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O’GRADY, WILLIAM JOHN, Roman Catholic priest and journalist; b. in Ireland; d. about 18 Aug. 1840 in Pickering, Upper Canada.

There was nothing ordinary about William John O’Grady – not his abilities, not his personality, and certainly not his career. According to his own testimony, he was ordained a priest around 1816 and later served as secretary to the bishop of Cork – a position from which he may have been dismissed, if a statement by his bête noire, Bishop Alexander McDonell, is to be believed. Some time in the late 1820s he and his brother John became attached to disbanded British troops who, under the command of Connell James Baldwin* and with William O’Grady serving as chaplain, emigrated to Brazil. What happened once they arrived is uncertain. One report maintains that efforts to enlist them in the Brazilian army provoked a mutiny; another says that they revolted when the authorities conscripted them to clear land. In later years McDonell was to claim that the enraged troops had turned on the O’Gradys, forcing them to flee Brazil. According to John O’Grady, however, the British ambassador requested him to organize an emigration of the British troops, who were in a “deplorable state.” He complied and persuaded them to settle in Upper Canada. Five hundred men sailed from Rio de Janeiro on 26 July 1828.

Curiously, William O’Grady had arrived in Upper Canada by June. He immediately presented himself to McDonell in Glengarry and, before the astonished bishop could digest his testimonials, departed abruptly. He made his way to York, where he began acting as an assistant to the bishop’s nephew Angus MacDonell, pastor of St Paul’s. McDonell, eager to enlist Irish priests to serve the burgeoning Irish population, agreed to O’Grady’s repeated requests that the church be turned over to him. The appointment, however, was not made official until January 1829, a delay that caused O’Grady some annoyance.

Once in charge of the church, O’Grady showed himself to be a man of considerable intelligence and charm who mingled easily with the grandees of York, including Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne*. He also proved to be an extraordinarily able and energetic priest, brimming with schemes for the advancement of Catholicism. His missionary travels took him to several townships in the vicinity of York. He constantly petitioned the government for land on which to build churches; he supervised the raising of funds for a parochial school in York and later oversaw its construction; he lobbied for financial assistance for the building of a convent; he suggested clerical conferences to control the “waywardness & impetuosity” of some priests. McDonell regarded O’Grady as a godsend and in January 1830 vested him with the “power and control” of a vicar general. O’Grady claimed not to wish an official appointment to this post, and indeed it was never made.

A turning-point in O’Grady’s career came in 1830–31, when he had to deal with a messy controversy in the parishes of Sandwich (Windsor) and Amherstburg. Affairs in these parishes had been chaotic since the late 1820s, largely because of the inability of the two incumbents, Louis-Joseph Fluet of Amherstburg and Joseph Crevier, dit Bellerive, of Sandwich, to agree on the site of a proposed convent. Compounding the problem was the hostility of many residents, particularly French-speakers, towards the powerful Baby family. This hostility – rooted in resentment of the Babys’ influence and also in ethnic prejudice against the non-French “compact” of which the Babys were conspicuous members – received concrete expression in the provincial election of October 1830, when Crevier and Fluet criticized François Baby*, a local candidate. Defeated, an enraged Baby fired off letters to O’Grady and McDonell demanding that the two priests be removed.

McDonell apparently instructed O’Grady to conduct an investigation. Upon arrival in the area, O’Grady found an appalling state of affairs – serious irregularities in Crevier’s financial management of his parish, neglect of pastoral duties by both priests, and improprieties in their personal lives: in the case of Crevier, a “slovenly & almost filthy appearance even at the altar,” and in Fluet’s, sexual relations with a woman (whom he later married). O’Grady seems to have persuaded the priests to mend their ways, even to cease their quarrelling over the convent. By the time he returned to York, however, the situation had deteriorated.

