Archbishop-elect Frank Leo, seen here at his episcopal ordination in Montreal, September 2022. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Montreal

Montreal sending bishops to Toronto a historical Hab-it

By  Laura Ieraci, Catholic Register Special
  • February 16, 2023

CHICAGO -- The news came at 5:25 a.m. CST on Feb. 11. Despite my years of absence, big news from home can still rattle me awake: Pope Francis had named Bishop Frank Leo, auxiliary bishop of Montreal, to succeed Cardinal Thomas Collins as archbishop of Toronto. 

I was both thrilled for Leo and Toronto and disheartened that my home church in Montreal was parting with yet another gifted bishop — this one, less than six months after his ordination. 

However, the news also renewed my conviction: With this appointment, the Church of Montreal continues to be the missionary Church it has been from its inception. 

I took this reflection to Archbishop Christian Lépine. He underlined how Catholic missionaries were at the founding of the city. Consequently, the local Church is imbued with a missionary spirit, reinforced by numerous religious congregations — and thousands of missionary priests and religious men and women — for generations.

“This spirit runs in our genes, it is in our local culture,” he said. “And as a priest, this means to be available to the mission wherever it may lead us.

“I would have liked for Bishop Leo to have stayed in Montreal a few more years as auxiliary bishop,” he admitted with a laugh. “But now another mission awaits him. I know Bishop Leo, so I am happy for the Church in Canada. I am happy for the people of God in Toronto.”

Lépine spoke about the historic connections between the dioceses. 

Bishop Michael Power, born in Halifax, was a priest of the Diocese of Montreal when he was named founding bishop of the Diocese of Toronto in 1841. Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter, also a Montreal priest, served as archbishop of Toronto from 1978 until 1990.  

Leo became the third Montreal priest named to Toronto. 

The decision of Montreal’s second bishop, Ignace Bourget, who served from 1840 to 1876, to assist in funding the construction of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto during Bishop Power’s episcopacy is yet another example of the longstanding connection and fraternal spirit between these two dioceses, said Lépine.

Lépine could not offer an exact explanation as to why Montreal priests have been named to serve as bishops of other dioceses in Canada, even beyond Toronto, except to describe the characteristics of his local Church. 

“Montreal is a complex diocese,” he said. “Despite Montreal being an island, it has never been isolated. It has always been a place of welcome, of solidarity, of freedom, of respect” that looks outward toward mission and the universal Church, he said.Montreal has always been willing to release priests, when asked, to fill a need in the Church.

In recent times, Montreal clergy who served as bishops outside Montreal included Bishop Robert Harris, who led the Diocese of Saint John, N.B., after being auxiliary bishop of Sault Ste. Marie for five years, and Archbishop Anthony Mancini, who headed the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth. They retired in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Until Leo’s appointment to Toronto, Bishop Thomas Dowd was the only other Montreal priest currently heading a diocese in English-speaking Canada. He was an auxiliary bishop of Montreal when he was named to lead Sault Ste. Marie in 2020. Dowd was quick to point out that Bishop Alexander Carter, who pastored Sault Ste. Marie from 1958 to 1985, was a Montreal priest, too. 

“I’m certainly proud that a Montreal boy done good,” Dowd, 52, said of Toronto’s new archbishop. “I’ve known Bishop Leo since his ordination to the diaconate. He’s a year younger than I am, but he had gone into seminary almost immediately after college. We’ve been friends and colleagues ever since.”

Dowd listed his friend’s traits: “He’s sharp, deeply devout, committed to the tradition, to the Church as a whole and to its people. He has a great variety of experiences: parish work, seminary work, diplomatic service. He got his doctorate on his own initiative, six years of national leadership at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he’s trilingual.

“I don’t know there’s another priest in Canada like him,” he continued. “Certainly a person set aside by the Lord, in my opinion, and set aside for Toronto.”

Aside from the obvious fact that Montreal, as a larger diocese, offers a greater pool of priests to draw from for episcopal appointments, Dowd said Montreal priests are more likely to have skillsets that would be desirable for certain pastoral situations.

“The English priests in Montreal will tend to be bilingual, so if there are needs in the rest of Canada that require multilingual or multicultural competence in a special way, it would make sense that you would draw from people who grew up with that,” he said.

As well, priests from a larger diocese will likely have more varied experience in administration and seminary work, which is commonly sought in a bishop candidate.

Canadian Church historian Mark McGowan thinks not much should be made of the appointment of Montreal priests to other Canadian dioceses from an historical point of view. More noteworthy is Leo’s “significant pastoral experience” compared with recent Toronto bishops, whose experiences have been more administrative.  

Leo “has the smell of the sheep and I think that’s what Pope Francis wants,” McGowan said.

“His devotional interests will dovetail nicely with many of the Catholic communities here, who, within their own distinctive Catholic cultures, have a strong devotion to Mary,” he said. “He’s going to be able to touch people in a very different way.”

Leo is the first Italian Canadian archbishop of Toronto, which McGowan recognized as “a nod to the multiculturalism of the city.”

“There’s a plan here, it would appear, to put a young, dynamic, multilingual individual, who has considerable pastoral experience,” he said. “He brings a very distinctive skillset to the table in Toronto that we haven’t seen for a while.”

(Ieraci, an award-winning journalist from Montreal, writes for the Catholic press from Chicago.)

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