The Other Toronto:
Irish Catholics in a
Victorian City, 1850-1900

By: Murray W. Nicolson

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 19-23
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

The study of the Irish Catholic experience between 1850-1900 in Toronto provides insight into another side of that Victorian city. Set apart from the Protestant majority because of their religion and ethnic background, the Irish Catholics also had different cultural values which caused social problems. Although generally considered misfits by the charter population, they refused to accept the predetermined cultural mold dictated by an unsympathetic urban majority as an answer to their social dilemma. Instead, the Irish Catholics were able to retain their ethno-religious identity and to develop a distinctive alternative to assimilation.

Under the British rule they left, Catholic Irish peasants could not purchase land, hold public office, attend university, teach in or keep a school, sit on a bench or bar, or vote. From that abused peasant population came the Irish immigrants to Toronto and the major cities of North America. It is uncertain as to how many died as the result of starvation and disease in the Potato Famines of 1845-46 and 1846-47. Estimates range from 500,000-1,000,000. But by 1851, 1,500,000 had been driven out of Ireland and were followed by 5,000,000 more by 1914. Not only did the Irish immigrants have to carry the burden of their past and the disastrous consequences of the Famine, they also had to bear the effects of a stereotype which further victimized them. The stereotype was one that was generally accepted in the Victorian period and adopted by the charter population of Toronto as normative in its application to what it considered an uncivilized, almost sub-human, alien group. Coupled with their general appearance of poverty and their religion, language as well placed the Irish at a disadvantage because English, like the Protestant religion, was the key to acceptance and status in English Toronto. All these factors with the inclusion of their social customs, so different from accepted practice among the majority, contributed to the development of the stereotype. George Brown, editor of the Globe in Toronto, made no attempt at understanding the problems of the Irish and spread a derogatory picture of Irish character:
. . . Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons, and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindoos.

There can be little doubt that George Brown and his Globe, with its metropolitan coverage, the Orange Lodge, and some of the Protestant churches were responsible for fueling the Protestant crusade against the coming of the Irish Catholics, which lasted from 1850-1900. The effects of that crusade were most strongly felt by the Irish in Toronto where the Protestants controlled the social institutions, civic positions and the work place. Typical of Presbyterian sermon literature, which contributed to the treatment the Catholic Irish were subjected to, was:

O Lord we approach thee this morning in an attitude of prayer and likewise of complaint. When we came to Canada we expected to find a land flowing with milk and honey, but instead we find a land peopled by the ungodly Irish. O Lord, in thy mercy drive them to the uttermost parts of Canada, make them hewers of wood and drawers of water, give them no place as magistrates, policemen, or rulers among thy people. If ye have any favours to bestow, or any good land to give away, give it to thine own peculiar people, the Scots. Make them members of Parliament and rulers among thy people, but as for the ungodly Irish, take them by the heels and shake them over the pit of hell. But, O Lord, don't let them fall in, and the glory shall be thine for ever and ever. Amen.

Faced with such intense hatred, the minority group struggled against the stereotype for its existence in the city.

Irish immigrants were usually poverty-stricken and disease ridden on arrival in Toronto, and the unsanitary conditions, poor diet, contaminated water supply and filthy habits of waste disposal enhanced the spread of disease and contributed to a high death rate. Fear of eviction caused the urban peasantry to hide knowledge of diseases from city authorities, which only augmented the consequences. The lack of privacy, habitual drunkenness and despair were responsible for casual relationships, or hand-fast unions. Such relationships were usually limited in duration, but were productive of numerous, neglected children among whom the mortality rate was high. The tendency to maintain tight-knit kinship associations was responsible for close inter-breeding which resulted in infantile genetic anomalies, like cluricaunes, or ugly dwarves-clinically identified as Leprechaunism. Many of those children were disposed of quickly and buried in the cabbage patches of Cabbagetown.

This transplanted peasantry, with all its faults, was attempting to retain an agrarian society in an urban setting. Politics and the press became arbitrary elements to the Irish immigrants who were locked out of political life and employment by an Orange city. That conservative peasantry, which sought social adjustment through reform politics, wasted its limited enfranchisement by voting for individual candidates of both parties, who promised much but despised this alien electorate. The Famine Irish were a minority in Toronto, their culture was in decay, and they needed a focus to preserve their ethnic identity. They would find it in a reinterpreted Catholicism.

