A refugee crisis in 1851 brought a new religious minority to Toronto.
Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
Toronto in the 1850s was a city that had suddenly grown from an influx of refugees from the Great Famine (an Gorta Mór, the great hunger) in Ireland. A city of 20,000 in 1847 saw the arrival of over 38,000 Irish immigrants escaping the famine. By 1851, Toronto’s population had settled somewhat, at 30,775 inhabitants. The recent arrivals had fled poverty and starvation in Ireland, but many had died on the ships taking them to North America or in typhus sheds set up near the harbour.
The idea behind the House of Providence was to provide a safe bed and a meal for the poor of the city. It was almost always full and grew nearly four times its original size to house 700 people, including the elderly, the sick, orphans, and recent immigrants. The building, designed by the architect William Hay, was on Power Street, at what is now the Don Valley Parkway exit to Adelaide and Richmond.
According to a historical pamphlet about the House of Providence, written by Mabel Pillar for the Sisters of St. Joseph, the early years were a struggle, and the sisters went door to door to collect money and washing, which they were paid to do. She also tells a story of a time the sisters were low on money and couldn’t afford flour.
So the Sisters of St. Joseph prayed and they prayed. Meanwhile, a farmer was returning from a mill where he had brought his wheat to be ground into flour. When his team of horses approached the gate of the House of Providence, they slowed down and refused to pass the gate. The good farmer then let them turn in. Needless to add, the farmer was welcomed with a refreshing cup of tea… and the Sisters got their flour!
Bishop de Charbonnel was concerned by the poverty he saw in Toronto, but also but what he felt was the under-education of his Catholic flock. During his tenure as bishop, he brought many religious orders, including the Sisters of St. Joseph, to Toronto to minister, teach, and serve the needy. He opened organizations, including the Toronto chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul society. He also established St. Michael’s School, and clashed with superintendent for education, Egerton Ryerson, over how Catholic schools should be funded and operated. He also oversaw the building of 23 new churches. When he arrived, the city of Toronto had only one church, at Queen and Power. St. Michael’s Cathedral was unfinished and in debt, but de Charbonnel established the Cathedral Loan Fund to finance its construction. He also managed to attract new priests to the area to staff the new churches and tend to the growing Catholic population, many of them Irish immigrants or their descendants.
In 1962, the House of Providence moved to a former farm owned by the sisters and became a care home for the elderly and invalid. The Sisters of St. Joseph were the sponsors of what is now Providence Healthcare until 1998.
Two Heritage Toronto plaques telling the story of the House of Providence now stand at Queen and Power, near the original site and close to where the single Catholic church in Toronto once stood.
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