Archbishop Denis O’Connor, Fifth Bishop and Fourth Archbishop of Toronto
By Monsignor Vincent Foy
Archbishop Denis O’Connor, who followed Archbishop John Walsh, was born on a farm in Pickering Township, Ontario, on March 28, 1841. He was the only Toronto Archbishop to be born in the present area of the Toronto Archdiocese. He was the eldest of three children, though after his mother’s early death his father remarried and had ten children by his second wife.
As an infant, Denis O’Connor was brought to St. Paul’s Church in Toronto for baptism, since there was no priest nearer his home. After attending a rural school he went as one of the first residents to St.Michael’s College in September, 1852, which had just opened on Queen Street. He entered the Basilian Novitiate in 1859, was professed in 1860, and in 1861 was sent to France, where he studied for two years before he was forced to return because of tuberculosis. He was ordained on December 8th, 1863, but immediately sent on sick leave. His stepmother in Pickering nursed him back to health.
Late in 1864 he returned to St. Michael’s College for light work, filling in for absent teachers, but in 1867 his health failed again and he spent most of that year on sick leave. In 1868 he was well enough to become the acting Superior of St. Michael’s College.
Assumption College at Sandwich had been closed for some time. Fr. O’Connor was sent there as its Superior and second founder in 1870. He nursed the College into flourishing health and taught there for twenty years. At the same time he acted as pastor at Sandwich and Amherstburg. In 1888 Pope Leo X111 conferred on him an honorary Divinity degree.
A contemporary at Assumption College gave this description of Fr. O’Connor: “He was made of sterling stuff. He was physically handsome and mentally vigorous, kind of heart, severely strict in discipline towards himself and others. He was a born leader and a prudent administrator”. Another said: “His word was law and that law was obeyed or he knew the reason why. He lived frugally and worked industriously. He guided his life by three rules: prayer, work, and the instruction of the young”.
Bishop of London
Widely respected, Fr. Denis O’Connor was named Bishop of London, Ontario, on July 18th, 1890. He was consecrated in St. Peter’s Cathedral, London, on October 19th, 1890, by Archbishop Walsh of Toronto, Bishop John Foley of Detroit, and Bishop Thomas Dowling of Hamilton. During the nine years he served there he established three new parishes and St. Joseph’s Hospital in London. He was not an innovator and believed his principal duty was to strengthen existing institutions and so build up the Church and family life.
Archbishop of Toronto
On January 27th, 1899, Bishop O’Connor was appointed Archbishop of Toronto. He did not feel equal to the new responsibilities and petitioned the Holy See to remain in London, but this was refused. He was installed in St.Michael’s Cathedral on May 3rd, 1899, in the presence of the Archbishop of Kingston, the Bishops of Hamilton, Peterborough, Alexandria, Sherbrooke, St.Hyacinthe, Detroit and Buffalo and about one hundred and fifty priests.
Archbishop O’Connor took sick shortly after his installation, but on his recovery began nine years of dedicated labor. He was a relentless disciplinarian, strict with himself as with others, and this led to many difficulties.
In 1900, Archbishop O’Connor issued “Regulations to be Observed to Ensure Uniformity and Good Order”. These were thirty-five rules covering four areas: clerical discipline, liturgical uniformity, effective catechesis and adherence to Church Law by the laity in sacramental and social matters.
Shortly after his installation, the Archbishop also implemented a program to educate and improve discipline in the clergy. There were to be biannual meetings, including examinations for all priests ordained less than five years.
When Pope Pius X issued his Motu Proprio of 1903 standardizing liturgical music and reinstating Gregorian Chant, the Archbishop tried to implement this reform in all parishes, but this order was not always obeyed.
Other disciplinary steps were unpopular in the extreme. The Archbishop disapproved of Church picnics, public processions, parish excursions, and entertainments, which he considered denigrating to the truth of the Faith. His disfavor of picnics was often ignored. He also banned new societies such as the Knights of Columbus. They were not allowed until the time of his successor.
It was Archbishop O’Connor’s opposition to mixed marriages which brought him the greatest opposition. He considered that only the gravest reasons merited a dispensation. In his tenure mixed marriages dropped from 15% of marriages to 2.45%.
The policy of the Archbishop on mixed marriages, approved by some, was opposed by many. Father James Cruise, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, and Father Frederick Rohleder, rector of St.Michael’s Cathedral, and some others, incurred the wrath of the Archbishop by appealing directly to the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Sbaretti, for dispensations. The latter granted some without notifying Archbishop O’Connor. He complained to Rome and tried to resign in 1904 and again in 1905. The Holy See rejected these applications, assuring the Archbishop that his vigilance was appreciated. A third attempt in 1907 was finally accepted and on May 4th, 1908, he departed as Archbishop and was named Archbishop of Laodicea.
Archbishop O’Connor spent his final years in a monastic way of life at St.Michael’s Novitiate in Toronto. He read no newspapers and had few contacts with the outside world. To some he was a saint and a martyr. He was certainly humble and deeply spiritual, caught in a current of rapid spiritual change. As Professor Mark McGowan said in a paper on Archbishop O’Connor, “He was aware of his shortcomings, warning Rome from the beginning that he was not the man for Toronto. In the end his own words testify to this: ‘I am sorry to state that all my anticipations concerning my position must have been fully realized’”.
Archbishop O’Connor outlived his successor, Archbishop McAvoy, and died on June 30th, 1911. He was buried in the Basilian plot, at Mt. Hope Cemetery, Toronto.
1. There are many references to Archbishop O’Connor on the Internet, including the websites for the Diocese of London and the Archdiocese of Toronto.
2. “The Story of St. Paul’s Parish, Toronto, 1822-1922”, pp.212-213.
3. “The Catholic Restoration: Pope Pius X, Archbishop O’Connor and Popular Catholicism in Toronto, 1899-1908”, by Mark G. McGowan, Canadian Catholic Historical Association, Historical Studies, 84 (1987), pp. 69-91.