Bishop Michael Power.

Bishop set a powerful example

  • April 4, 2020

Priests have not been spared from being infected — and dying — as COVID-19 sweeps the world.

In Italy alone, more than 60 priests have died during the pandemic, including the first bishop to die from the coronavirus, the Salesian Bishop Angelo Moreschi, who died March 25 in Brescia, Italy.

So far in Canada there are no reports of a priest losing their life to the virus, but there’s no guarantee that will remain the case.

In the Archdiocese of Toronto, perhaps the most tragic example of priestly sacrifice during a pandemic goes back to 1847 and the story of Bishop Michael Power, founding bishop of the diocese. His life ended after ministering among the poor Irish in the fever sheds during the typhus epidemic that ravaged migrants in the city.

It’s not a martyr’s story as we’ve come to understand it. But while Bishop Power may not have been murdered out of a hatred for the Catholic faith, he died bearing witness to the faith and proclaiming the Gospel. In marking the archdiocese’s 175th anniversary in 2017 Cardinal Thomas Collins announced his intention to open a sainthood cause for Bishop Power.

“He was often called a martyr of charity,” University of Toronto history professor Mark McGowan told The Catholic Register in 2009. McGowan authored Death or Canada: The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847, as well as a biography of Bishop Power.

Bishop Power, a native of Halifax,  had been named Toronto’s first bishop in 1842, at age 37. In five short years he laid the groundwork for many of the Catholic institutions still at work in the archdiocese today. He brought the Loretto Sisters to Toronto to found a Catholic school system that thrives to this day. He also laid the foundation for St. Michael’s Cathedral at a time when there were only 3,000 parishioners in the city, mostly poor, Irish and on the margins in a city run by the English Protestant power brokers.

In that summer of 1847 — known as Black ’47 — 863 Irish migrants would die from typhus on the shores of Lake Ontario, but Power was not scared off by the disease. He  gathered what help he could among his priests to tend to the sick, starving immigrants.

That’s where the Loretto Sisters found Bishop Power upon their arrival on Sept. 16, 1847, immersed in serving the suffering. Days later he contracted the disease and he would die on Oct. 1.

Murray W. Nicolson, in a 1987 historical study for the Canadian Catholic Historical Association, is not all in on the legacy of Bishop Power. He notes the grandiose cathedral plans left the diocese a huge debt and at the time of his death there remained a “chronic need of priests, religious orders and institutions, much as he had found it.” But that pales in comparison, Nicolson wrote, to his greatest contribution.

“Most importantly perhaps, he left to a laity which was to encounter degradation and hardship the example of true Christian charity — the gift of his life,” he wrote. 

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