In 1822, St. Paul’s Basilica was established as the first Catholic parish in Toronto. In honour of this centuries-long milestone, Cardinal Thomas Collins will celebrate a 200th anniversary Mass on Sept. 18 at 11 a.m.
This particular date was selected as it represents a pivotal moment in the storied history of St. Paul’s and the Archdiocese of Toronto. It was on Sept. 18, 1847, that Bishop Michael Power delivered an impassioned speech to pressure the legislature to provide funds for relief efforts during the Irish Crisis of “Black ’47.” (Between May and October of that year, 38,560 Irish Famine migrants arrived in Toronto at a time when the city’s population was a mere 20,000 people.)
To read more about the significance of this historic date, below is a summary from the biography, Michael Power: The Struggle to Build the Catholic Church on the Canadian Frontier by Mark G. McGowan.
The magnitude of the Irish immigration due to famine, combined with the typhus pandemic, quickly overwhelmed St. Paul’s Parish resources, in particular the burial grounds, as well as the overall Catholic resources in Toronto administered by Bishop Michael Power. At first, he reached out to surrounding parishes in rural areas for assistance, however they were dealing with similar issues.
Bishop Power began making connections with politicians and leaders of other religious denominations trying to coordinate efforts. On September 18, 1847, Bishop Power, and several of Toronto’s leaders, including Chief Justice John Beverly Robinson, Bishop John Strachan, Mayor W.H. Boulton, Alderman Garnett, J.H. Hagarty, Sheriff Jarvis, and John Elmsley, held a public meeting in an attempt to pressure the legislature to provide funds for the relief efforts of the Irish Crisis.
During the meeting discussions de-evolved, becoming circular with blame cast on the immigrants for intentionally concealing their illness. Bishop Power made a resounding speech, describing his experiences on his recent visit to Ireland, noting that the Irish migrants were in good health prior to leaving and that it was on route that the illness took hold. Furthermore, symptoms would vanish and re-emerged periodically making the disease difficult to understand and mitigate. He, and other clergy who administered to the sick reinforced the idea that the Irish were not responsible but were themselves victims.
As a direct result of his speech, government officials agreed to provide various forms of relief. Unfortunately, the relief’s arrival was delayed until the following year, proving fatal to many immigrants, including Bishop Power, who succumbed to the illness two weeks after this meeting.
For more information about the bicentary celebration, please see https://bit.ly/StPauls200thAnniversary.