WALSH, JOHN, Roman Catholic priest, archbishop, and author; b. 23 or 24 May 1830 in the parish of Mooncoin, County Kilkenny (Republic of Ireland), son of James Walsh and Ellen Macdonald; d. 31 July 1898 in Toronto.
John Walsh came from a relatively prosperous farming family whose kinsmen had often played leading roles in the ecclesiastical affairs of Ireland. While still a young boy, he entered St John’s College in Waterford, where he successfully completed his classical and philosophical courses in preparation for the priesthood. After only one year of theology, however, he decided to quit his home diocese of Ossory and join the Canadian missions.
Walsh’s Irish experience, though brief, had a lasting effect. He was born one year after the granting of Catholic emancipation and that watershed went far to shape his public attitudes in matters religious and civil and to give him a healthy respect for the combined arts of diplomacy and compromise. His lifelong nationalism and passionate attachment to Home Rule were consequences of growing up after emancipation and in the shadow of Daniel O’Connell. His religious temperament, on the other hand, stemmed from the devotional revolution, an ultramontane movement within the Irish church. Walsh accepted a priestly vocation when Irish Catholicism was undergoing a tremendous spiritual transformation at the hands of an ambitious hierarchy. It was an age of great piety, self-discipline, church-building, and Catholic chauvinism.
Imbued with the triumphalism of a revitalized church, but quietly rejecting many of its political implications, Walsh departed Ireland in April 1852. His decision to make Canada his new home remains a mystery. He had not been actively recruited but his choice of missionary endeavour might have been influenced by Bishop William Walsh* of Halifax, himself a former student at St John’s College. In the autumn of 1852 John Walsh resumed his theological studies at the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Montreal. Having been accepted by Bishop Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel as a candidate for the diocese of Toronto, Walsh was ordained on 1 Nov. 1854.
For the next 13 years he laboured diligently at a wide range of diocesan assignments. In December 1854 he was appointed the first resident priest to the Brock mission. From his lodgings in Oshawa, he ministered to the Catholics of Brock, Reach, Uxbridge, Scott, Georgina, North Gwillimbury, Thorah, and Mara townships. Isolation over the long winter months allowed him to continue his theological pursuits and to submit articles and letters to the Toronto Mirror under the pseudonym Ossory. He was able to build one church, St Anthony the Hermit in Georgina Township, before ill health brought him back to Toronto in September 1856. It was not the first time he had been dangerously ill and forced to convalesce for many months. While on his way to Toronto for the first time, in the summer of 1854, Walsh had been stricken by cholera, then a raging epidemic. For the remainder of his life he suffered recurring set-backs and was never in robust health.
In April 1857 he was made parish priest of St Mary’s in Toronto as well as chaplain to the convent of the Loretto sisters. Then in June 1858 he was given charge of St Paul’s parish as a replacement for Father Thomas Fitzhenry, who had been abruptly dismissed by Bishop Charbonnel because of a bitter personal disagreement over an administrative matter. Fitzhenry had been very popular with his parishioners, and only through the sheer magnetism of his personality did Walsh win them over and avoid a serious schism in the parish. It was the first major test of his conciliatory nature.
In March 1860 John Joseph Lynch*, coadjutor bishop of Toronto, promoted Walsh to the rectorship of St Michael’s Cathedral. Walsh was not yet 30 years of age. Anticipating the visit of the Prince of Wales to Toronto that September, the young rector called a mass meeting of Catholics in the hope of averting any clashes between them and the more radical members of the Orange order who were insisting that the prince pass under a series of their arches on his way from the train station. Walsh instructed Catholics and invited Protestants to ignore the rantings of the Orangemen. His words had a calming effect upon the entire city. At the rector’s urging a memorial was written and hand-delivered by a group including John Elmsley* to the prince’s travelling secretary, the Duke of Newcastle, who was Catholic. The memorial assured the prince of Catholic loyalty and implored him to have nothing to do with the local Orange lodges. In the end all the arches save one, which was to be stripped of Orange slogans, were dismantled. The prince’s visit turned into a humiliating defeat for Orange fanaticism and a victory for Irish Catholic moderation.
