Before 1887, francophones in Toronto didn't have a place to worship in their language.
Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
International Francophonie Day is March 20, and celebrations are happening across Canada to mark the occasion. In 1891, 29 per cent of the population of Canada spoke French. In 2011, 22 per cent of the country reported French as their mother tongue, while 30 per cent said they could conduct a conversation. And, of course, French is one of Canada’s two official languages, and Canada is a member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, whose secretary general is our former governor general Michaëlle Jean. But, before 1887, francophones in Toronto didn’t have a place to worship in their language.
At the time, most French-speaking Canadians were Roman Catholic, and they would attend services at English Catholic churches, which would invite French priests to give mass on occasion. But in the 1880s, more French families began to arrive from Montreal to work in the growing manufacturing sector. They weren’t satisfied with the arrangement and felt isolated in a mostly Protestant city. They missed singing hymns in their own language. The Archdiocese of Montreal heard the complaints and sent a new priest, who had only been ordained three years earlier, to respond.
Father Philippe Lamarche arrived in Toronto from the St. Louis de France church in Montreal and founded the Sacré-Coeur Parish on Saint Jean-Baptiste Day, June 24, 1887. The new congregation, of 130 families, didn’t have a church yet and used a chapel in St. Michael’s Cathedral to hold French services. The next year, they bought an old Protestant church on King Street. It was the first French Catholic parish, and the first institution for the French community, in the city.
By the 25th anniversary in 1912, there were 250 families, and the parish held a packed celebration that included giving Father Lamarche vestments specially made in France. They also had an afternoon picnic on Centre Island and an evening banquet downtown, as reported by the Globe and Mail.
Father Lamarche stayed on as the parish priest at Sacré-Coeur until his death in 1924. His nephew, Edouard Lamarche, became the parish priest and served until his death in 1962. During his time guiding the congregation, the parish grew and moved to its current location at Sherbourne and Carlton in 1937. The Toronto Star reported in its “Man About Town” column by Claud Pascoe that the organ and some of the marble in the newly built church used to be in Sir John Eaton‘s home.
The church expanded to fit a growing congregation in 1951. Since the 1960s, the number of congregants has shrunk. For many years, Sacré-Coeur mainly served Quebecers and Acadians living in Toronto, as well as European immigrants. In recent years, more French-speaking immigrants from Africa have arrived at the church.
The parish, apart from being a spiritual centre for the French Catholic community, also served as the home for cultural clubs. It was also the first home of the École Sacré-Coeur, a French Catholic school that still exists today, which the first Father Lamarche started in the basement of the church in 1891.
In 2011, the French History Society and Association of Francophone Communities Ontario in Toronto pushed for the area around Sacré-Coeur Parish to be designated the French Quarter of Toronto.
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