Personal Memories of Msgr. Vincent Foy: “Saving St. Michael’s Palace”

The following article was originally published in Emeritus.

Saving St. Michael’s Palace

By Monsignor Vincent Foy

St. Michael’s Palace, the rectory for St. Michael’s Cathedral, has a long and glorious history. That long history nearly came to an end in the spring of 1961. But before speaking of that, I take a brief look at the Palace’s past.

St. Michael’s Palace, as is called, was built at the same time as the Cathedral, but finished before it. It was blessed on December 7th, 1846, and was to be the Episcopal residence, Chancery Office and cathedral rectory. First to move in were Bishop Michael Power and his secretary, Fr. J. J. Hay.

Every bishop or archbishop of Toronto has lived at the Palace, had offices there or dined there. It has been the residence of a long and distinguished list of rectors, from the Very Rev. John Carroll in 1848 to Msgr. S. Bianco as of this writing in 2005. Four rectors became bishops: Very Rev. John Walsh (rector 1861- 1864) later Archbishop of Toronto; Very Rev.John Jamot (rector 1864-1874) later first Bishop of Peterborough, Fr. Martin Johnson (rector 1936-1937) later Archbishop of Vancouver, and Fr. Pearce Lacey (rector 1966-1979) later Auxiliary Bishop of Toronto.

Cardinals, and countless bishops and priests have been Palace guests. Cardinal Mindszenty and his secretary, I recall, dined there shortly before the Cardinal’s arrest and torture. Again, he was a guest after his mass in the cathedral in 1973. In 1951 a guest at the Palace was Msgr. Giovanni Montini, Pro Secretary of State, later Pope Paul VI. I recall that Cardinal McGuigan asked me to show Msgr. Montini around our matrimonial court offices. This I did. I have often said that if I knew he was to become pope I would have offered him coffee and biscuits.

In 1984, after ceremonies in the cathedral, Pope John Paul II was escorted to the Palace. Other distinguished guests were Msgr. Fulton Sheen, later Bishop Sheen and Fr. Patrick Peyton, the “Rosary Priest”, when he was promoting the Family Rosary in Toronto. One late evening he and I sat in the kitchen while he had a bowl of shredded wheat. He had missed his supper. I was much impressed by his humility and dedication. Msgr. Ronan founded St. Michael’s Choir School in the Palace in 1937.

This rather disordered list gives but a glimpse of the ecclesiastical notables who lived or were guests at the Palace. I do not detail the many momentous ecclesial decisions, appointments and sometimes little tragedies that took place within its walls. An interesting note is that in the excellent website for St. Michael’s Cathedral, we learn that St. Michael’s Palace is the oldest building in Toronto still dedicated to its original purpose – rectory of St. Michael’s Cathedral.

My own experience with the Palace began in the summer of 1940. After my first year of studying Canon Law at Laval University in Quebec City I was assigned to work in the Chancery Office as assistant to Msgr. Hugh Callaghan, the Chancellor, and to live at the Palace. I was also to be the notary in the Archdiocesan marriage tribunal. My desk was the end of the large desk of the Chancellor.

My first day at the Palace was the last day of Fr. Gregory Kelly, the rector, just appointed pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish. The next day Fr. Alfred McQuillen arrived as rector. The following summer I lived in the Palace as well and on completion of my studies in 1942 lived for most of a year in Blessed Sacrament rectory and went to the Chancery each day by streetcar. In the spring of 1943 I took up residence in the Palace and with the exception of two years spent at Hamilton Mountain San and San Gabriels near Saranac Lake, was there until June of 1966. At that time I held the record for the number of years lived at the Palace, but then Msgr., later Bishop, Thomas Fulton later broke record. In this period, Father Peter Hendriks succeeded Msgr. McQuillen as rector and Msgr. Bernard Kyte, who died in 1966, succeeded him.

