St. Augustine’s Seminary ensured a healthy Church

  • May 25, 2017

For almost half a century after Confederation, young men training to be priests in the Archdiocese of Toronto were sent to Montreal for formation because there was no seminary in English Canada

That finally changed due to the vision of a dynamic archbishop and the deep pockets of a philanthropic beer baron. A collaboration between Archbishop Fergus McEvay and millionaire brewer Eugene O’Keefe culminated in the construction of St. Augustine’s Seminary, which opened officially on August 28, 1913.

In the century-plus that followed, St. Augustine’s has trained more than 2,000 men for priesthood and some 200 married men for the permanent diaconate. Most have served in parishes in Toronto and Southern Ontario, but priests have also gone out to just about every English-speaking diocese in Canada and more than 25 religious communities. St. Augustine’s grads have also served parishes in the United States and on three other continents.

Archbishop McEvay was the driving force behind St. Augustine’s. Born in Lindsay, Ont., and educated at St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto, he was named Toronto archbishop in 1908. With no English seminary in the country, he became determined to make Toronto the national hub for priestly formation.

In 1909, the archdiocese purchased a large plot of rural land overlooking the Scarborough Bluffs about 15 km east of St. Michael’s Cathedral. The remote, pastoral setting on the road to Kingston was ideal for contemplation and study. The only thing missing was financing to begin construction.

McEvay wasn’t interested in a small diocesan seminary. His grand vision was to create a setting that would provide formation for priests from across Canada. That’s where O’Keefe came in.

The founder of O’Keefe Brewery was an Irish immigrant and devout Catholic who supported several charitable causes. He readily embraced McEvay’s seminary strategy and provided $450,000 — more than $10 million in today’s dollars — to underwrite construction.

Under the direction of architect Arthur W. Holmes, who had designed St. Michael’s College and Holy Name and St. Patrick’s Churches, the massive stone and brick building went up quickly. It was topped by a large copper dome modelled on the cathedral in Florence.

O’Keefe and Archbishop McEvay both died before the seminary opened. Prior to its opening in 1913 to 90 seminarians, Archbishop Neil McNeil spoke of how it was destined to do “great work for the Church and for Canada.”

Today, in addition to priestly formation, St. Augustine’s prepares married men for ordination into the permanent diaconate and offers lay theological formation through the Institute of Theology. From its beginnings as English Canada’s first seminary, St. Augustine’s has evolved from its founding mission to ordain priests to become a centre to also form laity and religious to be active in many Church ministries.