In February 1831 O’Grady, once more on his bishop’s instructions, returned to Sandwich. This time he set aside the carrot for the stick, placing the Sandwich church under interdict and ordering Crevier’s transfer as well as suspending Fluet. The priests organized a public meeting in the Sandwich church, during which Crevier was reported to have denounced McDonell and Fluet to have boasted that he “did not care one fig for Bishop or Priest or even for the Pope & that it was the duty of the people to lock the Church doors & not Suffer themselves to be dictated to by Scotch and Irish Strangers.” After petitions and counter-petitions, McDonell ordered O’Grady to reinstate Fluet and to allow Crevier to remain in Sandwich, at least until “legal proofs of his misconduct” could be obtained. This action, he explained to O’Grady, did not reflect any disapproval of his conduct; on the contrary, it was prompted by the intervention of Colborne and Archbishop Bernard-Claude Panet* of Quebec. O’Grady was unmollified. All along he had emphasized to McDonell that if “two Selfish Stiffnecked Priests” were allowed to insult the “Episcopal dignity,” there would be “an end to all order & Subordination” in the diocese. Now his advice had been ignored and, even worse, his authority had been publicly undercut. Humiliated, O’Grady complained that McDonell’s action had placed him in a “very awkward dilemma” and “all the discredit” would “fall upon me.” Although willing to “sacrifice my own judgment,” he warned McDonell that “Episcopal authority” had suffered a mortal blow. He then made it clear to his bishop that, if Crevier’s faction again caused trouble, he would not intervene.

It would be going too far to say that the Sandwich affair was the root cause of O’Grady’s eventual split with McDonell. What does seem likely, however, is that it so poisoned their relationship that, when it became necessary for the bishop to discipline O’Grady himself, the latter was hardly in a frame of mind to turn the other cheek. The events that led to their confrontation can be traced easily enough. Although O’Grady had initially won McDonell’s respect for his work at St Paul’s, he had also made enemies. In March 1829 attacks on his personal character were launched by Mrs Irma Boulton and St Paul’s churchwarden William Bergin. By September 1830 O’Grady’s relations with his churchwardens were barely civil, and by December 1831 some unidentified priests were charging that he had misappropriated church funds. The following year he was further accused of neglect of his pastoral obligations, association with radical reformers such as William Lyon Mackenzie*, and a disreputable personal life (both Irma Boulton and Francis Collins*, editor of the Canadian Freeman, claimed that he was sexually involved with a woman). That July McDonell presided over an investigation into O’Grady’s conduct. The result was O’Grady’s exoneration, but McDonell decided that it would be best to transfer him to the more tranquil setting of Prescott and Brockville. In a remarkable reversal for a priest who not long before had urged his bishop to uphold episcopal authority, O’Grady refused to leave York, replaced the hostile churchwardens with his own supporters, and locked the doors of St Paul’s.

McDonell’s first steps were to suspend O’Grady from the priesthood and to place St Paul’s under interdict. He also instituted a legal action to regain possession of the church building, a suit that, after an initial defeat on a technicality, would be upheld in late 1833. O’Grady played a waiting game until October 1832 when he suggested to McDonell that their dispute be arbitrated by the Sulpicians in Montreal. This olive branch, however, was coupled with violent abuse of the bishop. In an astonishing letter he asked McDonell, “What in the name of common sense infatuates you? . . . Cannot all the experience of your long life teach you a lesson of usefulness. . . . But it is too late for you to make a beginning, and instead of learning how to live, it behoves you rather to study how to die.” There was much more in the same vein, including an accusation that McDonell had misappropriated church funds.

For a time in the fall of 1832, following the intervention of James Baby* and John Strachan*, it appeared that peace might be achieved; however, their efforts foundered on O’Grady’s stubbornness. Towards the end of that year, in association with James King, he established a newspaper, the Canadian Correspondent, in which he was to heap more abuse on McDonell and to take up the politics of radical reform. In January 1833, after McDonell had officially dismissed him from the priesthood, O’Grady turned to the lieutenant governor, presenting a petition which advanced the novel argument that McDonell could not turn him out of his parish because, after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, control over Catholic priests had been invested in the British crown. Attorney General Henry John Boulton* and Solicitor General Christopher Alexander Hagerman both wrote reports dismissing the priest’s case. McDonell also rejected O’Grady’s arguments, and Colborne took no action on the petition.

