Since the creation of the Diocese of Toronto in 1842, which itself was a spinoff of the Diocese of Kingston, the boundaries of the Toronto diocese has been reduced three times, as parts of its territory are partitioned off to create new dioceses. Graphic by Emanuel Pires

By leaps and bounds – the changing boundaries of the Toronto Archdiocese

By  Bill Steinburg, Catholic Register Special
  • May 25, 2017

The Archdiocese of Toronto’s vast geography and ever-increasing population have presented challenges for all of its bishops since the diocese was born 175 years ago. So much so that a recurring story of the archdiocese has been its growth followed by subdivision.

Three times in just four generations the territory that was initially called the Diocese of Toronto has been reduced in size to create spin-off dioceses. In fact, that’s how the Toronto diocese came into being. In 1842 it was carved out of lands initially under the direction of Canada’s first English-language diocese, the Diocese of Kingston.

Over time, out of Toronto sprang the dioceses of London, Hamilton, Peterborough and St. Catharines. And, after the external division stopped, the archdiocese itself was partitioned internally.

When Toronto’s first bishop, Michael Power, was consecrated on May 8, 1842, he became responsible for a territory that stretched 400 km from present-day Oshawa to Windsor and some 1,000 km north across Lakes Huron and Superior to Thunder Bay. Before he began shepherding this frontier, Bishop Power embarked on a get-acquainted odyssey of the territory. He paddled across Lake Ontario from Toronto to Niagara, along Lake Erie to Sandwich (now Windsor), up the St. Clair River to Lake Huron and on to Sault Ste. Marie, then back east to Manitoulin Island, south through Georgian Bay on home to Toronto. The trip took months, but he returned with a clear sense of the immense task before him.

“If you’re in a frontier situation, the communication is poor, the transportation is poor, and a lot of the clergy who are out there are flying by the seat of their cassocks, for the most part,” explained Dr. Mark McGowan, Professor of History at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.

Bishop Power, and the bishops who followed him, recruited more priests to help but the flood of Catholic immigrants was overwhelming. In 1856, the Diocese of London and the Diocese of Hamilton were created from territory ceded from the Diocese of Toronto.

“With the influx of Catholic immigration in the mid-to-late 19th century and then new generations of Catholics, you’re getting fair numbers,” said McGowan. “It makes sense to cover the growing population and to make sure you effectively cover a territory.”

Twelve years after Toronto’s growth earned it the status of archdiocese, the Diocese of Peterborough was erected in 1882, removing the northern regions from the map of the Archdiocese of Toronto. The boundaries stayed unchanged until 1958, when the Diocese of St. Catharines was created. While the map remained relatively stable after 1958, Toronto’s Catholic population continued to soar, the number of parishes increased steadily and the Archbishop of Toronto continued to struggle to stay connected with his people.

“Archbishop Carter recognized that Toronto was growing and, as it was growing, it was becoming less unified,” said Bishop John Boissonneau, Auxiliary Bishop of Toronto, who at the time was secretary to the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Toronto. “People … were complaining. There was a sense that, ‘we should have our own diocese. We’re too far from Toronto, we’re growing and we don’t see the bishop.’ ”

Cardinal Carter had seen the same problem in other big-city dioceses.

“Detroit and Boston were the two models he looked at,” said Bishop Boissonneau. “So he settled on the vision of revitalization, putting a regional bishop in the area with pastoral responsibilities.”

The Archdiocese of Toronto had been divided into deaneries — a traditional model still found in many dioceses today, established to encourage fraternity among the priests and to offer a common pastoral approach in that area. In 1979, Cardinal Carter divided the archdiocese into regions comprised of several zones, and an auxiliary bishop was designated to serve the priests and faithful of each region.

Today, Bishop Boissonneau serves the Western Region, Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick oversees the Northern Region, Bishop Vincent Nguyen looks after the Eastern Region and Bishop Robert Kasun handles the Central Region. They stay connected to the pastors and parishioners of their regions and provide counsel and guidance to the Archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins.

“Now there’s a good balance,” Bishop Boissonneau said. “Their bishop is there — I live in the region. If they have a problem they can call me. It gives them access to their bishops. And the archbishop remains in charge of personnel and finances. He has the ultimate responsibility.”

Today, the four regions contain more parishes than many North American dioceses. As the population in the Greater Toronto Area climbs, new churches are still being built. That has been the story of the Archdiocese for 175 years.