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"Martyr to duty": Toronto's first bishop: Michael Power.

Following the 1837 Rebellion, the need to break up the vast Diocese of Kingston was recognized by both church and state.

Father Michael Power was recognized for his wisdom, firmness and piety and therefore was the unanimous choice of the Canadian bishops to become the first bishop of Toronto. Believing himself unworthy of the task, Power still obeyed his superiors. His potential was not fully realized, however, because his tenure was too short--just five years. On October 23, 1847, The Cross, a Catholic newspaper published in Halifax, reported that a native son, Dr. Michael Power, had succumbed to typhus. With the eloquence of the age, the obituary read:

"He fell a martyr to duty--concluding, as he commenced, his sacerdotal services in the church by acts of spiritual heroism and self-devotion. From the Acolyte at the altar of the old wooden fabric of St. Peter's, in this his native city, till his attainment of the episcopal dignity at Toronto, this writer has had opportunities of observing the course of the deceased Prelate, and deeply deplores the inefficiency of his pen, to depict it as it merits."

Perhaps the following may provide a useful sketch of Toronto's first bishop. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1804, where his parents had settled after emigrating from Waterford, Ireland, Power attended St. Peter's Church. In the absence of Catholic schools, he attended a local grammar school and was taught Latin by his pastor, Father E. Burke (who later became Vicar Apostolic of Nova Scotia) and by Father Mignault, a Sulpician. Afterwards he was sent to the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Montreal, then to the Seminary of Quebec. He was ordained at Montreal by Bishop Dubois of New York in 1827.

After stints as pastor at Drummondville, Montebello, and at the Catholic missions on both sides of the Ottawa River, he was appointed pastor at Laprairie and Vicar-General of the Diocese of Montreal in 1839. In 1841 Bishop Remigius Gaulin, Alexander Macdonnell's successor to the Diocese of Kingston, in poor physical and mental health, was seeking a coadjutor. He appealed to the Holy See and, having learned of Father Power's abilities, submitted his name for consideration. At the same time Gaulin applied to Rome and to the British government for a division of his vast diocese. Because the province was becoming increasingly Irish, he proposed to Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal that Montreal's Vicar-General Power was a candidate acceptable to both Rome and London: "He is sufficiently Irish to be well thought of here and sufficiently Canadian to live up to all expectations."

Pope Gregory XVI agreed to the division, and Bishop Bourget and Father Power were sent to London to obtain assent from the British government for the proposed arrangements. Power had the foresight to explain the value of episcopal supervision over unruly citizens:

A Catholic bishop in case of emergency will provide more authority over those committed to his care than an ordinary clergyman, his presence and his advice may also prove highly serviceable to Her Majesty's government in quelling that spirit of insubordination and fierce democratic spirit which unhappily exists to a formidable degree in many parts of the frontier line.

Wanting the continued loyalty of her Catholic subjects, the British government welcomed the plan.

On December 17, 1841, Pope Gregory issued a Bull dividing from the diocese of Kingston all parts of Upper Canada that lay west of the district of Newcastle and named Michael Power first bishop of the new diocese. He was consecrated in 1842 in Laprairie, Quebec, by Bishop Gaulin, assisted by Bishops Turgeon and Bourget.

Organizing a new diocese

Bishop Power faced an enormous task in trying to fulfill the spiritual needs of his subjects. One problem was the lack of qualified priests. Acknowledging the void, he admitted to Bishop Kinsella of Ireland in 1842 that "I am determined to have a whole district without any spiritual assistance rather than to confide the poor people into the hands of improper or suspended men."

Soon after Bishop Power took possession of his see, he called the clergy to a five-day spiritual retreat, followed by a synod at St. Paul's Church in Toronto. In an impressive ceremony, he consecrated the Diocese of Toronto to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He then drew up statutes for the government of the diocese, announced that a seminary college was a prerequisite to educate native Canadian priests to serve the needs to the growing population and, additionally, stated his desire to establish a college at Sandwich to be a centre for the Indian Missions in Upper Canada, under the direction of the Jesuit Fathers, thereby allowing them to renew their work among the Indians.

