Diocesan History

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Diocese of St. Catharines Crest

The Diocese of St Catharines in Ontario was erected by Pope Pius XII on November 9 1958 by a division of the Archdiocese of Toronto and the Diocese of Hamilton. It comprises the Regional Municipality of Niagara and the County of Haldimand, of Haldimand-Norfolk Regional Municipality.

A New Diocese in an Old Church, 1958-1968

On November 25, 1958, the Most Rev. Thomas J. McCarthy, originally from Goderich, Ontario, was installed as the first Bishop of the newly formed Diocese of St. Catharines. Bishop McCarthy quickly established the structures and officials necessary to give the new Diocese an ecclesiastical identity of its own. It was a question of welding together parts of two previous Dioceses, Toronto and Hamilton, to create a new church jurisdiction that would be proper to and very much part of the Niagara Peninsula, something many thought was long overdue.

The huge post-World War II immigration had now tapered off but there were still some new churches being built in the more suburban-like areas of the larger cities in the Peninsula. What immigrants there were often came from the countries of the Third World rather than from Europe as in the past.

This was the period of the Sessions of the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65. Changes were being planned for the universal church but they had not yet taken practical effect to any large degree. It was still very much a new diocese working within the confines of an old church. If changes were introduced towards the end of the first decade of the history of the new diocese, they were seen only as small modifications of the older church structure which was still intact. The old conservatism so typical of much of English-speaking Catholicism in Canada still held sway. The new diocese was certainly not prepared to rock the ecclesiastical barque (boat) as the full impact of Vatican II was yet to be understood and felt.

A Young Diocese in a Church Of Experimentation, 1968-1978

The year 1968 is generally considered to be the year in which the old church structures finally fell apart amidst so many changes that most people did not know in what kind of church they were. It was no longer a question so much of grafting the new onto the old as retaining what one could of the old church within the context of the new post-Vatican II church. Clergy and laity alike throughout the world-wide Catholic Church became divided along conservative or liberal lines. The Diocese of St. Catharines was to feel some of the effects of this general disruption but under the sound leadership of its Bishop, it would weather the storm and persevere through the second decade of its history changed but undamaged.

In general the laity began to assume a larger role in the work of the church as more ministries were opened to them. The numbers of clergy and religious declined somewhat in places, yet there were still new communities of religious willing to settle in the Diocese during these years. Old church institutions took on new names and roles. Many new religious organizations and movements were formed to meet the new challenges of the day in ways now more understood by the younger generation. For some Catholics these were troubled years as they saw disappear the church of their childhood. Yet for many more Catholics these were years of exciting change as new church structures were worked out to meet ever more effectively the new problems of the day.

Photo Credits: ssnuffy at flickrd.com

Photo Credits: ssnuffy at flickrd.com

A Mature Diocese in a Seasoned Church, 1978 To 1982

The year 1978 saw three Popes seated successively upon the throne of St. Peter in the Vatican. It also saw a new Bishop installed for St. Catharines’ Diocese. The Most Rev. Thomas B. Fulton, a native of St. Catharines, was installed on August 29, 1978 as its second Bishop.

The church had now settled down after the changes of the previous decade and was willing to tolerate the conservatives and the liberals, provided each of them were willing to tolerate each other. The church was now willing to accept a reasonable amount of pluralism and diversity but extremists at both ends of the theological spectrum usually found it hard to find a place within a church which refused to allow itself to be taken over by any faction within it.

The mood now was one of willingness to work hard and to immerse oneself fully in the new church and thereby to discover its many strengths. Changes that formerly might have been viewed as being disruptive were now seen in a very positive light. There was slow but steady growth spiritually as the church continued to adapt itself prudently to the needs of the changing times.

The Niagara Peninsula in recent years has not experienced the physical growth that it did previously and this has enabled the St. Catharines Diocese to avoid becoming a bricks and mortar diocese and instead to concentrate upon becoming a family-like diocese where people know one another. Above all, its spirit has become that of optimism, joy and love.

