Named after Patrick McEvay, a great-uncle who was a priest, Fergus Patrick McEvay was a descendant of Irish Catholics who had settled in central Upper Canada prior to the famine migrations of the late 1840s. His father, a merchant-farmer in Lindsay, died in 1855; the family subsequently moved east to Ennismore Township, although Fergus completed his elementary school education at the Catholic school in Lindsay. In 1871 he was living in the hamlet of Ennismore with the family of Thomas Lehane, a hotel-keeper and possibly a relative, and was working as a labourer and “general agent.” Three years later he entered St Michael’s College in Toronto, where he pursued a classical education. After graduating in 1878, he remained for a year of theological preparation, during which he won the Dowling Medal for an English essay. In 1879 he entered St Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee, Wis., but a year later he resumed his theological studies at St Michael’s. He completed his licence in theology at the Grand Séminaire de Montréal between 1880 and 1882.
On 9 July 1882 McEvay was ordained in Trenton, Ont., by James Vincent Cleary*, bishop of Kingston. On 25 July the young priest was loaned to the new diocese of Peterborough [see Jean-François Jamot*] and made pastor at Fenelon Falls, with mission churches at Bobcaygeon, Victoria Road, and Galway. In 1887 he was appointed rector of the Cathedral of St Peter-in-Chains in Peterborough. When Bishop Thomas Joseph Dowling* was transferred to the diocese of Hamilton in 1889, McEvay went with him and ceased his formal affiliation with the diocese of Kingston.
McEvay’s nine-year sojourn in Hamilton provided him with an opportunity to display his talents as an administrator. In 1890 he assumed the rectorship of St Mary’s Cathedral and became vicar-general of the diocese. In these positions he initiated the renovation of the 30-year-old cathedral, erected a mortuary chapel and vault at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, and assisted in the enlargement of St Joseph’s Hospital and the convent buildings of the Sisters of Loretto and the Sisters of St Joseph. As well, he coordinated the building of two new churches in Hamilton, St Lawrence (1890) and St Joseph’s (1894). In 1893 he had accompanied Dowling on his ad limina visit to Rome, during which McEvay was created a papal chamberlain. His administrative acumen was also recognized by Canada’s bishops when, in 1899, they successfully recommended him to succeed London’s bishop, Denis O’Connor, who had been transferred to Toronto.
McEvay recognized that the diocese of London reflected the religious and linguistic tensions that existed across Canada. His remarks upon his installation as bishop on 6 Aug. 1899 foreshadowed his lifelong preoccupation with Canada’s “four solitudes” – English, French, Protestant, and Catholic. To reassure the francophones in his diocese, he announced that “it shall be at all times my aim and desire as a good shepherd to provide for the spiritual interests of all.” Similarly, he invited Protestants to live in charity with his flock for the “peace and prosperity of this grand young country.” Unfortunately, McEvay’s vision, which publicly fostered cooperation between Catholics and Protestants who shared the English tongue, would strain relations with his French-speaking co-religionists.
In 1901 the diocese contained 59,383 Catholics. They constituted a tiny, and peaceable, minority in most counties in this overwhelmingly Protestant portion of the province, except in Kent and Essex where there was a sizeable francophone cluster. Although the census of 1901 revealed that nearly two-thirds of them were regular participants at church, McEvay was privately concerned that his flock was being exposed to subtle dangers: public schools, Protestant sewing circles, interfaith marriages, and secular fraternal associations. In November 1900 he had reported to apostolic delegate Diomede Falconio that the problems of “indirect protestant propaganda” were most acute in rural areas where the Catholic population was small and scattered. The most effective way to prevent seepage from Catholic ranks, McEvay informed Rome, was to erect more parishes, recruit more priests, and establish more separate schools. He hoped that Catholics would encourage “the best and modern methods of teaching by the Religious of both sexes, so that our children can compete successfully with the public schools.” Accordingly, during McEvay’s tenure new parishes were established in Windsor, Clinton, Dublin, Harrow, and Stratford, and in 1908 the Catholic Record (London) remarked that the diocese had a full complement of Catholic schools.