In May 1833 McDonell excommunicated O’Grady and his supporters; the latter promptly drew up a petition calling for an investigation into the bishop’s financial management of the diocese. This memorial suffered the same fate as O’Grady’s. Sent to Colborne, it was passed to McDonell for his comments and came to nothing. In August O’Grady left for Rome to appeal to the pope. McDonell, however, undercut his mission by writing beforehand to his friends in Rome, one of whom, Cardinal Thomas Weld, gave O’Grady a frosty welcome, advising him to return and submit to his bishop. Unable to meet with other Vatican officials, O’Grady made his way to London, where he petitioned the king, and then back to Upper Canada, arriving in January 1834. That March he sent a petition to the Colonial Office, again defending his conduct and accusing McDonell of peculation. He also, bizarrely enough, suggested to McDonell the importance of resolving their dispute. McDonell responded curtly, demanding O’Grady’s complete submission and a full retraction of his “errors and falsehoods.” It was the last communication between the two men. When the Colonial Office rejected his petition, O’Grady gave up his battle for St Paul’s and turned his attention to his newspaper.

In O’Grady’s case, the fight with the bishop had little to do with principle and everything to do with personality. Immensely proud, nursing a grudge over the Crevier–Fluet affair, O’Grady lashed out at McDonell because the bishop seemed intent on humiliating him. To the bishop, O’Grady had been a priest whom he had trusted and relied upon. His betrayal hurt McDonell deeply, and he retaliated with the fury that was so much a part of his Highland temperament. Yet there was more to his reaction than simple anger. In McDonell’s mind, the structure of the church was a mirror image of the structure of society. By challenging episcopal authority, therefore, O’Grady was challenging the ideas and assumptions that were integral to McDonell’s vision of a stable, hierarchical social order. To make matters worse, O’Grady’s disobedience, as well as his radical politics, threatened what McDonell hoped to achieve in the political arena. The bishop had always made it one of his central goals to convince the civil authorities that his flock were law-abiding, orderly, and loyal to the crown. O’Grady’s antics seemed to make a mockery of his efforts, and for this reason too McDonell moved quickly, and furiously, against him.

O’Grady may have been the prickliest thorn in McDonell’s side, but he was not the only one. Besides Crevier, Fluet, and O’Grady himself, there were several other priests in the 1830s who were either rebellious, incompetent, or both, and the strain of dealing with them took a toll on the elderly bishop, who became increasingly cantankerous and suspicious. Yet, if O’Grady was not alone in his insubordination, he was not just another troublemaker. For one thing, the magnitude of the scandal he inflicted on the church had no parallel – not even Fluet and Crevier came close to embarrassing McDonell to the extent that O’Grady did. Further, like Fluet and Crevier but unlike the other clerical bad apples, O’Grady enjoyed considerable popular sympathy. Some of his supporters were Protestant liberals delighted to have found a stick with which to beat McDonell; the most notable was Mackenzie, but there were others too – Protestants were well represented at a pro-O’Grady meeting held at St Paul’s in April 1833. He also had many supporters in the Catholic community. A band of followers in St Paul’s backed him every step of the way, and on two separate occasions, in February and June 1833, York Catholics drew up petitions in his favour, the second of which bore no fewer than 840 signatures. McDonell dismissed these petitions as fraudulent, and it is quite probable that some of the signatories were Protestants and that others affixed their names without knowing what was at issue. Still, it stretches the imagination to believe that all, or even a majority, of the signatures were bogus. And in any case, what is important is not that O’Grady may have exaggerated his Catholic support but that, given his flagrant disobedience of church authority, he had any at all.

Determining why O’Grady enjoyed Catholic backing is not an easy task. It does seem clear that his popularity and the Irish presence in York were intertwined. By the early 1830s York had become the home of a sizeable Irish Catholic population, a population that would continue to grow rapidly during the rest of the decade. This community, united by its history, poverty, and lack of political power, was doggedly ethnocentric and, in keeping with its traditions, reformist in politics. Not surprisingly, McDonell always had his opponents among York Catholics, both as a Scot and as a pillar of the ruling oligarchy. His unpopularity was perhaps one of the reasons why St Paul’s – a parish dominated by lower-class Irish – was so fractious, not only during O’Grady’s tenure but also before and after it; other reasons appear to have been the marked division in the parish between Irish and non-Irish, and the presence in it of middle-class Irish Catholics such as King who played an important role in mobilizing discontent. McDonell’s difficulties in bringing the parish into line were the greater because O’Grady was a brilliant demagogue who was able to tap his Irish parishioners’ dislike of their bishop and turn it to his own purposes.

