic education. Kostoff credits the “prophetic voice” of Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic for his great influence on keeping the system true to itself and shaping his own beliefs on what a Catholic education system should be. He recalls then Archbishop Ambrozic speaking to a group of educators some time in the 1980s, relating to them that Toronto, and in turn the diocese, was a city of immigrants, always was and always will be. Archbishop Ambrozic told the group that their challenge as educators, and what they would be judged on, was how they welcomed the other. Those words still have a profound effect on Kostoff to this day.

“That’s one of of the signs of a Catholic school system, that it welcomes people coming in,” said Kostoff.

“Fast forward that conversation with educators to where we are today. I realize how very much he was talking about what we’re dealing with today in Catholic schools, which is that influx of people from a variety of cultures.”

Despite all the successes over the years, there remain unique challenges for survival in a secular world. Periodically, voices cry out to end “preferential” treatment for Catholics and amalgamate all schools under one public system. As the historian Power says, all it would take is one majority government for this to become reality, despite the constitutional protections in place. It has a precedent in Quebec and Newfoundland beforehand. Kostoff questions why anyone would want to do this.

“Why would you ever dismantle a system that is working so well, for so many?” he asks.

Where for years, nuns and priests provided the leadership in Catholic schools, it is now for the most part in the hands of the laity, a trend the local Church hierarchy recognized and began preparing for back in the 1970s under Archbishop Philip Pocock, adding to the long list of obstacles along the way.

The challenge will continue to be translating the Catholic faith “into the times our students are living in,” said Kostoff.

“The vibrancy of the Catholic faith has been its ability to translate itself into different periods, to provide students with an understanding and a context for understanding the world in which they live,” said Kostoff.

“I think we’ve done well for the last 175 years in this diocese and I think we’ll continue to do well in translating that.”