The Irish formed over 95 per cent of Toronto' s Catholic population until 1880 when Germans, French and a few Italians and Syrians finally reduced their proportion to 80 per cent by 1900. Although Catholics grew in number from 7,940 in 1851 to 28,994 by 1901, their percentage proportion of the city's population fell from 25.8 per cent to 13.9 per cent in the same period. German Catholics shared St. Patrick's parish with the Irish and joined Irish Catholic benevolent associations. The small group of French Canadians in the city were given a church by the Irish.

The Irish Catholics who came to the Toronto area prior to the Famine were unable to afford city residence. They settled along the waterfront and in the liberty adjacent to the city, particularly in the Don Basin, where the Irish clusters were called Slab Town, Paddy Town, or Cork Town. From those early small concentrations developed Cabbagetown. After 1850 more pronounced Irish clusters appeared in Cabbagetown and on the waterfront, extending well into St. George and St. Lawrence Wards and in an area around Bathurst and Queen Streets which became known as Claretown. From 1880-90 the Junction area of west Toronto became one of Irish Catholic concentration. In addition, there were at least a dozen other minor areas of Irish Catholic concentration in the city which were labelled "Irish Town."

Throughout the whole period under study, there were no solidly Irish Catholic ghettos in the city because poverty forced the Irish to share the rundown areas of substandard housing and tenements with other, working-class Protestant poor. Irish Catholics were never a majority in any city ward and, therefore, never segregated by ethnicity or religion, only by class. Residential area selection was dictated by affordable housing and proximity to work. Confidence arose when numbers increased sufficiently in areas of Irish concentration where the quasi-secret Irish brotherhood could operate against open attacks on Irish labourers during their journey to work. Retribution was quick and took place under cover of night. Insult and injury were in direct proportion to the distance from the place of employment. A worker' s confidence grew as the distance lessened and his journey converged with that of his friends.

Generally, residence within a specific location of Irish concen- tration was of limited duration. In their search for employment opportunities and housing suitable to accommodate their growing families, the Irish moved from one area to another. That constant movement within the city, between cities, from urban to rural areas and back tended to increase, strengthen and expand the positive elements of the Irish Catholic urban, cultural and social experience. It was within those enclaves that Irish family reformation occurred and a sense of security evolved. But, as the areas changed and were shared with other members of the working class, the tight-knit pattern of multiple Irish family units, friends and relatives allowed for a detachment from the physical environment and a development of a ghetto of the mind. As they had learned to ignore abuse, so too could they ignore the abusers and the dismal surroundings. The departures from and return to the areas of concentration by friends and relatives created an Irish communication network within and beyond the city. Within the framework of their own society the Irish were tightly bound by family ties, church association, accepted mores, religious organisations and an Irish Catholic press. That structure placed them beyond the assimilative reach of the dominant urban society. 1

Although the Irish were identified as the Catholics in Toronto, generally they were not an obedient laity. For the church to gain control over that laity and to become an urban actor, it had to exert a real influence. Therefore, the church expanded with the Irish throughout the city, forming parish units to serve the religious, educational, cultural and social needs of its people and became the focus for group identification.

From 1822-48 Toronto Irish Catholics had been served by a single church, St. Paul's in Cabbagetown. St. Michael's Cathedral -consecrated in 1848-had been built on the periphery of settlement. Its location was determined by the availability of cheap land, not by the needs of the people. As an administrative centre, it represented the beginning of diocesan organisation. Similarly, St. Basil's Church-opened in 1856 in the Clover Hill district just south of Bloor Street-preceded the Irish population. It was built on the site of a land gift from John Elmsley to the Basilian Fathers who operated St. Michael's College. But between 1850-1914, fourteen churches were constructed in the city, in each case to serve the needs of growing areas of Irish Catholic concentration.

As each church was built, priests were dispatched from it into the newer areas of Irish settlement where services were conducted in homes and halls. In that way the city was linked by a parish network; and urban parishes sent priests to assist the clergy in the country, which eventually bound metropolis and hinterland into an interacting unit. The parish church became the nerve centre of an Irish nucleus with its priests' house, school, nearby convent, hall and religious and social organisations attached.