The purpose of the regulations adopted at that first synod was to improve discipline among the clergy and laity. Priests were not permitted to wander beyond the limits of their parish; they were to reside in it and had to obtain the bishop's permission for an absence of more than a week. They were to dress in the cassock and to avoid any intimate association with women. Confessional boxes were to be constructed in all churches so that sins would not become common knowledge among the people. Private confession outside the church was forbidden, except in cases where the parishioner was sick or deaf. No fee was to be charged for the administration of a sacrament. Baptismal fonts were to be installed in all churches. Private baptism in the home of a parishioner was not permitted except when a child was in danger of death. And parental consent was required for the baptism of a child. No marriages were to take place in homes, and newly arrived immigrants had to produce evidence of their right to marry and of a lack of impediments. By January 1, 1843, all priests were to have set up a ledger in which they recorded all baptisms, confirmations, marriages and burials. The use of the Roman Missal, Breviary and Butler's Catechism were to be normative.

Bishop Power travelled extensively, visiting Amherstburg, Sandwich and Tilbury, and going as far north as Manitoulin Island. He addressed the clergy and laity on the value of charity and good works, and on the education and training of children. One need he recognized was for the establishment of the Association for the Propagation of the Faith. As he described it as "one of the most admirable institutions and greatest works of modern times," the words of his pastoral letter are as applicable to today's world as they were then:

"We should not forget that we have not fulfilled our duty towards our neighbour if we confine our charity and our solicitude to those with whom we live; for the divine light of our revelation shows us a brother, a friend in being, a member of the human race ... that all men, without exception, are our neighbours and should be dear to us."

From his diocesan travels, Bishop Power also discerned the need for more decentralization and, therefore, a system of deaneries. He created six, covering all of Southern Ontario up to the borders of Lake Huron and Lake Superior. In some of the more distant areas, the rural dean was also vicar forane, a position which carried more authority and independence.

In 1844, Bishop Power joined with other bishops in Upper and Lower Canada to successfully petition the Pope for the creation of an ecclesiastical province in Canada. The dioceses of Quebec, Montreal, Kingston and Toronto were united under the metropolitan Province of Quebec, which thus became an Archdiocese. In a pastoral letter to his laity, Bishop Power expressed his expectations:

"Let us pray that this complete Ecclesiastical organization may tend to the more rapid progress of the Catholic church, afford to her now well established hierarchy the means of labouring together in more perfect unity and design, and by the united efforts of her first pastors, of infusing new vigour and fresh energy to the most remote and more infant portions of the Catholic Church in this province."

Let us recall that the Canadian bishops had achieved a major feat, one that, as yet, had not been granted in Great Britain, where a Catholic hierarchy was not restored until 1850. Dr. Wiseman of England (later Cardinal) sent his congratulations:

[Illegible Line] constituted ecclesiastical [Illegible Word] sufficiently to understand our eagerness to obtain the same privilege."

Building a Cathedral

During all these ecclesiastical and government negotiations, Bishop Power also decided that he needed a central focus for his own diocese: a cathedral and a bishop's "palace." St. Paul's Church, built in the early 1820s in the midst of Irish settlement on the west side of the Don River, was the only Catholic Church in Toronto and served as a cathedral when the diocese was formed. But it was an age of cathedral building, and Bishop Power was aware that similar projects had been undertaken in Kingston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Mobile and Louisville. He purchased land in an area that had not yet been incorporated into the city. He asked for a general subscription from the public, Catholics and Protestants alike, and for a contribution of five shillings from each Catholic worker. Excavation on St. Michael's Cathedral began in a spirit of cooperation on April 7, 1845:

An ox was roasted whole, to cheer the parish volunteers digging under the direction of John Harper, contractor for the masonry, brickwork and carpentry. Ishmael Iredale was engaged to roof the building, and John Craig bespoken for the painting. Craig assigned the window sashes to the painstaking care of his young apprentice, Michael O'Connor, the only Roman Catholic in his employ.

The Cathedral was not dedicated until September 29, 1848, a year after Power's death, because the structure was encumbered with a huge debt. It was John Elmsley and S.G. Lynn who guaranteed the debt, and Power's successor, Bishop Armand de Charbonnel, who lifted it entirely.