For his common sense and sound judgement, which had helped to calm Catholic anxieties and sway public opinion to the Catholic camp, Walsh was once again suitably rewarded by his bishop. In 1861 he was allowed to resign the rectorship and resume his pastorate of St Mary’s. He remained there by choice until 1867, when he was succeeded by Jean-Baptiste Proulx*. Lynch had made Walsh his vicar general on Easter Sunday 1862 and then his official theologian for the third provincial council of Quebec in May 1863. The following year the bishop delegated him to deliver to the pope his official ad limina report on the diocese and Walsh was received by Pius IX in a private audience. After a tour of the Continent, Walsh spent several months in Ireland.
During his five-year tenure as vicar general, Walsh became known for his eloquent sermons and public lectures. On countless occasions he impressed the multitudes by the strength of his convictions, especially about the pre-eminent place of the church in salvation history, and by the clarity and conciseness of his delivery. He was a superb rhetorician in the classical sense and no less enthusiastic about his strictly secular speeches. He gave many lectures concerning the history of Ireland’s political struggles to audiences largely composed of “exiles” like himself. Walsh was, however, no ally of the tradition of physical force. He was wary of radical Irish nationalists who saw themselves as the public defenders of Irish Catholic interests in a city politically dominated by the Orange lodges. Walsh’s commitment to Irish liberty, though never in doubt, was sharply defined by a Canadian and clerical context which sought above all else to maintain social and political respectability as well as church authority over voluntary associations.
Walsh’s career as vicar general came to an abrupt end on 4 June 1867 when he was appointed the second bishop of Sandwich, to replace Bishop Pierre-Adolphe Pinsoneault*, who had resigned the previous September. Pinsoneault’s episcopate had included the transfer of the episcopal see from London to Sandwich (Windsor) and had been marked by a series of quarrels with priests, parishioners, and religious communities which caused immense embarrassment to the church’s hierarchy. At the time of his enforced resignation, moreover, the diocese was saddled with a staggering debt of $40,000. At Walsh’s consecration, which took place at St Michael’s Cathedral on 10 Nov. 1867, the new bishop was gently reminded of “the peculiar difficulties of the vacant diocese.” The words of caution were those of Father Patrick Dowd and they were echoed by Father Peter Francis Crinnon when he met Walsh in London three days later to welcome him officially to the diocese. On the 14th the youngest Catholic bishop in Ontario was enthroned in his cathedral in Sandwich.
Soon after his election, Walsh had begun asserting his authority. He wasted little time in reappointing Father Jean-Marie Bruyère vicar general of the diocese. By not associating him too closely with the failures and scandals of Pinsoneault’s régime, Walsh was being sensible and generous. Bruyère was an accomplished church administrator. Under Walsh he was allowed to thrive, and he subsequently enhanced the bishop’s own genius for sound administration. Walsh issued his first pastoral letter on 11 Nov. 1867. It expressed his unqualified devotion and obedience to the see of Peter. Thoroughly scriptural and full of standard Catholic theology, it is distinguished from his later letters by its unmistakable call for unity of purpose and action. This appeal became the hallmark of Walsh’s 22 years as bishop. Liquidation of the diocese’s debt had already begun under Bruyère when he was administrator. Walsh prudently allowed him to continue his “program of reforms, of retrenching, of economizing” Within three months of Walsh’s consecration Rome had expressed satisfaction with his efforts to get rid of the financial albatross he had inherited.
Walsh’s first controversial decision was to move his residence from Sandwich to London, which he did on 19 Jan. 1868. He believed he would never be able to govern his vast diocese, comprised of nine counties, from the tiny and isolated town of Sandwich. He did this against the advice of Bishop Lynch and over the protests of some prominent Sandwich Catholics who feared the move would harm the parish financially and lead to the closing of the troubled Assumption College. Walsh’s request for a translation of the see back to London was granted by Rome on 15 Nov. 1869, and he assumed the title bishop of London the following May.