The church and laity recognised mutual needs and obligations for survival in an unfriendly milieu. Therefore, after 1850, various forms of voluntary, church-oriented, social action developed. The pioneer organisation for Catholic men in voluntary charitable work in the city was the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Although initially formed and led by a group of elite Catholic laymen, it soon became an Irish working-class association. With the concept that poverty was not a sin and that they were not social observers, the members set about to aid the poor of the city, regardless of race or religion. Beginning with a simple program of outdoor relief, they fed and clothed the needy, found accommodation and provided household necessities for families, supplied medical and nursing care and obtained placement in the hospital for the sick, promoted temperance and buried the dead. They visited homes, hospitals and jails. They served as truant officers in the schools, ran night schools for immigrants, youths and prisoners, and encouraged good reading habits by distributing books to homes and establishing lending libraries.2

As the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society expanded, fuel cooperatives and an employment agency were organised and attempts made to form a housing corporation. With the bishops, the members were responsible for founding the Toronto Savings Bank and the Catholic Children's Aid Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They also initiated the formation of the Bona Mors Society, which was intended to stop the practice of excessive funeral costs. Patterned after the St. Vincent de Paul Society were a number of Irish Catholic benevolent societies, which offered insurance benefits to injured workmen and protection to families on the death of a bread-winner. Temperance was mandatory for membership in these benevolent associations.

Catholic laywomen began charitable work as a group in the city before the men did. From 1849-51 the Catholic ladies were responsible for founding and provisioning an orphanage and shelter for Irish children and unemployed servant girls. Their work ended when the Sisters of St. Joseph took over the responsibility. But the wives and daughters of the St. Vincent de Paul Society members organised various groups to perform charitable work. Food, clothing and shoes were given to school children; homes were visited to teach sanitary hygiene; and Sunday schools set up
to teach catechism. Funded by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic women visited the hospital and jails and found accommodation and work for released female prisoners.3

All the Catholic charitable organisations operated on a voluntary basis, utilizing donations, bazaars, picnics and raffles to collect funds for Irish ethnic improvement. But what began as programs of simple outdoor relief in 1850 moved to the foundation of lasting institutions by the end of the century supported in part, by voluntarism.

Bishop Charbonnel of Toronto believed that religious orders of men and women were required to improve the religious, social and educational needs of the Irish poor. He hoped to strengthen his diocese by producing institutions to aid the Irish laity and to end the abuse and proselytizing tactics the immigrants were subjected to in public institutions like the hospital, House of Industry and schools. When Charbonnel arrived in Toronto, there was only one small group of the Sisters of Loretto who had been invited by Bishop Power in 1847. To complement the work of that teaching order, Charbonnel brought out the Christian Brothers in 1851, who founded St. Michael's College for boys and taught in the parish schools of the city. At Charbonnel's request, the Basilian Fathers, who came to Toronto to assist with pastoral work, took over St. Michael ' s College and established it as a seminary school to train priests and to provide for the higher education of the future leaders of the Irish community. The Sisters of St. Joseph were selected by Charbonnel to administer the orphanage for Irish Catholic children. However, that versatile group of women, living in great hardship themselves, soon began a program of outdoor relief, visited and counselled the poor and shared teaching responsibilities among the girls in the parish schools.

Charbonnel had perceived that the best weapon to guard the Irish against secularism and assimilation was a separate system of education. And in fighting to uphold that principle, Charbonnel was pitted against Egerton Ryerson and the full force of the city and the province; for public schools were the vehicles of the Protestant churches to standardize the population. But pressure against the separate system met with Irish response to retain it. However, it was not until 1867, when the School Question was settled, that Irish Catholic rights were guaranteed.

By that time the religious orders Charbonnel had invited to Toronto were more Irish in composition, having drawn postulants from the Irish community. Therefore, the separate schools of Toronto, under the control of the church, had an Irish student body that was instructed by Irish teachers. Within that cohesive institution many functions were performed simultaneously. The normal academic program of the age was offered, but it was interspersed with catechism and preparation for the sacraments of the church. In addition, moral values and the role of the child in the family and the community were stressed to perpetuate social control. Irish history was emphasized, often becoming the topic for essays and debates, in order to develop a sense of pride. A literature sympathetic to the church was presented to promote a peculiar sense of the holy and of Irish Tridentine devotionalism. Award nights were staged to produce pride in accomplishments, and the programs for these gatherings included a mixture of religious and ethnic music, poetry and speeches presented for an audience of teachers, priests, parents and relatives. The separate schools allowed for an adequate alternative to public education, but their strength lay in the fact that they served as a vehicle for the socialization of Irish children in a protected environment.4