More Irish were coming

When Power proceeded with his financially draining plan of cathedral building, he could not forecast the impact of the Irish Famine on his Diocese. Because he had such a versatile mind, one can only wonder at what might have been, had Power's tenure extended beyond five years.

The Irish made up the bulk of his flock:

My diocese is mostly inhabited by Irishmen dispersed over an immense tract of land, bounded on all sides by the Great Lakes. Every day our steamer boats bring in new reinforcements from the mother country.

Having been left a meagre inheritance of twenty clergy and numerous complaints from a laity who had suffered at the hands of unsupervised and unscrupulous priests, Power tried to acquire men from Ireland to serve this ever-growing group of Irish immigrants. He anticipated a rewarding life for "young, well disposed, efficient clergymen," who would "always have food and raiment." But, aware of the effects of loneliness and isolation, he admitted: "for a time they may have to contend with those difficulties which are inseparable from the settlement of a new country."

Power was a conscientious taskmaster. Having set his standards at that first synod, he expected compliance. Moreover, having explained to the British government the value of a bishop's authority, he would not tolerate behaviour among his faithful that might jeopardize the Catholic position in the civil realm.

Father W.P. McDonagh in St. Catharines reported faction fighting among the Irish canal workers there. He attributed it to secret societies which were common in the 1840s throughout Upper Canada, particularly in areas of canal building. They were an outcropping of organizations that had arisen in Ireland. The Bishop advised Father McDonagh to adopt any means to suppress them. So Father McDonagh walked between the lines of the warring Cork and Connaught men, holding a Host and chalice in his hands, an act which quelled the violence and received the approbation of his Bishop:

You can let the people know that henceforth it will be a case reserved to me and that I am disposed to employ the fervor of censures of the Church for suppression of these illegal societies. I feel as Catholics and Irishmen they will possess sufficient religion, honour and respect for themselves not to compel me, in the presence of a Protestant community, to denounce them as dupes of wicked, designing men and refractory members of the Church.

The clergy also were expected to be obedient to rules, and infractions were countered with disciplinary measures. Although there was no dissenting voice at the first synod, some of the priests were resistant to wearing the soutane because it marked them as easy targets for abuse from members of the Orange Order. When Bishop Power learned that Father W.P. Macdonald, vicar-general, appeared publicly without the soutane, he suspended him as vicar-general, leaving him only as parish priest in Hamilton. Yet Power usually relented when the priest in question complied with his directives, as did Macdonald, who then was returned to office.

Bishop Power was also required to deal with the school issue in a period when new political forces were at work in the Union of the Canadas. He lacked the strong political influence wielded by Bishop Alexander Macdonnell in the colonial administration and, therefore, had to tread cautiously to avoid offence. There is no evidence during his episcopacy of the extreme ethno-religious hatred that was to explode later, no doubt the consequence of the massive immigration of Famine Irish.

Harmony over schools

The School Act of 1846 included the religious clauses of the 1843 Act under which the Board of Education was to be composed of clerical and lay representatives from the six major denominations. Bishop Power was well regarded and, therefore, was selected for the chairmanship of the Board of Education for Upper Canada. Although he might not have perceived the extent to which the public school system was to become a Protestant institution, Power's acceptance of the chairmanship, through association, could be viewed as a controversial act. Historian Franklin Walker believes that the bishop took the position to "demonstrate his desire to associate himself with the new educational movement." This association does not necessarily imply that he didn't support separate schools. In fact, Power very much believed "that parents were conscience bound to provide a Catholic education for their children."

Whatever the reason, Egerton Ryerson, the Methodist bishop and leader of the Protestant majority, used the bishop's apparent willingness to cooperate like a stick to beat against his successor's inflexibility on the separate school issue. When Power died,

Egerton Ryerson was "astounded and deeply affected" by the death of this "exceedingly agreeable and amiable man" who had chaired the Board of Education "with firmness... zeal and intelligence" and a "scrupulous regard ... for the views and rights and wishes of Protestants."

However, the fight for separate schools did not begin in earnest until several years after Power's death when Ryerson had to face Bishop de Charbonnel, a determined and more direct, less diplomatic individual.

