Fr. Bob O’Brien inherits a rich history as pastor at Toronto’s oldest parish at St. Paul’s Basilica. Photo by Michael Swan

St. Paul’s celebrates two centuries of open doors

  • September 1, 2022

Two hundred years ago, St. Paul’s Basilica was the only Catholic church between Windsor and Kingston, making it “ground zero of Catholic life in Toronto,” according to pastor Fr. Bob O’Brien.

O’Brien and the parish will welcome Toronto Archbishop Cardinal Thomas Collins for a 200th birthday Mass on Sept. 18 at 11:00 a.m. Organizers are hoping to see past parishioners and pastors come back home to the big church on the corner of Power and Queen Streets, to rediscover the spirit of 200 years of struggle for wave after wave of Catholic immigration.

There’s no shortage of Catholics and others who want to learn some of the history built into this parish, said parishioner Lee Konick who volunteers his time leading tours of the church. He has walked tourists from across the country through the church, pointing out the paintings, statuary and the unique wooden pipes of the organ, first installed in 1898.

As construction cranes begin to surround the church, Konick is meeting a new kind of tourist at the big bronze doors.

“People from the condos are coming by now,” he said. “A lot of them are surprised that it even exists.”

On a visitor confirms Konick’s observation.

“I can’t believe I have never been inside, considering it was where my grandmother went to church when she was a child,” the anonymous visitor wrote. “I went a few weeks ago to see the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir perform, and was blown away by the beauty of the place, the acoustics, and the performance. What an amazing experience.”

The Basilica that dominates Queen Street East now was not the first church building on the site. By the 1880s the growing parish needed a new building and contracted architect Joseph Connelly to put up a romanesque church. At the time it opened for its first Mass in 1889, St. Paul’s stood out in a city chock-a-block with neo-gothic churches.

The original 1822 church was a more modest red brick affair on a site just south of where the present building stands. It included a winter chapel to St. Ann and stood at the very eastern edge of Toronto. It was the pride of that very first wave of Irish immigrants.

The land St. Paul’s sits on was home to Indigenous peoples, with the Mississaugas of the Credit, Anishnabeg, Chippewa, Haudenosaunee and Wendat being the dominant communities. When the Jesuits launched their first missions north of Lake Ontario, there were about 65,000 people living in the Toronto area – farming, fishing and hunting. Despite several treaties, an unresolved 1805 land dispute resulted in much of Toronto’s land being made available to new immigrants.

Well before Bishop Michael Power was sent to Toronto to establish the new diocese in 1844, Toronto was a tough place to be Irish and Catholic. Waves of cholera filled up the St. Paul’s cemetery in the 1830s and ‘40s. In “Black ‘47,” between May and October, 38,560 Irish famine migrants arrived on Toronto’s docks, at a time when the city’s population was just 20,000. The accompanying typhus epidemic claimed the life of Toronto’s first Catholic bishop when he was still using St. Paul’s as his pro-cathedral, waiting for St. Michael’s Cathedral to be completed in 1848.

By 1857 the St. Paul’s cemetery had to be closed and most of the bodies, including those from a mass grave, were moved to St. Michael’s Cemetery north of the city, just off Yonge Street and south of St. Clair Avenue.

Things got better for impoverished Irish immigrants when the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in 1851. They quickly set up the House of Providence to care for orphans and the indigent elderly without family. Their policy of accepting everybody, regardless of Church affiliation, led to some Catholics referring to it as the House of Protestants.

When the Don Valley Parkway ploughed through the neighbourhood in 1960, the Sisters moved the House of Providence to St. Clair and Warden, where it now operates as a rehabilitation hospital and part of Unity Health, along with St. Michael’s and St. Joseph’s hospitals.

But that hardly ended the St. Paul’s Parish connection with the poor. In 1963 the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd took over the old bowling alley across the street and transformed it into one of Toronto’s largest shelters.

Despite the beautiful artwork on the walls of the church and the Roman-style campanile bell tower installed in 1901, which houses the original church bell from 1822, the neighbourhood around St. Paul’s and the parish itself remained poor through generations.

Konick recalls that back in the 1990s the parish’s take from three Sunday Masses was just $300. It’s one of the few parishes in Toronto that has had to rely on subsidies from the other 224 parishes in the archdiocese.

But O’Brien has ambitions to see the parish operationally self-sufficient, while conceding that the costs of maintaining a major historical building are a bit more than a parish of new Canadians, many of them in public housing, can manage.

More than just historically designated, St. Paul’s has been a basilica – the end-point of a sanctioned pilgrimage to which is attached indulgences – since 1999, when the Archdiocese of Toronto undertook a six-year restoration of the building. St. Paul’s is one of 27 basilicas in Canada and often substituted for St. Michael’s Cathedral through the years of the cathedral’s recent renovations, particularly when St. Michael’s was closed for nine months in 2015.

As he comes up on his first anniversary as pastor, O’Brien’s focus now is on the future of St. Paul’s. He plans to hire a youth minister in the fall and dedicate much of his time to reaching out to new residents of Corktown-area condos.

“There are families here and they do have children,” he said.

Recent flooding has prompted a refresh of the parish hall in the basement. O’Brien looks ahead to the development of the Portlands neighbourhood as a source of new parishioners.

“I’m kind of excited about the base situation,” he said.

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