Any exploration of O’Grady’s social and political views must rely heavily on the pages of the Correspondent, one of the most radical newspapers of the pre-confederation era. From the founding of this paper in late 1832 until August 1833, King was nominally its proprietor and editor, but there is little doubt that O’Grady was the real force. During O’Grady’s subsequent absence in Europe, King assumed sole responsibility, and the results showed in the increasingly tame, even bland, editorial columns. Whatever King’s status during the six months after his partner’s return in January 1834, O’Grady was clearly in charge again, setting the editorial tone in feisty and passionately radical pronouncements. In July King severed ties with the Correspondent; its proprietor was now listed as John Reynolds, but O’Grady remained its real master. In November, it merged with Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate and was renamed the Correspondent and Advocate. O’Grady continued as editor until the paper’s collapse on the eve of the rebellion.

The Correspondent – like the two other major Irish Catholic newspapers of the pre-confederation period, Collins’s Canadian Freeman and Charles Donlevy*’s Toronto Mirror – was a profoundly Irish paper, its patriotism being reflected in attacks on Britain and in demands for the repeal of the union of 1800. In addressing the Irish question, however, the Correspondent, like the Freeman and the Mirror, was careful to state its preference for Daniel O’Connell’s peaceful agitation over attempts at armed insurrection. The radical nature of O’Grady’s vision became more apparent when the paper reflected on social and economic issues in Upper Canada, or on the grander problem of the structure of human society. His social and political philosophy – like the man himself – was remarkably complex, drawing its inspiration from a variety of traditions including Enlightenment rationalism, the radical whiggery of the 18th century, American Jacksonianism, and the revolutionary thought of the early 19th century. Combined, these traditions created a bubbling cauldron of liberal ideas that set O’Grady and McDonell poles apart. The same ideas also isolated him from his fellow reformers, who, Mackenzie being a notable exception, subscribed to many of the social and political values of their tory opponents. In O’Grady, as in Mackenzie, a highly visible strain of democratic egalitarianism gave his politics a cutting, revolutionary edge.

O’Grady’s radicalism can be seen in any of his editorials in the Correspondent, which abounded with attacks on monopolies, corporations, and the principle of state aid to religion, whatever its denominational stripe. The Correspondent also took a great interest in the revolutionary spirit then ridding Europe of the “rubbish of ages”; it repeatedly proclaimed that government derived its authority from the people and existed only to promote their happiness; it constantly expressed its concern for the plight of the poor and railed against their oppressors. The democratic egalitarianism that inspired the paper was occasionally evident in calm, closely reasoned editorials such as the one explaining that the “legitimate object of good government is to prevent as far as possible the extremes of wealth and poverty, and diffuse equally, through all classes, the bounties of nature.” More typically, it was expressed in angry denunciations of Upper Canada’s “gentlefolk,” that “aristocracy of pensions – placemen, pimps, panders and expectants.” An editorial of 1834 asserted that “those silken creatures and their families” should “earn their bread like other people, by honest industry.”

Throughout the 1830s, the Correspondent displayed an unwavering commitment to Upper Canadian reform. It lavished praise on a select group of heroes, prominent among whom were Marshall Spring Bidwell* and Mackenzie, and it hurled invective at every tory in sight; the paper’s victims included O’Grady’s one-time friend, Colborne, now a “corrupt and deceitful imbecile,” and John Beverley Robinson*, “who, secreted in the back ground of intrigue and deception, directs every movement of his knavish satellites.” In the Correspondent O’Grady advanced prescriptions for Upper Canada’s well-being. Most were conventional: “cheap and economical” government, promotion of railways and canals, and responsible government. Yet the Correspondent did separate itself from the crowd. Reflecting its egalitarian values, it called for a tax on the wealthy and denounced the property qualification for voters as an example of “old feudal abominations.” It also took a particularly rigorous stance on the issue of responsible government. When Robert Baldwin*, John Rolph*, and John Henry Dunn* were appointed to the Executive Council in February 1836, the Correspondent warned that “the people, never will repose confidence in an Executive Council composed of such discordant and irreconcileable materials as Tories and Reformers equally divided.” For O’Grady, clearly, what was needed was a reform council that reflected the political will of the reform-dominated assembly.