Fifteen Years of Change and Consolidation, 1982 To 1997

The Diocese of St. Catharines has undergone considerable change and consolidation from 1982 to 1997, in terms of episcopal leadership, spiritual renewal, the first ever lay diocesan congress, and Catholic secondary schools. Bishop John A. O’Mara has made the congress the primary diocesan instrument to prepare local Catholics for the Great Jubilee in the year 2000. Priests and people have also celebrated many notable anniversaries and undertaken a number of church renovations and expansions, the most impressive among them being the wholesale restoration of the cathedral.

The founding bishop of the diocese, Most Rev. Thomas J. McCarthy, died on November 15, 1986. He had been bishop for twenty years, from 1958 to 1978, during which time he guided the local church through the many reforms in liturgy and governance brought about by the implementation of Vatican II. His was not an easy or enviable task. Interestingly, the subject of Bishop McCarthy’s doctoral thesis in Sacred Theology was the mystical body of Christ. Much of his work was later incorporated by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical by the same name. Most Rev. Thomas B. Fulton, now bishop emeritus, was the second bishop. Ordained to the priesthood in 1941, he was named titular bishop of Curzola and an auxiliary bishop of Toronto, on December 28, 1968, and ordained to the episcopacy by Pope Paul VI in Rome on January 6, 1969. He was bishop of St. Catharines for nearly sixteen years, until his mandatory retirement on February 2, 1994. Bishop John A. O’Mara, formerly the bishop of Thunder Bay from 1976 to 1994 became the third bishop in a colorful installation ceremony on April 13 1994.

As an aside three of the diocese’s priests were made bishops. Monsignor Anthony F. Tonnos was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Hamilton July 12 1983 and installed Bishop of Hamilton June 18 1984. Monsignor John S. Knight was named an auxiliary bishop of Toronto on April 27 1992 and Monsignor Frederick Colli was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese of Ottawa on February 22 1995.

One of Bishop Fulton’s most important pastoral initiatives was the implementation of RENEW. St. Catharines was the second diocese in Canada (after Hamilton) to adopt this program. A parish based process RENEW began in 1982 and ended three years later in 1985. Its central purpose was “”to help people know and love Jesus better and more clearly understand what he said and taught and to help people pattern their lives in closer harmony with the word of Jesus.”” Using a core group of volunteers from each participating parish the program developed three basic themes: teaching and witnessing to the Word of God; developing vibrant faith communities; and establishing justice formation and action.

Some of the more lasting results of RENEW have been the establishment of Pastoral Councils in the parishes the publication of Vineyard the official diocesan newspaper beginning in 1987 adult religious education programs such as the University of St. Michael’s College satellite degree in theology and concrete responses to the plight of many refugees in our midst.

Soon after his installation as bishop of St. Catharines Bishop O’Mara prepared for a Diocesan Congress. Invited to the congress opening session on September 24 1994 were two delegates from each parish lay parish assistants representatives from the women religious the three Catholic school boards and diocesan organizations as well as young adults from the high schools and Brock University. Parish priests were also invited but they were scheduled to have their own private study sessions only for Congress I. The 150 delegates to the three sessions of Congress I were asked “”to assess the needs of the people of the Diocese; to establish priorities for those needs; to discern the pastoral ministries required to address those needs; and to formulate a Mission Statement of pastoral priorities for the Diocese and parishes. Before the close of Congress I the bishop had set up a diocesan-wide Youth Ministry.

There are five more congresses to follow for both clergy and laity. Each one will take place in two sessions. Their themes are Congress II Evangelization; Congress III Evangelization and Ecumenism; Congress IV United in Jesus Christ (Baptism and Faith); Congress V Open to the Holy Spirit (Confirmation and Hope); and Congress VI God the Father (Penance and Charity). The final session of Congress VI is scheduled to take place in the autumn of 1999. In the Jubilee Year of Redemption there will be catechetical instructions on the Eucharist and a major celebration ushering in the third millennium of Christianity.

