Father John James Hay, First Toronto Priest
By Monsignor Vincent Foy
In “A Calendar of the Deceased Bishops, Priests and Deacons of the Archdiocese of Toronto”, compiled by Robert Joseph Scollard, C.S.B., 1981, there is this entry: “Hay, John James, b. 24 June 1818; ord. 21 May, 1842: d. 18 Feb. 1849. Father Hay was the first priest ordained for the service of the new Diocese of Toronto, established Dec. 17th,, 1841. His short life of dedicated service is surely of interest to all Toronto priests.
From a number of sources we are able to put together a brief sketch of the life of this precursor to many hundreds of priests who have been ordained for this Diocese.
John James Hay was born in the County of Glengarry, the most eastern county of Ontario, son of William Hay and Elizabeth McDonnell. As a young man he attended St. Raphael’s Seminary, attached to the Church of St. Raphael in Glengarry. Other early students at St. Raphael’s were a Father George Hay, Father Michael Brennan of Belleville, and Father Edward Gordon of Hamilton. St. Raphael’s Seminary is now but history. St. Raphael’s Church is in ruins, but has been designated as an historical site. There is a group called “Friends of the Ruins of St. Raphael’s”.
J.J. Hay completed his studies at the Propaganda in Rome and the Grand Seminary in Montreal.. The newly appointed bishop of Toronto, Michael Power, appointed him as his secretary on May 9th, 1842. On May 21st of the same year he ordained him to the priesthood in Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal. Three other priests were ordained on this occasion, none of them for Toronto Diocese.
A day after his twenty-fourth birthday, on June 25th, 1842, young Father Hay arrived in Toronto with Bishop Power and both took up residence at St. Paul’s rectory, the only one in Toronto. St. Paul’s Church records have many proofs of his residence there. He was the recorder of the first Diocesan Synod, held at St. Paul’s in October of 1842. In fact, nearly all the early records of Toronto Diocese are in his neat handwriting. Many letters of Bishop Power are co-signed J.J. Hay, Sec..
Father Hay is listed among those present for the laying of the corner stone of St. Michael’s Cathedral on May 8th, 1845. He was probably present also for the blessing of St. Michael’s Palace on December 7th, 1846. It was in that year 1846 that he became the first Archdeacon of Toronto Diocese.
Early in 1847, Bishop Power went to Europe, hoping to raise funds for St. Michael’s Cathedral and looking for much-needed priests for Toronto Diocese. Before leaving he named two priests as Administrators: Archdeacon Hay and Father W. P. MacDonald, his Vicar General, who had come from Ireland in 1843.Bishop Power remained in Europe for nearly six months.
In 1847 over eight hundred Irish immigrants died of typhoid fever in Toronto.
The dying were cared for spiritually by Bishop Power, Father Hay and the only other priest living in Toronto, Father Kirwin. Father Hay’s health was already precarious and he was not able to do much. Father Carroll was brought in from Niagara and Father John O’Reilly from Dundas. They were soon exhausted from tending the sick in the fever sheds, hospitals and homes and the bulk of the burden fell on Bishop Power, who died of typhus on October 1st, 1847
It was nearly three years before Bishop de Charbonnel came to Toronto to succeed Bishop Power. During much of this period Archdeacon Hay, although in deteriorating health, was the Administrator of the Diocese. He died on February 19th, 1849, at the age of thirty. Until the arrival of Bishop de Charbonnel on September 21, 1850, the Administrator was Very Rev. John Carroll.
The Golden Jubilee Volume of the Diocese of Toronto, published in 1892, gives this assessment of Father Hay: “Father Hay was a model priest, and his early death deprived the Diocese of one who had, to all appearances, a career of usefulness and distinction before him”.
Fittingly, when we realize that most future Toronto priests would be ordained in St. Michael’s Cathedral, Father John James Hay was interred in the underground crypt there. For many years there was a fine marble tablet marking the place of his burial. R.I.P.