To assuage the bruised feelings of the French-speaking Catholics of Sandwich, who had become used to the presence of a bishop, Walsh had initiated negotiations with the Congregation of St Basil. A concordat was signed on 27 Sept. 1869, giving the Basilians control of Assumption College and the parish of Sandwich. Once again Walsh would prove himself to be a shrewd judge of character by placing his trust and confidence in Denis O’Connor*, who became superior at the college and head of temporalities at the church. O’Connor was destined to guide the college’s fortunes for the next 20 years, and he eventually succeeded Walsh as bishop of London in 1890. Concerning O’Connor’s confrères at the college, Walsh once remarked, “They have given no trouble in the teaching of unsound doctrine.” Indeed, Walsh found no reason to quarrel with any of the religious communities in the diocese.
Walsh’s dealings with his secular clergy were also exemplary. He won their respect early, impressing them with his deep sense of fairness and his willingness to treat them almost as equals in the administration of the diocese. In stark contrast to Pinsoneault, he studiously avoided any public wrangling with quarrelsome priests: he always dealt with them privately. Walsh was fortunate in having good priests at his disposal. In particular, James Theodore Wagner and William Flannery* did much to help the bishop put the diocese on a more respectable and secure footing.
For his part, Walsh inspired numerous candidates to the priesthood. Over a period of 22 years, he ordained 39 priests and invited a good number of French Canadian clergy from Quebec to staff the French-speaking parishes in Kent and Essex counties. Corresponding to the dramatic increase in vocations was an equally dramatic rise in new parishes. From 1870 to 1887 Walsh founded 22 parishes, each with its own resident priest. This growth reflected quite accurately the substantial increase in the diocese’s Catholic population, which grew from 41,764 in 1861 to 56,638 in 1881.
Walsh’s particular achievement was the construction of St Peter’s Cathedral, the jewel in the crown of 19th-century expansion in his diocese. He was to open dozens of parish churches, but none would rival this glorious example of French Gothic Revival, the majestic centre-piece of diocesan liturgical life. Ten years after the original diocesan debt of $40,000 had been paid off, he felt confident enough to hire Joseph Connolly as his architect in March 1880. The first sod was turned in July and less than a year later, on 22 May 1881, the cornerstone was blessed and laid by Bishop Walsh in front of 2,000 people. The cathedral, which took four years to build and cost $136,000, was consecrated on 28 June 1885. The bishop was so impressed by Connolly’s work that he commissioned him to design St Patrick’s in Kinkora in 1882 and St Joseph’s in Chatham in 1887.
Although the bishop’s delicate health had prevented him from attending the first Vatican Council, in 1869–70, he was none the less a prolific and profound writer on the contentious issue of infallibility. On 15 May 1869 he published a 50-page pastoral letter explaining the significance of Aeterni Patris, the bull of indiction convoking the council. This was followed by a 33-page pastoral, issued on 2 Feb. 1870, defending the church’s historical claim to infallibility and answering five principal objections to the council itself. Despite their length and scholarly nature, these two letters were read aloud in every church in the diocese. Lynch, who had pleaded with Walsh to join him in Rome for the council sessions, was very impressed by his writings. In June 1870 he told his former vicar general to feel free in the future to speak on behalf of the entire Canadian church whenever writing on infallibility. Walsh’s last public word on the subject came in 1875 with a 65-page vindication of the doctrine of papal infallibility coupled with a reply to a pamphlet by William Ewart Gladstone which questioned the civil allegiance of Catholics in light of the recent promulgation of the doctrine. This was Walsh’s most brilliant polemic and his closest brush with purely political controversy.
A noteworthy rapport and respect existed between Walsh and Lynch. On a personal level Walsh enjoyed a harmonious friendship with the archbishop, who was also his metropolitan and his superior in ecclesiastical affairs. However, this relationship did not interfere with their strongly contrasting political methods. Lynch was by far the more openly political: he was firmly attached to the Liberal government of Oliver Mowat* in Ontario. Walsh was too conservative and cautious by nature to imitate Lynch’s showmanship. Even though Walsh was an avowed supporter of Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives prior to 1896, after which he threw his support behind Wilfrid Laurier*’s federal Liberals, he still viewed all politicians, regardless of party, through the same prism. He would deal with any politician who respected the rights of the church and dealt justly with Catholic concerns. Walsh treated politics in a distinctly Irish way, as an extension of the parish pump.