In his early episcopal career, the issue closest to McEvay’s heart was separate schools in Ontario. His ideas on this matter had been publicized as early as 1898, when he was rector of Hamilton’s cathedral. He used the occasion of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on the Manitoba school question, Affari vos, to reiterate in a sermon the Vatican’s position on the rights of Catholic schools and the means that ought to be used to secure these rights. Although the compromise effected in 1896 by Wilfrid Laurier and Thomas Greenway* had preserved some religious instruction, McEvay maintained that it was by no means a restoration of the rights assured Manitoba’s Catholics at the time of confederation. He used the pope’s call for “full justice for the minority” to incite Ontario’s Catholics to preserve their separate schools. McEvay’s speech also reveals his ongoing efforts to heal sectarian tension and to secure rights for Catholics by enlisting cooperation from sympathetic Protestants. He invited them “in the name of fair play” to support Manitoba’s minority, keeping in mind that a Protestant minority might find itself in “like circumstances” sometime.
The spirit of compromise extended to McEvay’s dealings with non-Catholic politicians during the separate school debates in Ontario. In 1904 Catholic leaders were shocked by the ruling of justice Hugh MacMahon that only teachers from Catholic religious orders who had been in Ontario prior to 1867 would be exempt from provincial requirements for teaching qualification. The crisis deepened in 1907 when John Seath, Ontario’s superintendent of education, had a bill introduced to ensure that religious teachers be properly certified. Archbishops Joseph-Thomas Duhamel* of Ottawa and Charles-Hugues Gauthier* of Kingston, both of whom were heavily dependent on teaching orders, feared that francophone religious teachers would withdraw to Quebec rather than attend normal schools in Ontario to obtain their certificates. Lay Catholic-school inspectors, however, saw the Seath bill as an opportunity to demonstrate that the quality of teaching in Catholic schools equalled that in the public system. McEvay’s actions, including his statements on the need to improve pedagogy in the Catholic schools in his diocese, reveal his sympathy for the latter position.
Despite the anxiety expressed by his episcopal colleagues, McEvay appeared calm. He realized that, given the numerically weak position of the Catholic population in the diocese and the strong public support for the bill, mediation rather than agitation was his best course of action. McEvay was supportive of the tenor of Archbishop O’Connor’s negotiations with the Ontario government, and was himself ready to effect a compromise with Premier James Pliny Whitney. In a private letter to Whitney in February 1907, McEvay asked that the more than 80 religious teachers in his diocese be exempt from further certification. He added that the retroactive certification of the teachers, who had distinguished themselves in the classroom, was complementary to the aim of the bill – to assure quality in teaching. He also informed the premier that he preferred to avoid agitation, but would expect “fair play” from the government; he reminded Whitney that Ontario’s practice towards Catholics should not pale in comparison with the “supreme . . . treatment of the minority” in Quebec.
Although negotiations failed to meet the demands of the more aggressive bishops, who insisted that Seath’s bill offer complete exemptions to religious teachers or be withdrawn entirely, McEvay seemed satisfied that, given the charged environment, Whitney was doing his utmost on behalf of Catholics. Inclined to accept the inevitability of certification, the bishop assured the premier, “Give us what you can and we will do our best to comply.” The bill passed in April 1907 but without significant concessions to the episcopal appeals. McEvay merely pushed the issue to its logical conclusion: if Ontario expected Catholic teachers to acquire the same qualifications as their public counterparts, they should be paid the same and separate schools should receive an equitable share of tax revenues.
McEvay had little time to press this issue as bishop of London. When Denis O’Connor resigned from the see of Toronto in 1908, McEvay, despite the efforts of some bishops to bring in Bishop David Joseph Scollard* from North Bay, was named his successor. (McEvay’s appointment on 13 April actually preceded O’Connor’s official resignation on 4 May.) Although his tenure in English-speaking Canada’s most influential diocese would last only three years and would be punctuated by periods of serious illness, it would be marked by a pioneering spirit and the laying of lasting foundations in the areas of immigrant churches, home missions, clerical education, and Catholic leadership in English-speaking Canada. McEvay had no illusions about the difficulties facing him. “Toronto is a difficult city to manage both for the Church and the State,” he confided to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, “and while I hope to be conciliatory no doubt there will be local religious storms sometimes.”
In 1910 the Catholic population of the archdiocese was roughly 70,000, of whom more than 43,000 lived in the Toronto area. This population was growing rapidly, in part because of increased Catholic migration to Ontario from southern and eastern Europe. For example, it is estimated that by 1911 Toronto’s Italian population, which was overwhelmingly Catholic, was as much as 8,000, depending on demands for seasonal labour. McEvay’s predecessor had done little to accommodate Catholic newcomers. Spurred by their growing presence and alarmed by Protestant proselytization of arrivals in the inner city, McEvay began a vigorous program to recruit priests and find houses of worship for immigrants. Despite problems of staffing and ethnic sensitivities, he oversaw the establishment of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish (1908) for the Italian community, the purchase of a church by philanthropist Eugene O’Keefe for the Poles (1911), and the erection of St Nicholas’s parish for Ukrainians of the Byzantine rite (1911, later renamed St Josaphat’s). These “national” parishes were formed in addition to new anglophone parishes in Welland, Perkinsfield, and Toronto (two), and missions in Brampton and Earlscourt (Toronto).