Religious orders were needed

What Bishop Power did discern for education was a need to bring religious orders into the diocese. In 1842 he wrote the General of the Society of Jesus and through him obtained priests for the Parish of the Assumption at Sandwich (modern day Windsor). In 1846 the Jesuits also arrived at Penetanguishene, where they began to plan for the religious education of the Indians in the Upper Great Lakes. In 1847 Power asked the Christian Brothers to take over elementary schools of the diocese, but that request was not fulfilled until 1850. That year, 1847, the bishop also travelled to Europe in search of priests and funds to relieve the debt of the Cathedral. He had a full agenda.

In Ireland he arranged for the services of the Sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters, IBVM) with the expectation that

The Day School will, I hope, be numerously attended after a few weeks, and the Common School in great numbers ... The people, Catholics, mostly Irish or of Irish descent, are not rich. Some families are well able to educate their daughters, but many Protestants will feel happy in being able to avail themselves of the opportunity of giving their daughters a good, sound education.

While in Ireland, he witnessed the distress of the Irish peasantry. The sisters arrived in Toronto during the typhus epidemic which caused so much suffering and Power's death.

In England, he discussed with Lord Grey the persecution of one of his missionaries by agents of the Indian Department. He proceeded to Paris and made arrangements for the future welfare of the German settlers in his diocese. After that he went to Rome.

By the time he returned to Toronto, the Famine was emptying Ireland and its effects were being felt in the new world. From Grosse Isle, near Quebec City, to Toronto, death from typhus was a common occurrence among the debilitated immigrants.

As Fr. J.R. Teefy,C.S.B., editor of the 1892 Archdiocese of Toronto Jubilee Volume records, in all, 90,150 emigrants landed at Quebec in 1847. "There had died on the voyage 5,282 and in quarantine 3,389, a total of nearly nine thousand victims to long years of government and oppression in holy yet unhappy Ireland...

"Those who passed the inspection of the quarantine officers and were allowed to proceed up the river to Montreal and to Upper Canada, carried with them the seeds of the pestilence and scattered them far and wide. The fever broke out simultaneously in many places and added victims by the hundred to the already vast total on board ship and at Grosse Isle. Over seven hundred died at Quebec; 3,330 at Lachine, and 3,048 at various points in Ontario, not including Toronto. Eight hundred and sixty-three died and were buried in long trenches near St. Paul's Church. While the city hid in fear of the contagion, Bishop Power gathered what help he could to tend the plague-stricken and starving Irish immigrants. Archdeacon Hay, himself ill with tuberculosis, Father Kirwan, Father Proulx from the north, Father Sanderl from Waterloo, Father Schneider from Goderich, and Father Quinlan from Brantford answered their bishop's plea. These men, along with John Elmsley, a dedicated Catholic layman, and the Anglican Bishop John Strachan, courageously entered the fever sheds set up on the wharves to tend the sick and the dying."

Fr. Teefy records, "One by one they sank under the work from sheer fatigue, or themselves succumbed to the fever; the Bishop was then left almost alone, to battle as best he could with the difficulties of the situation.... Then came a call at midnight that a poor woman lay dying at the immigrant sheds, and asked for succour. There being no one else to answer to the call, the Bishop recognizing in the poorest and most helpless of the Irish immigrants a member of his flock, placed the Bread of Life in his bosom and went out into the night to fortify a soul for its last journey. He fulfilled his mission, but, as it proved, at the cost of his own precious life. Bishop Power contracted the disease and succumbed on October 1, 1847."

In the town of Power's birth, The Cross echoed the sentiments of many:

The loss to the Diocese of Toronto which Dr. Power distinguished by the value of his sacred offices, and the virtues of his life--is at this moment heavy and severe. It is said that neither night nor day witnessed his absence from the depositories of diocese, until at length kneeling over the bed of infection, and listening to the sorrows of some poor penitent, he inhaled the miasmata of death. Grief of such a loss is natural. The associates of his youth, who well remember him, deeply lament in this community the privation Canada has sustained.
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Author:Murray Nicolson
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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