Although Walsh saw his way clearly on every aspect of the separate school issue, he purposely maintained a secondary role in the ongoing drama about the painful lack of parity between Catholic schools in Ontario and those in Quebec. He usually deferred to Lynch before expressing his own mind or making a public statement. In private, he commented on Egerton Ryerson*’s proposals in the 1860s for a system of high schools and on the type of religious education to be given Catholics in the common schools. In public, he warned all Catholic parents in his diocese to support separate schools with their taxes. On the delicate topics of the appointment of school inspectors and the qualifications of teaching religious, he parted ways with Lynch, as he later did over the archbishop’s ineffectual handling of the so-called Ross Bible affair in 1884 [see Christopher Finlay Fraser]. However, when Lynch’s authority over the Toronto Separate School Board had been challenged in 1878 by several prominent lay trustees and by Patrick Boyle*, the editor of Toronto’s Irish Canadian, who had been agitating for a secret ballot for board elections, Walsh was the first bishop to rally to his metropolitan’s defence. He published Lynch’s rebuke of the agitators in a circular letter of 2 December, which also contained his own strongly worded attack on the proposal. Walsh’s objection was quite simple: there could be no secret ballot for board elections until Catholics were bound by law to support separate schools as Protestants were already bound to support public schools.
In the midst of these controversies, Lynch asked Rome in 1877 to appoint Walsh his coadjutor. Although Vatican authorities were quick to agree to this request, nothing came of it. Walsh felt little desire to relinquish his independence and become second in command to a strong-willed archbishop not known for sharing power. In the end Walsh persuaded Bishop George Conroy*, a special apostolic delegate to Canada, to have Rome rescind its decision.
If Walsh committed one blunder during his time as bishop of London, it was his appointment of Father John Connolly, in early February 1879, as parish priest of St Patrick’s in Biddulph Township. In view of the often violent disruptions taking place in the parish, centred on James Donnelly* and his family, which pitted Catholic against Catholic in a continuation of the old Tipperary feuds, Walsh mistakenly believed that only an Irish priest could bring calm and reconciliation to this predominantly Irish parish. Nothing of the sort happened. Connolly’s first act was to set up a vigilance committee, in the naïve hope that self-policing would rid the township of its troublemakers. However, the committee, composed entirely of enemies of the Donnelly family, took on a life of its own and eventually orchestrated the murder of five family members in the early hours of 4 Feb. 1880. In January 1881 a jury acquitted the first defendant brought to trial. Father Connolly, meanwhile, was indirectly implicated because the committee had been his idea and because of his own quarrels with the Donnellys. In the end Walsh put a lid on a potential scandal that could have ruined his episcopate. According to writer Orlo Miller, Walsh held a secret meeting at his palace on 14 May 1881 with Adam Crooks*, the minister of education and acting premier, and Charles Hutchinson, crown attorney for Middlesex County. At the bishop’s urging, Crooks and Hutchinson agreed not to prosecute Connolly for his role in what became known as the Biddulph tragedy.
In 1882 Bishop Walsh visited Ireland. On his return he received; a great display of affection when he was met on 2 October by a crowd of 3,000 people in front of the cathedral rectory. After receiving ceremonial welcomes and a purse of $1,000, the bishop addressed the people. Alluding to the political situation he had lately witnessed in his homeland, he said, “We live under a form of government which is the best balanced in the world, which combines liberty without license, and authority without despotism, which gives to all the largest measure of rational and well-regulated freedom, whilst it affords ample protection and security to life and property.”
