Bishop de Charbonnel, Second Bishop of Toronto
By Monsignor Vincent Foy
Bishop Michael Power, first bishop of Toronto, died of typhus on October 1st, 1847. The first choice of a bishop to succeed him was Fr. John Larkin, an English priest who had been a professor at the Grand Seminary in Montreal. In 1840 he severed his relations with the Sulpicians and became a Jesuit. The Bulls of his appointment were issued in 1848 but Fr. Larkin refused to accept them.
The second choice for Toronto was that great and holy churchman Armand Francis Marie, Comte de Charbonnel. He belonged to a distinguished family whose titles went back to the second crusade in the twelfth century. His father saved the two daughters of Louis XV, aunts of Louis XVI, by arranging their escape from France during the Revolution.
Bishop de Charbonnel had been trained at the Sulpician Seminary in Paris, and was ordained in 1825. He was for a time professor of Dogma and Holy Scripture at Lyons. In 1833 he prevented a riot at Lyons and was offered the Cross of the Legion of Honor, which he refused. He came to Montreal in 1839 and two years later went for a year to Baltimore to learn English. It is of interest that he gave the priests’ retreat in Toronto in 1845. During the typhus epidemic of 1847 he worked tirelessly among the sick and was stricken himself. He was at death’s door for some time. On his recovery he returned to France.
Bishop de Charbonnel was named bishop of Toronto on March 15, 1850. He went to Rome and begged the Holy Father to withdraw his appointment, but the Holy Father insisted and so he was consecrated bishop by Pope Pius IX on Trinity Sunday, May 26, 1850, in the Sistine Chapel.
Arriving in Toronto on Sept. 21, 1850, Bishop de Charbonnel took formal possession of his See on the following Sunday. At that time there were 8000 Catholics in Toronto in a population of 30,000. There were two Churches: St. Paul’s and the Cathedral, served by three priests: Frs. Carroll, Harkin and Fitzgerald. There was one religious community: the Sisters of Loretto.
Among the many problems he faced, the new bishop found that there was a heavy debt on St. Michael’s. The cathedral was still largely unfurnished, with bare white walls and plain glass windows. The bishop retired one mortgage of over $10,000 with his personal funds, all he possessed. There was another debt of about $60,000. To help reduce this debt the bishop visited many places in Canada and the U.S. asking for help for the poor diocese of Toronto.
With great zeal and perseverance Bishop de Charbonnel laboured for the spiritual needs of the diocese. In 1851 he brought from Philadelphia four Sisters of St. Joseph, to take care of the orphans, the poor and the aged. He wrote in 1852: “These Sisters of charity have charge of 55 orphans, visit the sick and help the poor”. In 1856 began the building of the House of Providence. In 1851 also, he brought to Toronto four Christian Brothers to take charge of the Separate Schools. In 1852 he brought from France four Basilian Fathers, the mustard seed which was to develop into St. Michael’s College.
It can be truthfully said that we owe our Separate School system to Bishop de Charbonnel. He fought vigorously and persistently for justice for our Catholic schools. One injustice was that if there was even one Catholic teacher in a public school, the Separate School in that area was forced to close. Dr. Egerton Ryerson, Superintendent of Schools, predicted that by this means Catholic Schools in Upper Canada would cease to exist. Bishop de Charbonnel was instrumental in getting this injustice removed, but others remained. An interesting account of Bishop de Charbonnel’s crusade for Catholic education is a chapter entitled “The Growth of Separate Schools” in “The Municipality of Toronto, a History”, Vol. 2, The Dominion Publishing Co., Toronto, 1923.
Part of the immense burden on Bishop de Charbonnel was lifted when the diocese of London was created in 1855, and the diocese of Hamilton in 1856.
Long hoping to live a more contemplative life and believing that Toronto would be better served by a bishop whose first language was English, Bishop de Charbonnel felt his prayers and petitions were answered when Father John Joseph Lynch, President of the College of Holy Angels, Niagara Falls, was chosen and consecrated coadjutor on November 20, 1859. Bishop de Carbonnel resigned his See on April 26, 1860, and was named Bishop of Sozopolis. Shortly after he returned to France.
It is commonly thought that when he resigned as bishop of Toronto, Bishop de Charbonnel retired to a monastery for the rest of his life. One account reads: “Bishop de Charbonnel, who for many years had longed for the silence and tranquility of monastic life, tendered his resignation to Pius IX and entered the austere Order of the Capuchins. He died, almost a nonagerian, in 1891”, (“Canada and Its Provinces”, Publishers’ Association of Canada, Ltd., 1914, Vol. X1, p.61).
The facts are somewhat different. The bishop entered the Capuchins and after his novitiate was sent to Lyons. There he was entrusted with the work of promoting the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Later he was appointed Auxiliary to the Cardinal Archbishop of Lyons. He conducted more than fifty priest retreats, besides those to religious communities, missions in parishes, confirmations in six dioceses and ordinations in Lyons and Annonay. He represented his Archbishop at the first Vatican Council and while in Rome was named Archbishop of Sozopolis by Pope Leo XIII.
Archbishop de Charbonnel continued his active labours until he was 85. Then he devoted himself to prayer and to hearing confessions in the Capuchin monastery at Crest. The Golden Jubilee volume of Toronto Archdiocese gives this account of his death: “The end came and found him still at work. On Holy Saturday, when he had spent several hours in the confessional, he was taken ill. On the following day, Easter Sunday, March 29, 1891, the soul of this venerable, saintly prelate passed to its reward for the long and useful life worn out in the glory of God and the salvation of his neighbour”. There at Crest he was buried in the monastery vault.
In Toronto, the Sisters of St. Joseph have not forgotten the founder of the House of Providence. In a corridor of the Providence Health Centre is a picture of their early Superiors who devoted their lives to the poor and disabled and aged. At the beginning of this group of venerable Sisters is a picture of Bishop de Charbonnel. We also ought to remember him, for all of us owe a debt of gratitude to this holy prelate. In the midst of all his problems in Toronto, he kept his peace and even spiritual joy. He wrote while in Toronto: “If I could laugh in English as well as I can in French, my gaiety would be excessive”.