Father Gordon

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER VI (9) start of chapter

There is still living in Hamilton, Western Canada, as Vicar-General of the diocese, an Irish priest—Father Gordon, from Wexford—who has witnessed astonishing changes in his time. He has seen the city founded, and the town spring up; the forest cleared and the settlement created; the rude log chapel, in which a handful of the faithful knelt in the midst of the wood, replaced by the spacious brick church in which many hundreds now worship. And not only has he witnessed astonishing changes, but he has himself done much to effect the changes which he has lived to see accomplished. It is now about thirty-seven years since he came to Toronto, then a small place, and known by the name of Little York. Bishop McDonnell, a Scotchman, was the first Catholic Bishop of the diocese, at that time of immense extent. Father O'Grady, a Cork man, was stationed at Little York, and though even at that time the position of the Irish Catholic was miserable in the extreme, Father O'Grady was a favourite with the authorities: and indeed such were his social qualities and charm of manner, that no dinner party was considered complete without his genial presence. Father Gordon had charge of the back townships, twenty-four in number. We may appreciate the extent of his spiritual jurisdiction when we learn that a township comprised an area of twelve miles square; and Father Gordon had to attend twenty-four of these!

Irish Catholics there were, scattered through this vast territory—very nearly all of which was in its natural state, as it came from the hand of God; but they were few and far between, hidden in the recesses of the forest, most of them not having seen a priest for years, perhaps since they left their native home. Many of these had worked on the Erie Canal, and had come to Canada and taken land to settle. The fewer in number brought some little money with them, but generally their wealth consisted of provisions, which they had to carry on their backs through the woods, a distance of thirty, forty, even fifty miles. So long as the provisions lasted, they cut away and cleared; but as soon as the stock was near being exhausted they returned to the States, and went again on the public works. And thus they worked and laboured until they raised sufficient food to be independent of the merchant and the storekeeper. At this day these men are amongst the most prosperous in Canada.

The townships of Adjala and Tecumseth, in the county Simcoe, are amongst the most Irish and Catholic of any in Upper Canada. When Father Gordon became acquainted with them, there were in both but thirty or forty families, and these were scattered in every direction. Few were the visits which he could make in each district of his far-extended mission; he was in one place this Sunday and a hundred miles in an opposite direction the following Sunday. But the visit of the clergyman was an occasion of jubilee, in which all participated. About the time his arrival was expected, scouts would be on the watch to give the first notice of his approach, and if there were a hill-top in the neighbourhood, a signal fire would spread the glad intelligence to the anxious colony. With joyous cries, and clapping of hands, and eloquent sobs, the pious people would hail the priest, as his wearied horse bore him into their midst; and catching the contagion from them, the travel-worn missionary would forget his long journey and his many privations at the spectacle of their devotion and the cheering accents of their Irish welcome. Sheep and poultry, and even oxen, would be sacrificed by the prosperous settler, who was proud to have his home selected for the 'station;' and after confessions had been heard and Mass celebrated, and Communion received, then would follow the abundant breakfast, of which all partook, and then the grand dinner, for which such slaughter had taken place; and those whom long distance had kept for months apart would now rejoice in the opportunity of talking of the old country and former times, while the priest was appealed to on every side, as the best and surest authority as to what was going on in the world at the other side of the Atlantic, especially in Ireland—that spot to which every heart turned with unceasing love.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America