John Walsh was translated to the see of Toronto on 13 Aug. 1889, 15 months after the death of Archbishop Lynch. He took possession of his see on 27 November in an impressive ceremony marred only by a group of young Orange order supporters who pelted the archbishop’s carriage with stones and home-made missiles as it approached St Michael’s Cathedral. This unprecedented attack on a Catholic prelate shocked both the Catholics and the Protestants in the city.
During his nine years as an archbishop, Walsh continued the style of episcopal leadership he had employed in London. He remained very much a pastoral bishop, interested primarily in the spiritual welfare of his flock and in stabilizing relations between Catholics and other Christians. He oversaw the regularization of church life, the visitation of the archdiocese, the promotion of priestly and religious vocations, and the establishment of new parishes and church buildings.
His first practical endeavour was the enlargement and restoration of St Michael’s Cathedral, built by William Thomas* in the 1840s. He financed the construction of St John’s Chapel, the addition of clerestory windows and dormers, and the redecoration of the interior in “proper ecclesiastical symbolic colors.” The project was finished in the spring of 1891 and the cathedral was rededicated on 7 June. Realizing the pressing need for an additional Catholic burial-ground, Walsh, with the help of Sir Frank Smith* and Eugene O’Keefe*, purchased 52 acres five miles from the city. He called it Mount Hope Cemetery and blessed it on 9 July 1898.
An archbishop of Toronto could not avoid addressing the greater political questions of the day. Walsh was no exception, but he preferred the quiet diplomacy of the back room to the showy bombasts of Archbishop Lynch. In the continuing controversy surrounding the secret ballot in elections to the separate school board, Walsh refused to withdraw his personal objections. Yet, when the provincial legislature was ready in the early months of 1894 to pass a bill that would give local boards this option [see Christopher Finlay Fraser], he was sufficiently astute to avoid a confrontation. He sensed the times were too inflammatory for the bishops to oppose the will of the government, and he went out of his way to persuade several of his colleagues to join him in silent submission to the inevitable. Archbishop James Vincent Cleary of Kingston, who had succeeded Lynch as Ontario’s most politically minded bishop, was the only member of the provincial hierarchy to denounce the government’s intentions. Walsh still preferred quiet diplomacy to angry outbursts.
This was the approach he had taken to the Manitoba school question. As a Catholic prelate, he was horrified by the arbitrary abolition of public funding for Catholic schools in that province, enacted in March 1890. At the same time, though, he realized the possible negative implications any move of public protest could have on the future of separate schools in Ontario. As a result he chose caution over controversy. Only reluctantly did he sign the petition of the Roman Catholic bishops of Canada to the governor general in council, dated 13 Dec. 1892, asking relief for the Catholic ratepayers of Manitoba. Thereafter, he refused to sign petitions of any kind. He sincerely believed any further agitation would only strengthen Protestant opinion against granting new concessions to Catholics in Ontario and might even seriously retard the restoration of Catholic rights in Manitoba. Near the end of his life, he wrote a long letter to Archbishop Adélard Langevin* of St Boniface urging him to accept the compromise effected by Laurier and Thomas Greenway* in 1896 as the beginning of the re-establishment of separate schools.
If the occasion arose, however, Walsh was certainly capable of venting his anger. In June 1893, when municipal politicians withdrew grants from all sectarian hospitals (including St Michael’s), the archbishop dispensed with diplomacy and immediately responded with a scathing denunciation. In a brilliantly argued circular letter published on the front page of the Catholic Register (Toronto), he vigorously defended the right of all hospitals to a share of public money. Within a week the city council had reversed its decision and restored the grants.
Despite his advancing years Archbishop Walsh managed to open a girls’ wing to the Sacred Heart Orphan Asylum in 1891 and to found the St Vincent de Paul Children’s Aid Society of Toronto in 1894 and St John’s Industrial School for Boys in 1897. In addition, he built sixteen churches and three chapels and gave permission for the construction of a residence for the Basilians and three convents. He ordained twelve secular and three regular priests. Walsh never lost his interest in Irish affairs and continued to be a tireless supporter of the Land League and Home Rule. When Home Rulers split over the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell, Walsh suggested to Edward Blake* in 1895 an international convention to heal wounds and continue the struggle. The Irish Race Convention met in Dublin in September 1896 but the archbishop did not attend.