Since 1982 Catholic secondary education in the diocese has experienced tremendous growth in the number of students and new schools. Added to the roster of high schools were St. Paul in Niagara Falls (1982); Holy Cross in St. Catharines 1985; Lakeshore Catholic in Port Colborne (1988); St. Michael in Niagara Falls (1989); Monsignor Clancy in Thorold (1989); Blessed Trinity in Cirimsby (1994); St. Francis and Ecole secondaire Jean Vanier in St. Catharines (1995). Major renovations and expansion have been carried out at Lakeshore Catholic St. Paul Notre Dame Denis Morris and Holy Cross.

There have been many anniversaries in the diocese during the past fifteen years: Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Niagara Falls 150th in 1987; Star of the Sea in Port Dalhousie 125th in 1996; St. Patrick’s School 100th in 1992; St. Helen’s in Vineland 50th in 1988; Hotel Dieu Hospital in St. Catharines 50th in 1995; St. Aloysius in Thorold 40th in 1991; St. George’s in Crystal Beach 25th in 1989; and St. Julia’s in St. Catharines 25th in 1992 and St. Denis in St. Catharines 50th in 1997.

The parishioners of St. Joseph’s in Grimsby built a new church the third one to serve the parish. It was blessed and opened on September 17 1995. Other parishes in the diocese have spent large sums of money either restoring or expanding their churches. St. Thomas More in Niagara Falls built a $400 000 addition and installed an eighteen-foot-high stained glass window designed and executed by Port Colborne artist Tony Osborne. Our Lady of Peace Shrine replaced their roof. Star of the Sea financed the parish’s first major expansion in its history. St. Kevin’s in Welland constructed a much needed foyer. Sts. Peter and Paul the Polish parish in Welland is planning to rebuild after a disastrous fire that destroyed their completely renovated church shortly after it had re-opened. St. Alfred’s in St. Catharines added a new parish pastoral centre.

The biggest restoration project however belongs to the cathedral parish of St. Catherine of Alexandria. More than one million dollars was spent on the following work: removal of the old pipe organ; new foundation retaining walls under the nave; major sub-beam under the Church Street wing; stronger columns to support the choir loft; removal of recessed ceiling lights; repairs to the bell tower roof; removal of old plaster; cleaning and repainting of interior masonry joints; new plaster and paint; new hand-carved oak panel behind main altar and matching repository altar; carpeting; front entrance steps; tuck pointing of exterior masonry; rereading of stained glass windows; handicap entrance; new pipe organ.

Currently the diocese Offices are located on The Catholic Centre, on 3400 Merritville Highway, near Brock University which which also operates as a diocesan pastoral center. This building It will house the Chancery the diocesan archives the Marriage Tribunal the Office of Religious Education the diocesan newspaper and a pastoral/theological resource library.

The Diocese of St. Catharines Today

By 1997 the Diocese of St. Catharines numbered about 150 000 Catholics who worship in about 50 parish and mission churches served by some 100 priests. There are some twenty religious communities of fathers, brothers, and sisters who run a wide variety of educational social medical and charitable institutions within the Diocese. Catholic chaplains are assigned to major religious and secular institutions.

The Separate School System is flourishing with a Catholic elementary school available to every Catholic child. Ten Catholic High Schools attempt to meet the needs of the teenage population for a Catholic education. There is a Separate School Board for each of the three major municipal jurisdictions now within the Diocese: Lincoln Welland and Haldimand-Norfolk. A Catholic chaplain is assigned to Brock University in St. Catharines to meet the needs of Catholic students there.

As a small Diocese St. Catharines may not have all the large institutions of a large diocese though it has elements of all these. What it lacks in institutional development it more than makes up for in strong family spirit something that the uniqueness of the Niagara Peninsula naturally encourages.