It would take a book, as the saying goes, to recount even a portion of the events and changes at the Palace during my time. There was a constant change of faces at the long dining room table, the great majority no longer with us. I recall only two members of the laity invited to the table. About 1943 my cousin Freddy Cartan, about 22 years old and in Air Force uniform, came to say good-bye to me before going overseas. An Air Force friend accompanied him. Archbishop McGuigan saw them and invited them to lunch. About three weeks later Freddy was killed in his first bombing raid over Hamburg. He was the tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber and although the plane arrived safely in England, Freddy was mortally wounded.

No one appeared at the dining room table except in full clerical dress. To that I remember one exception. Fr. Matt Schnitzler, my mother’s first cousin, ordained about 1913, was the first secular priest of Edmonton Archdiocese. He was a guest at the Palace for a few days in 1948. Once he came down to the dining room wearing slippers and a black shirt over which was a pair of rustic suspenders. He seemed completely unaware of the mild sensation he caused.

Living conditions at the Palace were somewhat primitive compared to today. On the top floor there were three very small rooms and four large ones. Only one of these, Fr. Cantillon’s room, had its own bathroom. The washroom opposite the top of the stairs served six priests. Fr. Cantillon had a phone in his room; the rest of us had the use of a phone in the corridor, near one of the small rooms. We could phone out through the switchboard until 9 p.m. For incoming calls each had his own signal. Mine was one long ring and three short ones. I lived at various times in all three very small rooms. When Fr. Cantillon went to Mercy Hospital, I had the great luxury of occupying his former quarters, replete with phone and bath. Here I once entertained two then good friends, Fr. Alex Carter, Montreal pastor, later Bishop Carter and his younger brother, Canon Emmett Carter. Later Cardinal Carter, then Director of Catechetics in Montreal as I was in Toronto. I recall taking them to a fine dinner at the Ports of Call restaurant on Yonge Street.

In 1957, when I was named Presiding Judge of the Toronto Provincial Matrimonial Tribunal and Domestic Prelate, I was given the two room suite on the second floor facing Church Street and opposite the top of the stairs. I remained in these prestigious accommodations until my departure in 1966.

In 1961, because of his ailing health, Cardinal McGuigan was given a Coadjutor Archbishop in the person of Archbishop Philip Pocock, Archbishop of Winnipeg. Until he could make other arrangements Archbishop Pocock was to live at St. Michael’s Palace, in the visiting bishop’s rooms on the second floor.

The rector, Msgr. Bernard Kyte, decided that the whole Palace should be spruced up in preparation for the arrival of the new guest. My own quarters on the second floor were given wall to wall carpeting. I was given a new reclining chair and other improvements. The walls of the Palace were repainted and even the baseboards were redone, after removal of the old varnishing,

It was my custom, after the morning’s work at the marriage tribunal offices on Bond St., to retire to my quarters at about five minutes to noon to wash up prior to lunch in the Palace dining room.

One morning during the Palace renovations, I climbed the stairs to the second floor and in front of me, just outside my door, white smoke was coming up between the boards, not just in one place, but in several.

I rushed to my phone and called Mary Downey at the switchboard. I said “Mary, call the Fire Department at once; there is a fire up here.” Instead of calling emergency, Mary rushed up the stairs to see what I was talking about. When she saw the smoke she went screaming down the stairs to the front office and put in the call.

Within minutes firemen came up the stairs. It was sloppy spring weather and they came into my room leaving large dirty boot-marks on my new rug. They took axes to the lower wall of my study inside and out and to the corridor floor and turned on the hoses. It was not long before all trace of the fire was extinguished.

What had happened was that a worker on the main floor, using a blowtorch, was burning off the old varnish on the baseboards and a spark had somehow got into the inner space. There is no doubt that in a few more minutes the whole Palace would have gone up in flames. The fire-chief remarked “That was a close one”.

That is the story of why we still have that glorious repository of history and memories called St. Michael’s Palace.

For a printable version of “Saving St. Michael’s Palace” click here.

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