The religious orders were sufficiently established to expand education beyond the elementary level. The Christian Brothers established De La Salle as a secondary and commercial school, which complemented the convent schools of the Sisters of Loretto and of St. Joseph. The Basilian Fathers were instrumental in achieving university status for St. Michael's College which, through the efforts of the Sisters of Loretto and St. Joseph, became coeducational in the early decades of the twentieth century.5

Under Bishop Charbonnel' s patronage, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened the House of Providence in 1858. Its purpose was to provide shelter for the aged, the orphaned, the destitute, the deaf, the dumb and the infirm. From that beginning the Sisters expanded their work to set up three orphanages. In addition, they established Notre Dame des Anges, a boarding-home for women, and administered St. Nicholas Hotel, a home for newsboys and apprentices.

In the 1870s Bishop Lynch invited additional orders to the city to fill more specific requirements. Disturbed by the number of Irish Catholics in trouble with the law, Lynch asked for the services of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, who were to be succeeded by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Both orders were renowned for work with women and under their direction an industrial school for girls was founded and a refuge set up for indigent and troubled women in the city.6

As a preventative measure Bishop Lynch, assisted by a group of Irish laymen and Father Eugene O' Reilly, established an Agricultural and Industrial School in the Gore for wayward boys. The educational program of that school was incorporated into the St. Nicholas Hotel, which was urban based and administered by the Sisters of St. Joseph. To guard against proselytism in public institutions and to guarantee the rights of Catholics in them, Lynch succeeded in penetrating the jails, penetentiaries and institutes for the insane, the blind and the deaf and dumb with priests and Catholic teachers. Assisted by Archbishop John Walsh, the Christian Brothers opened St. John' s Training School for boys in 1893, which became a model for juvenile rehabilitation.7

The Sisters of St. Joseph had gained considerable nursing experience in the House of Providence. When the debt-ridden Toronto General Hospital was forced to close its doors, Lynch offered to maintain it under the supervision of the nuns. But the city declined the offer, preferring the hospital to maintain a secular rather than religious identity. With the support of the Irish Catholic laity, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened St. Michael's Hospital in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and
followed, early in the twentieth century, with St. Joseph's and Our Lady of Mercy Hospitals.8

The various institutions which had developed under the auspices of the church were supported by the Irish laity. In them, the Irish had found the empathy they needed and the aid they required without the bias they faced in the institutions under secular control.

Generally, the Irish in the city were untrained, unskilled day labourers, kept poor through a practice of continually sending remittance funds to Ireland to support family members, or to pay for their immigration to Canada. The construction of St. Michael's Cathedral in the 1840s under the direction of the Catholic architect, William Thomas, had provided many Irish labourers with an opportunity to develop skills in building and contracting. The growth in church institutions in the early 1850s gave rise to a middle sector of the population from that select group. In addition, that progress supported a group of Irish entrepreneurs who entered the mercantile trade to supply goods first to the church and cathedral and then to the quickly growing Irish population of the city and its environs. But the majority of the Irish, both pre- and post-Famine, were labourers, often meeting with an early death because of their debilitated physical condition, the hazards of weather in seasonal employment and the dangerous occupations in which they worked.

Job competition was keen between other unskilled workers and those of Irish origin who flooded the labour market. The Irish had been a burden to the city's few social welfare agencies, draining financial resources. What was essentially an economic problem was reflected in the social attitude of the majority who articulated their dissatisfaction through application of the dictum ''No Irish Need Apply." Transiency, with all its social ramifications, was common among the Irish who were locked out of city employment by a militant, anti-Catholic Orange Lodge. For decades the Irish press brought their plight before the public, particularly emphasizing the lot of Irish Catholic children who suffered most brutally at the hands of factory and mill owners. The church was powerless to obtain employment for Irishmen in the municipal sphere of Toronto, but, utilizing the threat of a block Irish vote, was persuasive enough to open up opportunities for talented Irish Catholics in the Provincial and federal bureaucracy. 9