Relatively speaking the Catholic population is only about 30% of the total population of the Province of Ontario yet it is a very representative cross-section of that population. Just as Catholics come from many different ethnic backgrounds across the Province likewise much the same groupings are to be found in the Niagara Peninsula. Just as Catholics are about one third of the total population of all Ontario likewise they number about one third of the total population of the Peninsula. Indeed the Diocese of St. Catharines represents almost a perfect microcosm of the Ontario Catholic community as a whole. The various groups within the Diocese work well together just as the Catholic community as a whole gets on well with its non-Catholic neighbours. All in all St. Catharines is a nice intimate family diocese.

The Catholic community has contributed to all walks of life in the Niagara Peninsula over the years. In addition to their spiritual role first as missionaries then as chaplains and finally as parish priests the clergy have taken a strong hand over the years in building up the institutional and spiritual life of the area with the help of religious communities. The laity over the years have served as explorers, traders, soldiers, farmers, canal builders, railroad workers, and factory labourers. Today in the desire to return to the land they have become grape growers. In addition to their spiritual and charitable contributions the laity have added immensely to the social intellectual and cultural life of the Peninsula community.

As a final gift of the Catholic community one might note that though Laura Secord was not a Roman Catholic herself the man who made her famous was. Senator Frank O’Conner named his candy company after her and both prospered. For one reason or another today Laura Secord is probably the best known figure from the Niagara Peninsula after General Brock himself.

The relatively small Diocese of St. Catharines is sandwiched between some large and powerful Diocesan neighbours. On the Canadian side are the Diocese of London and Hamilton and across Lake Ontario the Archdiocese of Toronto. On the American side is the Diocese of Buffalo. Both liberal and conservative strains of contemporary Catholicism have an influence on the Diocese of St. Catharines. Today St. Catharines can be said to be a very stable and flourishing Diocese always open to the best of what the future has to offer it. We wish it every success in the years ahead.

The Parish of the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria

Photo Credits: greenerpasture.com

The first Catholic Church at St. Catharines was built to meet the spiritual needs of the Irish labourers who built the first Welland Canal which was opened in 1829. It was a wood structure on the same site as the present cathedral and was called St. John’s because the Anglicans were already using the name St. Catherine for their church in the town of the same name. On November 12 1831 Bishop Alexander Macdonell of Kingston blessed and opened this church which was the first Roman Catholic Parish church to be built in the Niagara Peninsula. The title deed to the land for this church was signed on April 13 1832 by Bishop Macdonell and others.

This first Catholic Church was burned down by an arsonist on August 23 1842. Fortunately the second Welland Canal was being built between 1842-45 and thus there were once again many Irish labourers in the area. There was much sickness in the work camps and Dr. Constantine Lee then Pastor at St. Catharines contracted one of the diseases while ministering to the workers and died in the winter of 1842-43. Wherever there was a church and a priest there soon would be numerous Irish families who wished to have the pastoral services of the church readily available to them.

Often there were delays in construction of the canal and so under the guidance of their new Pastor the Rev. Patrick McDonagh the Irish workers used their free time to build a new parish church this time of stone as we can see in the structure of the present Cathedral Church. Father McDonagh laid the cornerstone on Ascension Day May 25 1843. The Irish Canal workers continued to build the church for the next two years – for which there is a commemorative stone in Latin dated 1844 by the entrance to the church. Father McDonagh opened the new church on June 10 1845. The new church was now dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria – the name then being free since the Anglicans had built a new church which was dedicated to St. George their first church also having been burnt. The building of the new church also diverted the canal workers from rioting against others and brawling amongst themselves common enough occurrences in those times especially around St. Patrick’s Day and the Glorious Twelfth.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century many additions were made to the church to give us the structure we have now. In the post-Vatican II period its interior was updated somewhat to give us the fine appearance that it has today.

For almost a century the church was usually the seat of the Deanery of St. Catharines the Dean residing at its Rectory. In 1945 it celebrated the centennial of the opening of the present church. On November 25 1958 it became the Cathedral Church of the newly formed Diocese of St. Catharines.

In 1982 it celebrated its sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary its legal establishment by government deed being 1832. On Sunday September 19 1982 an historical plaque was blessed in the Cathedral by Bishop Fulton and dedicated by His Excellency Sean P. Kennan the Irish Ambassador to Canada. This was the first diocesan historical plaque to be dedicated in the Diocese and was also the first time the new diocesan crest was displayed in public.