McEvay’s concern for immigrants was by no means restricted to his archdiocese. In 1908 he was a founder of the Catholic Church Extension Society, a fund-raising and recruiting association dedicated to building Catholic home missions across Canada. For much of its early life the CCES focused on providing priests, chapels, religious literature, and schools for immigrants. Under McEvay’s chancellorship it obtained a papal constitution from Pope Pius X, purchased the Catholic Register (Toronto), and gathered together a who’s who of Catholic laymen to sit on its board of governors. McEvay and the society’s president, the Reverend Alfred Edward Burke*, envisioned the CCES as a means by which the church could keep a “watchful eye” on all immigrants, while asserting an English-speaking Catholic presence over the mission territories of the Canadian west. The patriotic dimensions of the CCES are not to be underestimated. McEvay acknowledged that because of the difficulty of securing immigrant priests, the church would have to look to missionary priests who spoke the English language, “which is that of the majority in the West and . . . the language the foreigners must learn of necessity if they are to procure a livelihood.”
In other efforts to secure “the progress of the Church,” in Toronto and nationally, McEvay vigorously encouraged vocations to the priesthood. He secured a trust fund for the education of priests, sponsored local men to study in seminaries in Quebec and Europe, and then embarked on the establishment of his own seminary. With a generous donation from Eugene O’Keefe, he authorized the purchase of land on the Scarborough Bluffs, upon which St Augustine’s Seminary would be built, starting in 1910. For McEvay and his colleagues, its erection was a “national” enterprise and an expression of growing confidence among English-speaking Catholics in Canada; in terms of clerical formation, English-speaking priests could now be independent of American institutions and the Grand Séminaire de Montréal. McEvay’s seminary, which would open in 1913, embodied the hope that Toronto would be the centre of a great Catholic missionary movement.
Despite his labours on clerical education and immigrant aid, McEvay did not lose sight of Ontario’s Catholic schools. In an “elaborate” address to the first plenary council of Canadian bishops, at Quebec in 1909, he declared that “wise rulers do all in their power to help the Church in giving a proper religious education to the rising generation.” In 1909–10 he led the Ontario bishops in their negotiations with the Whitney government for a greater share of the school taxes paid by corporations and public utilities, and for the publication of a new series of Catholic textbooks. These negotiations were interrupted in January 1910 by demands for the extension of bilingual schools from the Congrès d’Éducation des Canadiens Français de l’Ontario. Because of the antagonism between anglophone and francophone Ontarians over these demands, the government’s negotiations with the bishops were suspended. By August the bishops had rejected the requests of the Congrès and upheld the government’s policy of permitting French-language education only in the early grades, until students were proficient enough in English to pursue their studies. McEvay was reported to have been adamant that English was to be taught in every school and other languages used “merely as a means to that end.” He and others feared that the hostile Protestant elements might use the bilingual schools issue to mount a massive attack on all separate schools, regardless of language. Personally, McEvay was furious. Sensitive to infringement upon episcopal jurisdiction, he repudiated both the French delegates at the Congrès, who bypassed the bishops as leaders of the province’s Catholics, and the “coterie of disgruntled Priests” who were intent on pressing anglophone grievances against the French, independently of the bishops.
The bilingual schools issue underscored the degree to which McEvay had become embroiled in the English-French tension evident in facets of church life in Canada. For example, Archbishop Adélard Langevin of St Boniface, Man., was angry about what he considered the intrusion of the CCES into his mission territory. He found such intrusion insulting, since it not only implied that he had done little for Catholic immigrants but it also challenged French control of missions west of Ontario. Langevin and many Quebec bishops considered the Toronto-based CCES to be little more than an agent of anglicization. In 1910 the tension between the linguistic groups heightened when Archbishop Louis-Nazaire Bégin* of Quebec and Bishop Joseph-Alfred Archambeault of Joliette resigned from the society’s board of governors. Immigration issues, when coupled with bilingual schools, forced McEvay to address Bégin with what he believed to be the facts. In two letters, one from him as chancellor of the CCES and the other as archbishop, he denied being anti-French and decried the scandalous public bickering between French-and English-speaking Catholics. The society helped all Catholics, regardless of language, including several francophone bishops on the prairies, but since English was the language of the future in western Canada, the society was obliged to provide services in this language to new Canadians. As archbishop, he warned Bégin in no uncertain terms that the church could not “be compromised to any narrow, national or sectional ambitions.”
