History of the Cathedral

Foundation of the Diocese of Toronto and Bishop Power

Bishop Michael Power

Established in 1826, the Diocese of Kingston was split to form a new western diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Upper Canada in 1841. Father Michael Power, who was chosen as the first bishop, selected Toronto as the Episcopal seat. Bishop Power took possession of his See on June 26, 1842 at St. Paul’s Church. Built in 1822 as the first Roman Catholic parish church in Toronto, St. Paul’s was located at the corner of Power Street and Queens Street East.

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on October 17, 1804, Michael Power undertook his classical and theological studies in Quebec and was ordained in 1827. Father Power served as a missionary priest in Quebec before being appointed Vicar General of Montreal in 1839. Upon his consecration in 1842 he became the first English-speaking Bishop to be born in Canada.

In 1842, the Diocese of Toronto included approximately 25,000 Catholics served by 19 priests. At that time, the 3,000 parishioners in the City of Toronto were administered at St. Paul’s, the only Catholic church in the municipality. Bishop Power quickly determined Toronto needed a new church building to serve as the Cathedral for the rapidly growing Catholic population. By 1845, he had bought land from Captain John McGill for the Cathedral. Bishop Power paid £1,800 for the property of which £500 came from his own funds and balance from collections in the diocese. The land, which was located on the northern edge of the city and known as McGill Square, was part of Park Lot 7 in Concession 1 from Lake Ontario. There was some criticism initially that the property was too far removed from the settlement centre; however, the quickly expanding city soon encompassed the area.

Noted Toronto architect William Thomas was retained to prepare plans for the new church building. John Harper was named the contractor for the project, although in the style of medieval construction projects, components of the work were undertaken by the community labour. Excavation began on April 7, 1845, and a cornerstone laying ceremony was held on May 8. Bishop Power laid the cornerstone with a silver trowel, dedicated the cathedral to St. Michael and placed the diocese under the patronage of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Most Pure Heart of Mary. Sealed in the cornerstone were fragments of a stone pillar and pieces of the oak roof from the old Norman York Minster Cathedral in England donated by John Elmsley.

Cathedral Architecture, 1845

Bishop Power’s Burial Vault

Bishop Power did not live to see the completion of the building he had spearheaded. In January 1847, Power had departed on a six month-month trip to Europe to recruit priests for the growing Diocese of Toronto and to raise money for the Cathedral. The trip took him to Ireland where he witnessed the Great Famine (1845-1851) that would result in the emigration of so many Irish to Canada. Prior to his return, Bishop Power sent a pastoral letter read in all Catholic churches in and around Toronto, urging congregations to be prepared for the influx of Irish Famine victims. Between May and October 1847 over 38,000 emigrants arrived in Toronto. With a population of only 20,000, the influx strained local resources. Upon his return to Toronto, Bishop Power administered to the sick and dying, many of who were suffering from typhus. He contracted the fever and died on October 1, 1847. During Bishop Power’s Episcopate, the number of Catholics in the Diocese of Toronto approximately doubled from 25,000 in 1842 to 50,000 to 1847. During his short term, Bishop Power provided energetic leadership to the Catholic community.

He is remembered for his contributions to the new Diocese of Toronto including the establishment of its operational framework. The construction of St. Michael’s Cathedral and his compassion to the victims of Irish famine. Although the funeral of Bishop Power was held at St. Paul’s, he was buried in the crypt of the unfinished St. Michael’s Cathedral.

The Bishop’s Palace was built at the same time as the Cathedral to serve as the Episcopal Residence, Chancery Office and Cathedral Rectory. Also designed by William Thomas, the Bishop’s Palace was completed and blessed in 1846. The chapel in the rectory was dedicated to St. Ambrose on his feast day in 1846. St. Michael’s College was housed in the building from 1852 to 1856 before relocating to a site beside the University of Toronto.

Bishop de Charbonnel