Schools

Since 1982 Catholic secondary education in the diocese has experienced tremendous growth in the number of students and new schools. Added to the roster of high schools were St. Paul in Niagara Falls (1982); Holy Cross in St. Catharines, 1985; Lakeshore Catholic in Port Colborne (1988); St. Michael in Niagara Falls (1989); Monsignor Clancy in Thorold (1989); Blessed Trinity in Grimsby (1994); St. Francis and Ecole secondaire Jean Vanier in St. Catharines (1995). Major renovations and expansion have been carried out at Lakeshore Catholic, St. Paul, Notre Dame, Denis Morris and Holy Cross.

Ordinaries

  • Thomas Joseph McCarthy (9 November 1958 Appointed – 7 July 1978 Resigned)
  • Thomas Benjamin Fulton (7 July 1978 Appointed – 2 February 1994 Retired)
  • John Aloysius O’Mara (2 February 1994 Appointed – 9 November 2001 Retired)
  • James Matthew Wingle (9 November 2001 Appointed – 7 April 2010 Resigned)
  • Gerard Paul Bergie (14 September 2010 Appointed – )

The First Bishop of the Diocese was Thomas J. McCarthy S.T.D. D.D. who until his appointment to St. Catharines had been Bishop of Nelson B.C. He was installed as the Bishop of St. Catharines on November 25 1958 the titular feast of the newly-created diocese. Bishop McCarthy retired on July 8 1978 and died on November 15 1986.

Bishop Thomas B.Fulton J.C.D. D.D. succeeded Bishop McCarthy by his appointment July 8 1978 as the second Bishop of St. Catharines. Prior to this Bishop Fulton had been one of the Auxiliary Bishops of Toronto having been ordained Bishop by Pope Paul VI on January 6 1969 in Rome. Bishop Fulton was installed as Bishop of St. Catharines on August 29 1978 and retired on February 2 1994.

Bishop John A. O’Mara J.C.L. D.D. was appointed the third Bishop of the Diocese on February 2 1994. He had been ordained Bishop of the Dioces of Thunderbay on June 29 1976. Bishop O’Mara was installed as the Bishop of St. Catharines on April 13 1994 and retired on November 9 2001 on which day Bishop James M. Wingle D.D. was appointed the fourth bishop of St. Catharines.

On November 9 2001 Pope John Paul II appointed Most Rev. James Mathew Wingle formerly bishop of the Diocese of Yarmouth as the new bishop of the Diocese of St. Catharines.

Born in Pembroke Ontario on September 23 1946 Bishop Wingle was raised and educated in Eganville. He completed his Secondary School in Brokville. He obtained an M.A. from University of Windsor. The Government employed him for five years as a counselor in the correction system. He completed seminary studies at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto. He was ordained a priest on April 16 1977 for the Diocese of Pembroke. After his ordination he served in several parishes before pursuing graduate studies in moral theology at the Accademia Alfonsiana in Rome.

Upon his return to Canada he was assigned to Toronto’s St. Augustine Seminary where he taught moral theology. In 1987 he became President Rector of the Seminary and continued until May 31 1993 when Pope John Paul II named him Bishop of the Diocese of Yarmouth. He was ordained a Bishop on August 24 1993.

Bishop Wingle was installed as the fourth Bishop of the Diocese of St. Catharines on Thursday January 24 2002.

Bishop Bergie has been the diocesan ordinary since 2010.

Sources:

Diocese of Saint Catharines. Catholic-Hierarchy. http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/diocese/dstca.html. Retrieved on 2007-03-14.

Harris, William R. (1895). The Catholic Church in the Niagara Peninsula 1626-1895

Jackman O.P., Edward. (1982). A Brief History of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines. Renown Printing

Power, Michael (1983). A history of the Roman Catholic Church in the Niagara Peninsula, 1615-1815. St. Catharines: Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines.

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