On a similar theme, but referring directly to educational issues and episcopal leadership, McEvay remained resolute that French control in Ontario ought to be limited. About 1910 he went so far as to inform Pius X that the work of Ontario’s bishops had been hampered by a group of prelates and politicians, mostly from Quebec, “who seem to place race before religion and language before faith.” His assault on French Catholic nationalism was tempered by his assurances to the pope that the interests of French Canadians in his province could be served by its Anglo-Celtic bishops. Similarly, in 1911, he warned his successor in London, Michael Francis Fallon*, that the church should resist extreme positions that would exclude the French from the church in Ontario.
In the course of the debates over schools and immigration, McEvay not only quietly established himself as Canada’s English-speaking Catholic leader, he also restored the episcopal prominence of his archdiocese, which had become inward-looking under O’Connor. Even the vociferous Fallon, often identified as the mouthpiece of aggressive Irish Catholicism in Ontario, deferred to McEvay. In an effort to “kill” what he considered to be the injurious influence of French Canadian nationalism, McEvay created a tightly knit network among the ecclesiastical provinces of English-speaking Canada. Further to this aim, in 1909 McEvay, in cooperation with archbishops Edward Joseph McCarthy of Halifax and Gauthier of Kingston, hired Father Henry Joseph O’Leary* as their agent or procurator in Rome. With good connections in the Vatican’s Curia, O’Leary was able to keep his employers supplied with inside information, press issues of concern to English-speaking Catholics, and in many cases facilitate Rome’s decisions when it came to electing bishops in key dioceses. McEvay’s party could claim to have outflanked the Quebec hierarchy when Fallon was appointed to the diocese of London in 1909 and when Gauthier, the following year, won the coveted archdiocese of Ottawa, a see traditionally led by prelates from French Canada. In 1911, however, McEvay was disappointed by the success of “people tainted with this nationalist craze” who secured the appointment of Olivier-Elzéar Mathieu as bishop of Regina.
McEvay’s leadership at this level of ecclesiastical politics presents several contrasts. While he railed against French Canadian nationalism in the church, he was careful to distinguish between the “blind” nationalist priest and the apolitical French Canadian priest whom he would support, as in the case of his appointment of Manst priest Henri Brunet to Penetanguishene. Although he rejected the fusion of Catholicism and nationalism, his own episcopate was permeated by a new Catholic nationalism that emphasized the importance of the English language and the British connection. When, in 1908, the Catholic Record commented that McEvay promoted “sterling Canadianism,” it may have inadvertently been describing a prelate who had departed from old models of Irish nationalism and parochialism and had embraced the prospect of a greater role for English-speaking Catholics in 20th-century Canada.
What is remarkable about McEvay is that he carried out his political and administrative activities during his three years in Toronto despite recurring battles with illness. In the spring of 1910 he retreated to the salt baths at St Joseph Sanatorium in Mount Clemens, Mich., but resolutely continued to direct his affairs by correspondence. His pernicious anaemia, a blood disorder characterized by physical weakness, was serious enough that he revised his will in June. He summered in Newport, R.I., a guest of the bishop of Fall River, and recovered sufficiently to attend the International Eucharistic Congress in Montreal in September and to resume his duties in Toronto that autumn. Unfortunately, he had a relapse in January 1911 that left him too weak to attend to “any episcopal functions,” and he considered resigning. Dissuaded by his suffragans, Fallon and Dowling, McEvay asked Rome to appoint an auxiliary bishop to administer the archdiocese during his convalescence. This request went forward but for naught, since he died less than a month later, on 10 May at the age of 58.
McEvay was mourned and eulogized by dozens of prelates and by politicians of all religious stripes. At his funeral the crowds of the faithful and curious were so large that tickets had to be issued for an orderly viewing of his remains; he was eventually interred, appropriately enough, at St Augustine’s Seminary. Although his career had been cut short, McEvay was the first modern Catholic bishop of Toronto. His work with immigrants, his position on Catholic schools, and his push to create a seminary and recruit local men for the priesthood established firm foundations for his church as it headed into the 20th century. Moreover, his episcopate became a catalyst for a new assertiveness from English-speaking Catholics, with leadership emanating from the archdiocese of Toronto.
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