O’Grady, largely because of his association with the Correspondent, was a key figure in the reform movement of the 1830s. In the provincial election of 1834 he ran unsuccessfully against Hagerman in Kingston. By the end of the year he was a member of the Constitutional Reform Society and sat on the executive of the Canadian Alliance Society. In the spring of 1835 he appeared before Mackenzie’s select committee on grievances and late the same year he travelled with Mackenzie to Lower Canada to meet leading reformers there. During 1836 he played an important role at two reform meetings in Toronto, in June and October. At the second he was one of the reformers given the crucial task of overseeing the creation of political unions throughout the province. By early 1837 he was on the executive of the Constitutional Reform Society and was active as well in the Toronto Political Union. At a meeting of the latter in April 1837, he introduced a resolution, which was carried, advocating a reform convention for the purpose of sending delegates to London. Another of his resolutions, which also passed, proposed a petition to the king “on the deplorable state of the Province, and the reckless legislation of the present unconstitutional house of Assembly.”

For unknown reasons, in November 1837 O’Grady sold the Correspondent’s press and type to Charles Fothergill in exchange for land in Pickering Township and cash; after the sale, two issues of the paper were published in combination with Mackenzie’s Constitution, but it then collapsed completely. Over the next few months O’Grady vanishes from view. Probably living in Pickering Township, he does not appear to have taken any part in the rebellion, and, more surprising, in the midst of the Patriot raids the following year he seems to have provided the government with military intelligence. From the evidence – a single letter from Robert Baldwin Sullivan* to Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur* – it is not clear whether O’Grady was acting as a government spy or whether his supplying of information was merely the result of a careless tongue. If he was, in fact, betraying Mackenzie and his old radical friends, his volte-face would have been yet another example of the abrupt transitions that had characterized his life.

Whatever O’Grady was doing in his last years, it appears that he remained committed to the cause of reform, if not to sedition. In March 1838 John Ryerson* reported meeting him in the home of Thomas David Morrison*. According to Ryerson, O’Grady was uncowed by recent events and still thought that the dream of a reformed Upper Canada was attainable. Yet if the New Jerusalem was within reach, he would let others bring it about. From 1838 on he seems to have lived an uneventful life in Pickering Township. A coroner’s inquest concluded that his death there in 1840 was a “visitation of God.”

Curtis Fahey

AO, MS 709; RG 1, C-IV, Pickering Township, concession 1, lot 15, esp. 339–42. Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, M (Macdonell papers) (mfm. at AO). Durham Land Registry Office (Whitby, Ont.), [Ontario County], South Pickering Township, abstract index to deeds, vol.A (1795–1955): 19, 58–59, 140 (mfm. at AO). PAC, RG 1, L3, 393A: O15/27, O16/12; RG 5, A1: 52643–44, 66839–44, 69249–54, 69541–50, 71951–88, 73285–86, 76980–81, 77152–53, 91128. PRO, CO 42/418: 385–94. Arthur papers (Sanderson). Town of York, 1815–34 (Firth). U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1835: 22–23, 26–31, 37–38. Canadian Correspondent (York [Toronto]; Toronto), 1833–34. Canadian Freeman, 1828–33. Cobourg Star, 27 Aug. 1840. Colonial Advocate, 1833. Correspondent and Advocate (Toronto), 1834–37. Examiner (Toronto), 19 Aug. 1840. Patriot and Farmers Monitor, 1833. Toronto Patriot, 21 Aug. 1840. W. P. Bull, From Macdonell to McGuigan: the history of the growth of the Roman Catholic Church in Upper Canada (Toronto, 1939). J. E. Rea, Bishop Alexander Macdonell and the politics of Upper Canada (Toronto, 1974). C. B. Sissons, Egerton Ryerson: his life and letters (2v., Toronto, 1937–47), 1. The story of St. Pauls parish, Toronto . . . , ed. Edward Kelly ([Toronto], 1922).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Curtis Fahey, “O’GRADY, WILLIAM JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 19, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_grady_william_john_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_grady_william_john_7E.html
Author of Article:   Curtis Fahey
Title of Article:   O’GRADY, WILLIAM JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 19, 2024