The church did not forbid Irish membership in organisations that were religiously neutral. But because of skills involved, Irish membership in those organisations was minimal. However, in 1886, under the influence of Daniel O'Donaghue-the Irish Catholic labour leader-and the rise of the Knights of Labour, Irish workers became involved with organised unionism. The Knights of Labour was an international, non-sectarian association which enrolled both skilled and unskilled men, women and children and, therefore, appealed to the Irish. Bishop Lynch recognised the rights of the Knights of Labour on behalf of his people in defiance of Cardinal E. Taschereau, who had banned it in Quebec, and the antagonism of the influential Irish Catholic industrialist, Frank Smith. It was Lynch's stand in Toronto that added strength to Cardinal H. Manning's, of Great Britain, and Cardinal J. Gibbon' s, of the United States, appeal to the pope to have Taschereau's ban removed. Although the plight of Irish labourers in Toronto did not change significantly, by the end of the nineteenth century they became part of the total work-force, not a portion segregated by religion.

Denial of municipal employment and attempted reduction of their numbers through proselytism in public institutions only seemed to promote Irish group cohesion and solidarity with their church. Visible evidence of that bond was the growth and expansion of church-related religious and social institutions, which provided aid to both Protestants and Catholics in the city. And it was this continued growth which caused a blind rage within the Irish Protestant working-class segment of the city's population whose economic position had not improved. Having abandoned their Irish identity, they were continually manipulated by a mercantile and industrial elite to hate and discriminate against Irish Catholics. The schoolroom, the Orange Lodge, the press and some churches were utilized to keep ethnic hatred alive. Hatred as a class weapon in a quickly secularizing Protestant population was almost a necessity in the view of the prosperous, for profits would suffer if the working-class united. And, under elite patronage and direction, the Orange Lodge, the Masonic Order and the Oddfellows controlled the municipal council, the work place and the public schools. The Irish, a minority in all wards of the city, could win seats only when there were multiple candidates; and that occurred very rarely.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, Irish Catholics were grudgingly accepted as a distinctive element in the population of Toronto. However, coexistence did not necessarily imply social acceptance. Although the Orange Lodge had less influence in the federal and provincial arenas, it remained strong in the City of Toronto where Irish Catholics were still denied employ ment opportunities in some business concerns and municipally controlled positions. Irish Catholics had recourse to their own institutions of higher learning, and gradually there developed a small group of middle-class professionals who served their community. Most had moved from their ghettos into mixed neighbourhoods, but the mental ghetto was still a confinement, for ethno-religious privatism dictated a separate existence. Parish orientation of church, schools, societies and a complete set of social institutions and services made it possible for the group to live in the city, yet apart from it. The Catholic Irish had lost their fervour for overt displays of Irish nationalism and, therefore, no longer needed an ethnic press; instead the religiously oriented Catholic Register served as an ethnic voice. For, generally, to be Catholic still meant to be Irish in English-speaking Ontario. The distinctive Irish outlook on life and the city, the "Dearcadh", continued to govern the Irish community.

The wave of immigration into Toronto in the twentieth century changed the complexion of the city. The shrinking numbers of the charter population were disturbed by a fear of growing, alien elements in their midst and the secular attitude of the working class. In the face of this, Irish Catholics found it easier to obtain employment, and they used their ethno-religious privatism as a tool, never discussing religion or politics in the work place. By the mid-twentieth century, it could be said that Irish Tridentinism was the culture of the Irish, a mixed vehicle, dominantly Catholic but coloured green by the heritage of its priests and people, rigidly puritan, but softened by the "Dearcadh".

I . See particularly the various church censuses, Archdiocese of Toronto Archives .

2. See the record books and reports of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Toronto, Archdiocese of Toronto Archives.

3. Ibid.

4. See the various records of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Archdiocese of Toronto Archives and the Sisters of St. Joseph Archives; the institutional records in the Lynch Papers, Archdiocese of Toronto; in addition, see the records of St. Michael's College, Archives of St. Michael's College.

5. Ibid.

6. See the records of the various religious orders, as well as the parish and priests files, Archdiocese of Toronto Archives.

7. Ibid.

8. See the Hospital File in the Lynch Papers, Archdiocese of Toronto Archives.

9. Although William Thomas is generally looked upon as an Anglican because he was buried in an Anglican cemetery, he stated that he was a Catholic. His departure from the church had much to do with the loss of the contract for St. Michael's steeple. See St. Michael's Cathedral Papers, Archdiocese of Toronto Archives.

10. See the Charbonnel and Lynch Papers, Archdiocese of Toronto Archives.

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