John Walsh’s death at the end of July 1898 was sudden, and his passing was genuinely lamented by all regardless of religious persuasion. In an editorial the Globe said of him: “Devoted, as he was, to the interests of his church, no one can lay to his charge any utterance that was calculated to inflame sectarian feeling or to embitter the relations between Catholic and Protestant. More than once he spoke out with a calm dignity and a broad charity that won wonderfully upon the Protestant community, and all his life and work as Archbishop of Toronto made for peace and good neighbourhood, and for a common Canadian citizenship.”
[Information concerning Walsh’s secret meeting of 14 May 1881 with Crooks and Hutchinson is drawn from an interview with H. Orlo Miller conducted by this author on 4 July 1987, in London, Ont. Miller refers to the meeting in his novel Death to the Donnellys . . . (Toronto, 1975), 215; at the time The Donnellys must die (Toronto, 1962) was published, he did not have enough evidence at his disposal to include this incident as part of the story. m.p.]
Walsh’s publications include The Council of the Vatican and the doctrines it suggests and illustrates (London, 1870; copy at Arch. of the Diocese of London) and The doctrine of papal infallibility stated and vindicated; with an appendix on the question of civil allegiance (London, 1875); a second edition of the latter, . . . with an appendix on civil allegiance, and certain historical difficulties, appeared in London in 1875.
ARCAT, L, AA05.83, AA07.06, AB01.06, AE08.04; LB01.204–5, .280, .283; LB06.09, .79; LB07; LRC 6003, 6009; W. Arch. of the Diocese of London, R. H. Dignan, “Early history of the Catholic Church in southwestern Ontario, 1635–1889” (c. 1919–32) (copy); John Walsh papers. The city and diocese of London, Ontario, Canada; an historical sketch, compiled in commemoration of the opening of St. Peter’s Cathedral, London, June 28th, 1885, comp. J. F. Coffey (London, 1885). A documentary history of Assumption College . . . , ed. and intro. Michael Power (2v. to date, [Windsor, Ont.], 1986– ), 2. History and album of the Irish Race Convention, which met in Dublin the first three days of September, 1896 . . . (Dublin, ). Jubilee volume, 1842–1892: the archdiocese of Toronto and Archbishop Walsh, [ed. J. R. Teefy] (Toronto, 1892), i-xxx. Canadian Freeman (Toronto), 9 March 1860; 19 June, 14 Aug., 9 Oct. 1862; 19 Nov., 17 Dec. 1867. Catholic Record (London), 24 Oct. 1880; 25 March 1881; 6 Oct. 1882; 2 May, 4 July 1885; June 1893; 6 Aug. 1898. Chatham Tri-Weekly Planet (Chatham, Ont. ), 24 Oct. 1887. Globe, 8 June 1891, 1 Aug. 1898, 28 Nov. 1899. W. P. Bull, From Macdonell to McGuigan: the history of the growth of the Roman Catholic Church in Upper Canada (Toronto, 1939). J. T. Flynn, “The London episcopacy, 1867–1889, of the Most Reverend John Walsh, D.D., second bishop of London, Ontario” (ma thesis, Catholic Univ. of America, Washington, 1966). E. J. Lajeunesse, Outline history of Assumption parish ([Windsor, 1967]; enlarged ed., 1984). J. R. McMahon, “The episcopate of Pierre-Adolphe Pinsoneault: first bishop of London, Upper Canada, 1856–1866” (ma thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1982). St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica, London, Canada; compiled in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of St. Peter’s Cathedral, June 29, 1985, comp. J. R. McMahon ([London?, 1985]). F. A. Walker, Catholic education and politics in Ontario . . . (3v., Toronto, 1955–87; vols.1–2 repr. 1976), 1.
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Cite This Article
Michael Power, “WALSH, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/walsh_john_12E.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:
|Author of Article:||Michael Power|
|Title of Article:||WALSH, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|