Biographical Sketch: Most Rev. Michael Power, D.D. First Bishop of Toronto
by Monsignor Vincent Foy
It seems appropriate to begin a series of biographical sketches with our first bishop, Michael Power. These notes are taken chiefly from “ The Jubilee Volume, Diocese of Toronto “, 1892.There are other sources, e.g. “Canada and its Provinces”, Vol. XI, Glasgow, Book & Co., Toronto, 1914. Bishop Power kept meticulous records, so our Toronto archives are replete with documentary evidence of his difficulties, dedication and zeal.
Michael Power was born at Halifax on October 17th, 1804, the son of a captain and owner of a vessel that sailed between Halifax and St. John’s, Newfoundland. When only 12 years of age, on the advice of Bishop Burke, he was sent to the Sulpician Junior Seminary in Montreal. He received most of his training in Montreal, but some of his theological education at the Seminary of Quebec.He was ordained for the service of Montreal Diocese on August 17, 1827, in his 23rd year. He served in several parishes with more and more responsibility, lastly at Laprairie, and while there was named Vicar General of Montreal.
In 1840, Bishop Macdonell of Kingston died and was succeeded by his coadjutor,Bishop Gaulin, who was in very poor health. Bishop Gaulin asked for a division of his immense diocese, which included all of Upper Canada, or the whole of what is now Ontario. He also asked for a coadjutor, and suggested Father Power. However, the latter was named bishop of a new diocese which would include all of Upper Canada east of Newcastle.The new diocese was created by Pope Gregory XVI on Dec. 17, 1841.
It is interesting to note that Fr. Power was free to select his episcopal see. What wisdom he showed in selecting Toronto instead of,say, London or Hamilton or Oshawa! Toronto had become a city in 1834 and in 1841 had a population of 13,000 including 3,000 Catholics. There was only one priest in the city, Fr. W. P. McDonagh, pastor of St. Paul’s parish. St. Paul’s Church became the temporary cathedral. In the whole diocese there were only nineteen priests.
Bishop Power was consecrated at Laprairie on May 8, 1842. The officiating bishop was Bishop Gaulin. The latter was with him when he arrived at Toronto Wharf on June 25th and was escorted by a large group to St. Paul’s.
As a first step towards the organization of the new diocese, Bishop Power called a Synod in October, 1842. Sixteen of his nineteen priests were there. The other three were impeded by illness or distance. It was preceded by a five-day retreat given by Fr. Peter Chapelle, S.J., recently stationed in Montreal. Two decisions of the Synod call for special mention.First, the diocese was dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Second, a college was to be set up at Sandwich which would be a center for Indian Missions. This did not materialize until after the death of Bishop Power.It was first under the Jesuit Fathers and then under the Basilian Fathers from France.
A major project of our first bishop was the erection of a suitable cathedral.There was a weekly penny collection for this purpose at St. Paul’s. After much deliberation, though some thought it too far from the city, a whole block of land, a market garden, was purchased for 1800 Pounds.It was to be the site of the cathedral, the Palace, and Loretto Convent.Excavations began on April 7, 1845, when a large force of volunteer workers assembled with their teams of horses. Work progressed so rapidly that the cornerstone was blessed by the bishop on May 8th. Present were ten priests and a large gathering of the faithful. Concurrently, St. Michael’s Palace was built, and was blessed on Dec.7, 1846.
Pope Gregory XVI died on June 9th 1846 and Pope Pius IX was elected on June 16th, 1846. Bishop Power promulgated in Toronto the Jubilee proclaimed by the new pope on the occasion of his elevation to the papal Throne.
In January 1847 Bishop Power went to Europe in search of priests. He now had only 25 for his vast area. While in Ireland he was greatly disturbed at seeing the poor victims of the famine. It is said that upon his return he had a permanent look of sadness.
Then the effects of the Irish famine were seen in Toronto. Fever sheds were set up to take care of the victims dying of typhus. Over 800 died there. Bishop Power could muster only three or four priests to care for them. One night at midnight Bishop Power hastened to the sheds in answer to the call of a woman who was dying. The next day he felt symptoms of the dread disease. He died a few days later, on Oct. 1st, 1847.
The funeral mass was celebrated at St. Paul’s Church because there was yet no roof on the cathedral. In testimony of their love and respect thousands lined Queen St. as Bishop Power’s body was taken to St. Michael’s Cathedral, where it was interred in the crypt.
At one time there was an inscription in English directly over the spot in the crypt where a cement casing held Bishop Power’s remains. It was on the north side of the nave near the Blessed Virgin altar. It read:
Underneath Lie the Remains of:
Most Rev. Dr. Michael Power
Born in Halifax, N.S.
First Bishop of Toronto on the 8th of May, 1842
He Laid Down His Life For His Flock On The 1st Of October, 1847,
Being The 42nd Year Of His Age. R.I.P.