Participants in the first Loretto Sisters’ walking tour gather in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. Photo courtesy Loretto Sisters

Tour connects dots between early Toronto, Loretto Sisters

  • June 9, 2023

The Loretto Sisters’ pioneering legacy in Toronto’s early beginnings has come alive in a new citywide walking tour.

To honour the 175th anniversary of the Loretto Sisters’ first landing in Toronto, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) is organizing a series of walking tours throughout the city to commemorate the congregation’s still-enduring influence on Catholic education. 

The first tour on May 27, entitled “The First Five: Loretto Sisters in Historic Irish Toronto,” was a resounding success, said longtime Loretto archivist Michelle Pariag, who helped coordinate the event.

“This type of event allows us to share the Institute’s history in a fun and collaborative way. Focusing on early Toronto Irish connections and experiences goes beyond the life histories we have recorded in the archives to truly give a sense of the conditions and circumstances that the early community would have encountered in the city circa 1847,” said Pariag. 

The two-hour urban trek brought some 20 participants from St. Paul’s Basilica to St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica, where the remains of the first Loretto Sisters in Toronto are buried.

Irish historian Jared Ross, who led the tour, mixed biographical accounts of the lives of Loretto Sisters with stories of early Toronto.

“The Loretto Sisters are integral to the story of the Irish in Toronto and Toronto’s history more generally,” said Ross. “They were invited by Bishop Michael Power to come to Toronto when Toronto was dealing with one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of the 19th century, the Irish potato famine. The Loretto Sisters offered comfort to the sick and the impoverished as well as being a foundational force in establishing Catholic education in Toronto.” 

Pariag — who has been working with the Loretto Archives for close to 13 years — said the Loretto Sisters came upon the explicit request of Power, the first Bishop of Toronto. Power was asking for help to tend to the growing number of Irish Catholics in the diocese, so Mother Frances Teresa Ball sent five young, Irish Loretto Sisters across the Atlantic in 1847.

Although they arrived in a time when typhoid was rampant and struggled with poverty, the Loretto Sisters ultimately succeeded in the mission they had been tasked with, laying the groundwork for Catholic education in the city.

Pariag noted that over time, the religious community grew to administer “at least 77 schools in what is now known as the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB),” including “many of Toronto’s oldest schools” like Loretto Abbey, Blessed Sacrament and St. Mary of the Angels. Gertrude Fleming, one of the first five Loretto Sisters in Toronto, is recognized as the first teacher of the TCDSB.

The Sisters’ influence changed the course of Toronto’s history.

“Toronto’s early political and religious history were anything but dull, and to some degree, the work of the Sisters and Bishop Michael Power challenged the status quo of the Tory Anglican elite in Toronto. I think this history is important as it gives us a window of what the struggles and trials were for those arriving in Toronto in the 1800s and asks us to empathize with anyone travelling to a new country in face of challenging circumstances,” said Ross,

Mary Ann Leon was intrigued by the contents of the tour.

“I was so impressed by the many sacrifices that the first Loretto Sisters in Canada made to offer education and other assistance to poor Catholic Irish children,” said Leon, who lived at the Loretto College Residence during her time at University of Toronto. “The Sisters were very young, with little support, in a foreign land, dealing with people suffering from a deadly and contagious disease. Some Sisters sacrificed their lives, but they managed to establish some of the first and finest schools in Upper Canada.”

The next walking tour was to take place on June 10.

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